Can Women Truly Achieve Work-Life Balance?

By: Alexandra Wright
Commercial Bid Manager

8th March 2019

Home » Electronics

Finding the right employer who can support an evolving home life as well as providing the right career progression can be a challenge. Yet, getting the right work-life balance is essential to maintaining good health, improved wellbeing, and sustaining a happy home. In today’s society it’s difficult to achieve the correct balance, especially when, for many of us, the line between work and home is so blurred. Increased technology advances means we are always connected and expected to be available 24/7.

For me, having an enjoyable job, which offers career progression, and allows me to spend time with my children is my ultimate aim. Getting this right is tough and inevitably compromises need to be made.

Just over a year ago  I decided I needed something new, the ‘work’ element in my life was stagnant and I was in search of a new challenge. I took the plunge and accepted a job as Commercial Bid Manager at Plextek.

Making it happen

Plextek is an engineering consultancy at the heart of innovation. The work here is interesting and varied, which makes for some exciting yet challenging tenders. Plextek’s main assets are the talent and skills of its employees and this is recognised by the Senior Management team who invest vast amounts of time and money into personal development.

Starting here was daunting to begin with, it wasn’t just me who had to fit into the job, the job had to fit with my family. Changing a job is always risky, especially when you have dependants. Based just south of Cambridge with easy access to major roads, my commute is relatively straight forward as I am able to whiz up and down the A14 between work and home with ease.

Plextek have been extremely accommodating of my family’s needs. Like 14% of employees here, I work part-time. I have also agreed flexible start and finish times depending on whether I’m doing the nursery drop off or pick up (which I share with my partner).

Due to the nature of my job, there are many occasions when I need to spend additional time on my work, to meet demanding deadlines. In these instances, I agree with my partner to do the nursery drop off, so I stay later in the office to get the job done. I’m fortunate to have a supportive family who I can rely on when my job needs me.

When my workload allows, I go running at lunch-time, with a group of other runners – it’s great to have the opportunity to get out. There are regular company-wide social events organised by the Plextek Social Committee, many of which encourage the inclusion of families, for example last year we had a Company Family day out to Go Ape which the kids loved.

Since joining Plextek I have become a member of the Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP), which aids the continuation of my professional development. I’m aiming to take my APMP foundation course next month (which is long overdue!). It’s nice to have a supportive employer who encourages me to be my best and develop my talents.

Working here means I can now spend more quality time with my family. It is encouraged to ‘switch off’ after work and I no longer feel guilty when I leave the office on time to collect my children. They’ve recently introduced a new holiday policy which allows employees to buy an additional 5 days holiday per year – which I plan to take full advantage of (Center Parcs here we come!).

What really matters

Getting the right work-life balance is a continued challenge but finding an accommodating employer makes achieving a manageable equilibrium easier. Employees aren’t the only ones to benefit from a healthy work-life balance; research has shown that with improved work-life balance comes improved productivity.

Working for an equal opportunity employer and having a CEO who believes more female engineers are needed makes being a female, in a male-dominated industry, a step closer to being equal.

Thank you to Plextek for recognising the skills I have, supporting me as a working mum and making it possible for me to progress my career whilst maintaining a happy home life.

Marissa Mayer, Google’s first female software engineer in 1999 and a former president and CEO of Yahoo once said “You can’t have everything you want, but you can have the things that really matter to you” and I believe Plextek has allowed me to have what really matters, a work-life balance.

Finding the right employer who can support an evolving home life as well as providing the right career progression can be a challenge. Yet, getting the right work-life balance is essential to maintaining good health, improved wellbeing, and sustaining a happy home. In today’s society it’s difficult to achieve the correct balance, especially when, for many of us, the line between work and home is so blurred. Increased technology advances means we are always connected and expected to be available 24/7.

For me, having an enjoyable job, which offers career progression, and allows me to spend time with my children is my ultimate aim. Getting this right is tough and inevitably compromises need to be made.

Just over a year ago  I decided I needed something new, the ‘work’ element in my life was stagnant and I was in search of a new challenge. I took the plunge and accepted a job as Commercial Bid Manager at a company called Plextek.

Making it happen

Plextek is an engineering consultancy at the heart of innovation. The work here is interesting and varied, which makes for some exciting yet challenging tenders. Plextek’s main assets are the talent and skills of its employees and this is recognised by the Senior Management team who invest vast amounts of time and money into personal development.

