[Interview - Part 1] Systems Engineering - Tim Kerby

Posted 11/3/2019 by Georgina Deas

This week we’re talking to Tim Kerby, CEO of Edinburgh Systems. As a seasoned Systems Engineer with experience in the enabling technology sector, we thought we would ask Tim about his career journey, why he started his own company and his thoughts on the future of semiconductor industry.

 

Hi Tim! Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?

I studied Electronics at Edinburgh University and then started my professional career working with STMicroelectronics, designing camera systems for some of the biggest mobile phones of the early 2000s, including Nokia and Blackberry. Then I moved across to Analog Devices, where I spent a short time working in power management, before taking a step up to implement a company-wide programme to help the business move up the stack into systems development. Utilising the systems experience I’d developed over the years, I was able to deliver a significant change programme that built the capability required for systems development. These tools, methodologies and skills enabled the company primarily in automotive and industrial sectors but had wide-ranging benefits across the organisation.  This journey took what was a very analogue-based semiconductor company, into one that could bring multiple disciplines, working together to build complex, safe and robust systems.

When I left Analog Devices earlier this year, I decided to take the opportunity to set up my own company and founded Edinburgh Systems. We are a small consultancy focussing on enabling other businesses to develop complex and robust products utilising leading engineering practices, particularly with regards to product management and systems engineering.

We primarily work within the electronics and semiconductor industry with companies who see the value of developing products for the automotive, medical, aerospace and industrial safety markets. In these markets, product standards mandate the use of systems engineering techniques, but they can be new to companies looking to grow into new areas. We also spend some time consulting in other industries because the systems approach we use, particularly systems thinking techniques, apply widely including in financial services, healthcare and other technologies.

Systems Engineering is a widely growing role, outside of defence and aerospace where it originated, but there can be some confusion over what a Systems Engineer does, as the title is also used extensively in IT where it is a very different role. Our role as Systems Engineers is about understanding how systems work, looking at the big picture, seeing emergent behaviour, cause and effect, and how things relate to each other.  We use these skills to ensure we build the best product for the market and engineer that product in a way that avoids errors and rework either in the design stage or the released products.

 

What inspired you to set up your own business?

I saw a niche; there are very few people doing what we do. I also saw that this type of role in any organisation is both strategic and time-limited, so it suits consultancy better.

Having completed the leading piece of work at Analog Devices, then I wanted to go on and do something else. You've built the processes and tools, you’ve mentored, you've coached people, and now they have the skills to take on and sustain that activity, so it was really a natural progression.

I enjoy having the freedom to work across multiple businesses and see how they approach their challenges.  We encourage these businesses to share their approaches and have helped enable mentoring relationships between our clients.  While the products and IP are confidential; businesses have an ‘abundance mentality’ where they work together to share knowledge and find the best tools, processes and methodologies to build those products.  By sharing what you do, you gain access to the collective wisdom of your industry, and it is the only way to remain competitive as product complexity grows. Ultimately, as engineers, we all want to solve the big societal problems such as providing clean water and energy, plentiful food, shelter, communication and medical advances. What we aim to do at Edinburgh Systems leads towards solving these big problems for society, and as an industry, we're only going to manage that if we collaborate and improve the pace at which we can engineer successful products.

 

What changes do you see in the Semiconductor Industry?

Traditionally, many products have evolved incrementally.  A class of product has been invented, such as an amplifier or analogue to digital converter, and over the years their performance has improved. We see lower power, better signal to noise, faster speeds, increased bandwidth and other characteristics improve; but fundamentally a semiconductor amplifier solves the same problems that it did when first invented in the 1960s.

For many years, evolutionary development worked. At a system level, it was likely that an individual component product dictated how good the system performance was and you had to buy the best building blocks on the market to get the best product. For instance, CPU speed limited what we could do with our computers for many years.  Now we've moved to a stage where, for most products, the system performance is not restricted by any single building block but by how well they work together.  While your CPU may not have increased in Ghz recently, the system level performance of your computer continues to evolve by looking at system level developments, such as faster interfaces between components.

This is a big challenge for the industry and why many companies are looking to move into systems. What companies need to do is find the right problems to solve – those that have a high value to the stakeholder and nobody else has addressed.  In semiconductor, this is leading to growth in unique products such as sensing technologies and by integrating more complex systems.

 

Would you say that's what makes a great tech company?