Starting here was daunting to begin with, it wasn’t just me who had to fit into the job, the job had to fit with my family. Changing a job is always risky, especially when you have dependants. Based just south of Cambridge with easy access to major roads, my commute is relatively straight forward as I am able to whiz up and down the A14 between work and home with ease.

Plextek have been extremely accommodating of my family’s needs. Like 14% of employees here, I work part-time. I have also agreed flexible start and finish times depending on whether I’m doing the nursery drop off or pick up (which I share with my partner).

Due to the nature of my job, there are many occasions when I need to spend additional time on my work, to meet demanding deadlines. In these instances, I agree with my partner to do the nursery drop off, so I stay later in the office to get the job done. I’m fortunate to have a supportive family who I can rely on when my job needs me.

When my workload allows, I go running at lunch-time, with a group of other runners – it’s great to have the opportunity to get out. There are regular company-wide social events organised by the Plextek Social Committee, many of which encourage the inclusion of families, for example last year we had a Company Family day out to Go Ape which the kids loved.

Since joining Plextek I have become a member of the Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP), which aids the continuation of my professional development. I’m aiming to take my APMP foundation course next month (which is long overdue!). It’s nice to have a supportive employer who encourages me to be my best and develop my talents.

Working here means I can now spend more quality time with my family. It is encouraged to ‘switch off’ after work and I no longer feel guilty when I leave the office on time to collect my children. They’ve recently introduced a new holiday policy which allows employees to buy an additional 5 days holiday per year – which I plan to take full advantage of (Center Parcs here we come!).

What really matters

Getting the right work-life balance is a continued challenge but finding an accommodating employer makes achieving a manageable equilibrium easier. Employees aren’t the only ones to benefit from a healthy work-life balance; research has shown that with improved work-life balance comes improved productivity.

Working for an equal opportunity employer and having a CEO who believes more female engineers are needed makes being a female, in a male-dominated industry, a step closer to being equal.

Thank you to Plextek for recognising the skills I have, supporting me as a working mum and making it possible for me to progress my career whilst maintaining a happy home life.

Marissa Mayer, Google’s first female software engineer in 1999 and a former president and CEO of Yahoo once said “You can’t have everything you want, but you can have the things that really matter to you” and I believe Plextek has allowed me to have what really matters, a work-life balance.

 

Further Reading

EW BrightSpark, James Henderson One Year On

James Henderson - Consultant, Antennas & Propagation

By: James Henderson
Consultant, Antennas & Propagation

27th February 2019

Home » Electronics

Following the BrightSparks award ceremony in May last year, most of my work has been on developing an electronically-scanned radar unit operating at mm-wave frequencies, applicable to autonomous ground and air vehicle monitoring and control. This has been a particularly interesting and challenging project as the design has been driven by a demanding requirement to create a small, low power, high performance sensor.

The key area of innovative design that I am particularly proud of is combining two 48-element antenna arrays on to the same PCB as the electronic circuitry. To achieve a low cost, the arrays are realised through a combination of 3D printing and PCB techniques.

This development posed many technical challenges owing to the often conflicting PCB-related requirements of antenna and RF circuitry. However, integration and performance benefits make this approach worthwhile.

System calculations

Initial work on this project required comprehensive system calculations to exactly understand the design requirements. System level planning is informative when determining how to distribute the required tasks.

Often, a number of subsystems could potentially solve the same technical challenge but only when looking at the problem as a whole can you assess how the elements of the system can best work together.

Scanning the radar beam

A key aspect of the design was how to scan the radar beam. In a previous project the antennas were mechanically moved to build up a 3D view of the scene. In contrast the new requirement was to scan the antenna beams electronically, which has many advantages over mechanically scanned systems. Electronic beamforming can be implemented digitally, at the analogue front end, or even within the antennas themselves.

In this design, the scanning mechanism was an integral part of the antenna array, which significantly simplifies other aspects of the system leading to a small sensor having low power consumption. However, this approach required lateral thinking when designing and constructing the PCB to achieve the target performance. For the first iteration of the design the electronics worked as intended, but the antenna performance was lower than expected.

Further investigation revealed the reason for the drop in performance and emphasised the many and varied challenges associated with working at mm-wave frequencies.

Special Interest

The second design iteration gave performance closely matched to my system calculations. This confirmed that the design operated as intended, which was extremely satisfying.

This whole process has exposed me to some particularly interesting design work and has consequently encouraged me to initiate a Special Interest Group within Plextek that specialises in the design and development of mm-wave electronic systems.