Absolutely. It's the ability to find problems that are pervasive in the market and have a high value to the customers who share the problem. They also need to be urgent, as there is little point solving something where there is no current market. You'll see a lot of the time engineers, particularly applications engineers, will go out to a customer and the customer will tell them what to build. That's very much a wrong way of doing it because that's allowing the customer to solve the problem, when as the supplier, you are the expert. You also find that if you only listen to existing customers, then every one of your competitors is going to be building the same thing. However, if you find a solution to a problem that no one else has solved, you’ll become the leader in the market.

The best tech companies are also able to embrace change and innovate in how they build products, not just in what products they create.  For many companies, the engineering techniques haven’t caught up with the growth in product complexity, and we see delayed schedules or multiple respins before a product reaches the market. We also see silos within organisations, where different teams have had their unique ways of working, and now must collaborate to build products together. They may be culturally diverse and geographically distributed.  The great companies will commit budget and drive evolution to address their internal challenges.

 

Is there anything that's surprised you about your journey so far in setting up your own business?

I think it's harder than it looks. I would say we've been fortunate, in that we’ve all built up an extensive network of industry contacts over the years. Some of the previous partners I've worked with have helped us with introductions, for instance, and that's been vital to finding contracts quickly.

As a new director, you soon discover how much you relied on other staff within a corporate environment. I’ve had to get up to speed with contract law, international trade regulations, taxation and accountancy over the last year and that can take a lot of your time when you are also trying to develop new business.  I’ve managed to build a team of advisors and had support from Scottish Enterprise which has been incredibly valuable.

It’s also quite a different experience to be seeing what you bill, not just as salary but as money that the business can use to grow, and to cover your overheads and quieter periods. I am enjoying the freedom that my company brings as well, and I very much enjoy going and meeting different people and working with different people. It's great to see how different teams do things.

 

Is there anyone or anything that's influenced your career choices?

I've had a few good mentors, some of whom have also created start-ups in Edinburgh. They have always been very good at providing advice, and that’s helped me understand the business side of things.

The other big thing for me is I love what I do. I'm the sort of person who can get bored very quickly, so I like to work across many different technical fields.  I am also a firm believer in continually learning and evolving your knowledge.  Working with different companies has exposed me to a wide variety of different people with different skills, like the top engineers at Rolls-Royce, who have been great mentors in systems engineering.

I’ve also found a home within an organisation called the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE). They organised a conference in Edinburgh a few years ago, which was where I was first introduced to their network, and it’s one of the biggest drivers for me in this area. The people in the organisation have been a fantastic support for me and my business. As someone who has a systems or applications focus, you’re often thinking differently to the typical design role within semiconductor, and you can feel outnumbered.  Through INCOSE I’ve been able to find a community of hundreds of other people, just like me across multiple industries.

Having exposure to different industries, you notice that all of them are facing the same organisational problems; they're challenged with how to adapt, modernise and evolve to deal with the big problems. It’s a real inspiration to work with people across many different organisations, particularly people at a very senior level.

 

Is there anything that particularly excites you about electronics in the semiconductor market right now?

I would say the level of automation and intelligence we see with big data and machine learning is fascinating. It’s now easy to gather data from your products and the world around them and learn from it, for example, technologies to predict machine failure by analysing vibrations or the drive current of motors.

We're also seeing that intelligence is moving down towards the edges of the system, meaning individual components are starting to make their own decisions. For instance, the radar system in a car can now identify vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians through doppler analysis, and rather than sending high-speed image data to a central processor in a vehicle; it can transmit details of the objects and their coordinates.  That can provide faster responses for safety and decrease vehicle weight by requiring less cabling.

We're no longer focusing on the building blocks; we've moved on to the bigger picture things, and that’s where we must now think outside our areas of expertise and collaborate to optimise performance for the system

 

What's one key piece advice that you would give to people to starting in the industry?

My advice to students who are studying electronics is not to specialise too early and to build as broad a skills base as you can. I’d recommend thinking about where the industry might go in the future, as the roles I see most needed now are not those that were most valued when I left University 15 years ago. Engineering is changing from being very hardware-focused to being much more software based. That’s not something our lecturers predicted when they told us that the best money was in analogue design.

Have an open mind as to what you want to do, gain experience in a few different areas of the industry, develop your network and always continue to learn. Develop your knowledge and skills but also consider how you think about problems – how to elicit them, value them and ultimately solve them.

 

Enigma People Solutions is an award-winning technology recruitment consultancy. Visit our job search page for the latest vacancies in photonics, electronics, semiconductor, and software in Scotland. Check out our blog for the latest in the technology industry. You can get in touch with us hello@enigmapeople.com or call us on 0131 510 8150

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