Following this project I expect to see substantial interest in operating at mm-wave bands, enhancing the capability of mm-wave circuits and I’m excited to be working with these cutting-edge technologies in the future.

The CEO of Plextek, Nicholas Hill, added:

“BrightSparks is a fantastic way to show your employees’ work is valued. It’s so important to get young people enthusiastic about their engineering careers and award recognition is a great motivational boost. The BrightSparks award last year won by James Henderson was well deserved and he has continued to shape his engineering career by contributing to key company projects here at Plextek.”

Following the BrightSparks award ceremony in May last year, most of my work has been on developing an electronically-scanned radar unit operating at mm-wave frequencies, applicable to autonomous ground and air vehicle monitoring and control. This has been a particularly interesting and challenging project as the design has been driven by a demanding requirement to create a small, low power, high performance sensor.

The key area of innovative design that I am particularly proud of is combining two 48-element antenna arrays on to the same PCB as the electronic circuitry. To achieve a low cost, the arrays are realised through a combination of 3D printing and PCB techniques.

This development posed many technical challenges owing to the often conflicting PCB-related requirements of antenna and RF circuitry. However, integration and performance benefits make this approach worthwhile.

System calculations

Initial work on this project required comprehensive system calculations to exactly understand the design requirements. System level planning is informative when determining how to distribute the required tasks.

Often, a number of subsystems could potentially solve the same technical challenge but only when looking at the problem as a whole can you assess how the elements of the system can best work together.

Scanning the radar beam

A key aspect of the design was how to scan the radar beam. In a previous project the antennas were mechanically moved to build up a 3D view of the scene. In contrast the new requirement was to scan the antenna beams electronically, which has many advantages over mechanically scanned systems. Electronic beamforming can be implemented digitally, at the analogue front end, or even within the antennas themselves.

In this design, the scanning mechanism was an integral part of the antenna array, which significantly simplifies other aspects of the system leading to a small sensor having low power consumption. However, this approach required lateral thinking when designing and constructing the PCB to achieve the target performance. For the first iteration of the design the electronics worked as intended, but the antenna performance was lower than expected.

Further investigation revealed the reason for the drop in performance and emphasised the many and varied challenges associated with working at mm-wave frequencies.

Special Interest

The second design iteration gave performance closely matched to my system calculations. This confirmed that the design operated as intended, which was extremely satisfying.

This whole process has exposed me to some particularly interesting design work and has consequently encouraged me to initiate a Special Interest Group within Plextek that specialises in the design and development of mm-wave electronic systems.

Following this project I expect to see substantial interest in operating at mm-wave bands, enhancing the capability of mm-wave circuits and I’m excited to be working with these cutting-edge technologies in the future.

The CEO of Plextek, Nicholas Hill, added:

“BrightSparks is a fantastic way to show your employees’ work is valued. It’s so important to get young people enthusiastic about their engineering careers and award recognition is a great motivational boost. The BrightSparks award last year won by James Henderson was well deserved and he has continued to shape his engineering career by contributing to key company projects here at Plextek.”

 

 

Further Reading

Work Shadowing

Nicholas Hill - Chief Executive Officer

By: Nicholas Hill
Chief Executive Officer

31st January 2019

Home » Electronics

Talking to some sixth formers doing STEM subjects in school recently brought to my attention the issue of work experience or work shadowing for the first time. Work shadowing is a means of helping students understand what the world of work is like, and perhaps also learn something specific about their subject area of interest, through one week spent in the workplace. Schools are apparently pushed by the government to support this, so the practice has become quite commonplace. Our nearest school puts one week aside in the lower sixth form for work shadowing every year, after exams.

It turns out to be surprisingly difficult to find an engineering or technology company that engages in or supports work experience in this area (Cambridge), in spite of the plethora of such companies. It appears that many companies either state explicitly that they don’t offer such placements, don’t respond to requests at all or gave a flat ‘no’. Some say that they do support work shadowing, but only for children of their own employees. I have no idea whether this experience is typical of employers in all sectors, but I rather doubt it, given the numbers of students finding places.

All this made me consider Plextek’s policy on work experience – which has historically been aligned with the experiences I’d heard about, turning down any request for reasons that presumably seemed sensible enough. While supporting work experience undoubtedly generates some additional administrative load, and will put a slight ‘drag’ on the productivity of whichever staff are being shadowed, it seems to me that this is something that engineering and technology companies should be doing.

I’d be the first to complain about the poor numbers of students studying STEM subjects at University, especially in electronics (see my previous blog on the subject). If work experience is a way of showing a few sixth formers what an exciting, interesting career this can be, we should be grasping the opportunity with both hands, and doing a full-on selling job!

I’ve often felt that a problem with electronics is that it is becoming increasingly obscure to those on the outside. Why choose to study something that you have no understanding of or exposure to? Well here’s a way of demystifying it a little.

Last summer we accepted a small number of work shadowing placements for the first time. We gained some good insight into how to engage with sixth formers in an effective way without putting too much drain on internal resources. Next year we’ll be putting more formal arrangements in place with our local sixth form school.

Talking to some sixth formers doing STEM subjects in school recently brought to my attention the issue of work experience or work shadowing for the first time. Work shadowing is a means of helping students understand what the world of work is like, and perhaps also learn something specific about their subject area of interest, through one week spent in the workplace. Schools are apparently pushed by the government to support this, so the practice has become quite commonplace. Our nearest school puts one week aside in the lower sixth form for work shadowing every year, after exams.

It turns out to be surprisingly difficult to find an engineering or technology company that engages in or supports work experience in this area (Cambridge), in spite of the plethora of such companies. It appears that many companies either state explicitly that they don’t offer such placements, don’t respond to requests at all or gave a flat ‘no’. Some say that they do support work shadowing, but only for children of their own employees. I have no idea whether this experience is typical of employers in all sectors, but I rather doubt it, given the numbers of students finding places.

All this made me consider Plextek’s policy on work experience – which has historically been aligned with the experiences I’d heard about, turning down any request for reasons that presumably seemed sensible enough. While supporting work experience undoubtedly generates some additional administrative load, and will put a slight ‘drag’ on the productivity of whichever staff are being shadowed, it seems to me that this is something that engineering and technology companies should be doing.

I’d be the first to complain about the poor numbers of students studying STEM subjects at University, especially in electronics (see my previous blog on the subject). If work experience is a way of showing a few sixth formers what an exciting, interesting career this can be, we should be grasping the opportunity with both hands, and doing a full-on selling job!

I’ve often felt that a problem with electronics is that it is becoming increasingly obscure to those on the outside. Why choose to study something that you have no understanding of or exposure to? Well here’s a way of demystifying it a little.

Last summer we accepted a small number of work shadowing placements for the first time. We gained some good insight into how to engage with sixth formers in an effective way without putting too much drain on internal resources. Next year we’ll be putting more formal arrangements in place with our local sixth form school.

Save

Further Reading

Being Your User

Nicholas Hill - Chief Executive Officer

By: Nicholas Hill
Chief Executive Officer

19th December 2018

Home » Electronics

One of the important steps in the Design Council’s recommendations for good design is called “Being Your Users” and is a “Method to put yourself into the position of your user.” Its purpose is “building an understanding of and empathy with the users of your product …” Approaching product design from this perspective is critical to ensuring that the features incorporated are actually beneficial to the user – as opposed to features that are of benefit to the manufacturer, for example, or “because we can” features that have no obvious benefit at all.

It’s clear that domestic appliances are becoming more sophisticated, a trend which is facilitated by the availability of low-cost sensors and processing power. This has some clear benefits, such as the availability of more energy- or water-efficient wash cycles for example. And if designers stay focused on providing something of value to the end user this is a trend to be welcomed.

In practice, I see examples of what looks rather like engineers wondering what else they can do with all this additional sensor data, rather than being driven by user need. One example is the growing size of the error codes table in the back of most appliance manuals. These may occasionally add value, but for the most part, I see them as reasons why the product you paid good money for is refusing to do the job it is supposed to.

Here’s an example: the “smart” washing machine that I own doesn’t like low water pressure. It has a number of error codes associated with this. What does it do if the mains pressure drops temporarily – e.g. if simultaneously a toilet is flushed and the kitchen tap is running? It stops dead, displays the error code and refuses to do anything else until you power off the machine at the wall socket, forcing you to start the wash cycle again from scratch. This gets even more annoying if you’d set the timer and come back to a half-washed load. In the days before “smart” appliances, a temporary pressure drop would have either simply caused the water to fill more slowly, or else the machine would pause until pressure returned.

In what way does this behaviour benefit the user? Clearly, it doesn’t, and a few moments thought from a design team that was focussed on user needs, “being your user”, would have resulted in a different requirement specification being handed to the engineering team. It’s a good example of what happens when you start implementing a solution without properly considering the problem you are trying to solve.

My “intelligent” dishwasher has a different but equally maddening feature: it doesn’t like soft water. Its designers have clearly put water saving above all else, and the machine relies on either hard water or very dirty plates to counteract the natural foaming of the detergent tablets. With soft water, if you try washing lightly soiled dishes on a quick wash cycle (as you might expect appropriate), the machine is unable to rinse off the detergent. About 20 minutes into the cycle it skips to the end and gives up, leaving you with foamy, unrinsed plates.

I say unable, when the machine is actually unwilling, as all that is required is the application of sufficient water to rinse off the detergent – which is what I, as a user, then have to do manually. Who is working for whom here? Once again the user’s needs have not been at the top of the designer’s agenda when the requirement specification was passed to the engineering team. A truly smart device would finish the job properly, using as much water as was needed, and possibly suggest using less detergent next time.

Unless designers get a better grip, keeping the end user experience on the agenda, I fear examples of this type of machine behaviour will proliferate. We will see our devices, appliances and perhaps vehicles develop an increasingly long list of reasons why they can’t (won’t) perform the function you bought them for – because they’re having a bad hair day today, which becomes your problem to solve.

All to a refrain of “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

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One of the important steps in the Design Council’s recommendations for good design is called “Being Your Users” and is a “Method to put yourself into the position of your user.” Its purpose is “building an understanding of and empathy with the users of your product …” Approaching product design from this perspective is critical to ensuring that the features incorporated are actually beneficial to the user – as opposed to features that are of benefit to the manufacturer, for example, or “because we can” features that have no obvious benefit at all.

It’s clear that domestic appliances are becoming more sophisticated, a trend which is facilitated by the availability of low-cost sensors and processing power. This has some clear benefits, such as the availability of more energy- or water-efficient wash cycles for example. And if designers stay focused on providing something of value to the end user this is a trend to be welcomed.

In practice, I see examples of what looks rather like engineers wondering what else they can do with all this additional sensor data, rather than being driven by user need. One example is the growing size of the error codes table in the back of most appliance manuals. These may occasionally add value, but for the most part, I see them as reasons why the product you paid good money for is refusing to do the job it is supposed to.

Here’s an example: the “smart” washing machine that I own doesn’t like low water pressure. It has a number of error codes associated with this. What does it do if the mains pressure drops temporarily – e.g. if simultaneously a toilet is flushed and the kitchen tap is running? It stops dead, displays the error code and refuses to do anything else until you power off the machine at the wall socket, forcing you to start the wash cycle again from scratch. This gets even more annoying if you’d set the timer and come back to a half-washed load. In the days before “smart” appliances, a temporary pressure drop would have either simply caused the water to fill more slowly, or else the machine would pause until pressure returned.

In what way does this behaviour benefit the user? Clearly, it doesn’t, and a few moments thought from a design team that was focussed on user needs, “being your user”, would have resulted in a different requirement specification being handed to the engineering team. It’s a good example of what happens when you start implementing a solution without properly considering the problem you are trying to solve.

My “intelligent” dishwasher has a different but equally maddening feature: it doesn’t like soft water. Its designers have clearly put water saving above all else, and the machine relies on either hard water or very dirty plates to counteract the natural foaming of the detergent tablets. With soft water, if you try washing lightly soiled dishes on a quick wash cycle (as you might expect appropriate), the machine is unable to rinse off the detergent. About 20 minutes into the cycle it skips to the end and gives up, leaving you with foamy, unrinsed plates.

I say unable, when the machine is actually unwilling, as all that is required is the application of sufficient water to rinse off the detergent – which is what I, as a user, then have to do manually. Who is working for whom here? Once again the user’s needs have not been at the top of the designer’s agenda when the requirement specification was passed to the engineering team. A truly smart device would finish the job properly, using as much water as was needed, and possibly suggest using less detergent next time.

Unless designers get a better grip, keeping the end user experience on the agenda, I fear examples of this type of machine behaviour will proliferate. We will see our devices, appliances and perhaps vehicles develop an increasingly long list of reasons why they can’t (won’t) perform the function you bought them for – because they’re having a bad hair day today, which becomes your problem to solve.

All to a refrain of “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Save

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Further Reading

Technology Specialists for Safe Cities

Plextek features as a “Company Focus” in Counter Terror Business magazine to discuss how cutting-edge technology is being applied to create safer cities.

We showcase solutions that are currently tackling the biggest security and public safety challenges in transport, government and critical national infrastructure.

To read the full article please click here.

For more information, contact Nick Koiza, Head of Security Business, via nicholas.koiza@plextek.com