Synapse is a multidisciplinary engineering firm based in Seattle, Washington. They combine mechanical, electrical, and software engineering with unique design teams to help the world’s leading companies fully realize—from idea to reality—new technology devices. We spoke with Skooks Pong, the Senior Vice President of Technology, about the company’s innovative approach to product development, its broad range of clients, and the company’s truly unique work environment.
I have a pretty unconventional background. My dad was always trying to do his own thing and was very entrepreneurial. I worked with him quite a bit on his various projects, so I remember learning how to use a micrometer and a lathe when I was around 8 years old. While in high school in the early 80s, my dad started a company that developed a small lightweight aircraft engine, so I started working with him pretty much full-time. I had a number of different interests, especially mechanical projects, so I got into motorcycle racing and started raising money to build some of my own stuff. Eventually, I wound up in the bicycle business, running my own shop for a few years, as well as working with Cannondale. During that time, I met one of the founders of Synapse. As time went on, I was less interested in running my own shop and managing all the other things that go into owning a business. A couple engineers that I met through Cannondale moved out west and started working for a design firm here in Seattle. With their encouragement I jumped into the consulting arena and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Synapse is a multidisciplinary engineering firm. We combine mechanical, electrical, software engineering, project management, and manufacturing support to build collaborative teams helping some of the world’s leading companies fully realize—from idea to reality—new technology, devices, and experiences. There are a little over 250 employees here. We are based in Seattle, Washington, and also have offices in San Fransisco, California, and Hong KongWith small design firms, a lot of time is spent innovating on the front end of product development and dabbling a bit with industrial design, as well as supporting products after they launch. We’re okay with not being the designers—we’re engineers and we’re proud to be engineers, so we like solving hard engineering problems. The more the project involves the full range of our capabilities, the more we like it. With engineering at the core of those capabilities, I think it really helps create a strong focus for our business. Synapse has been around for 10 years. When the company was originally founded, we just wanted to work with our friends on really interesting and challenging projects. Over the last decade, we’ve evolved to better address our clients’ strategic needs. Companies are wanting to introduce ambitious devices as consumers demand more and more
innovative products. As our clients respond to these transformations, we expanded our services to include full end-to-end consultation capabilities in order to guide them through a successful development process.
We work on a variety of things. When we first started, we did a lot of lab automation for companies like CombiMatrix, Ekos, and others in the area. We helped CombiMatrix go from optically detecting and reading micro-rays to doing it electrically—in order to create a smaller and cheaper device. From an electrical engineering perspective, we worked closely with them to develop ways of measuring and detecting very small currents. Those were interesting projects. Now we have a client base that spans a wide range of industries and we’ve built a large team capable of managing and helping in the creation of entire lines of products for companies such as Nike. With Nike, our engagement has been in the development of wearable fitness devices. We started working with them around 2006, shortly after they launched their Digital Sport division. Some of the earliest projects were the AMP+ watch and then the SportBand. Over the past 7 years we have gone on to work on the SportWatch GPS, countless other prototypes and ideation studies, and most recently the Nike + FuelBand.
We do everything from small-scale proof-of-concept projects to full concept to market development for new products and experiences. We want to make sure that our business is successful and the way do that is by making sure our people are successful at what they do. That’s the company’s top priority.
There’s a very open and collaborative feel in this office. For each project— depending on the client and project—we build specific teams to help meet the set of requirements given to us from the client. From this list, we can see which MEs and EEs will be good for the project (depending on their expertise) and see what they can leverage from their own experience. From there, we bring them together move into the brainstorming part of it, which is really a crucial part of the process. It’s not as rigid as it sounds—it’s actually a lot of fun, especially collaborating with people from different disciplines. There’s a lot of emphasis on brainstorming and there are essentially no bad ideas—even the craziest ideas that might seem impossible can end up leading us to other solutions. We have a lot of interns here as well, and if an intern has a great idea, we’ll use it. We try to be egoless and collaborative. If we have a few failures, we can only learn from them.
The few of us who got the company started all came from different design firms. Our goal was to create the best place we ever worked. That is essentially the DNA of the company—to really drive to make it the best place to work for our employees. We do want to make sure that we turn a profit, but it’s not necessarily the number one priority. The goal is to create an environment that makes it exciting “The few of us who got the company started all came from different design firms. Our goal was to create the best place we ever worked.” for people to come to work and collaborate to solve hard engineering problems and support our clients’ product goals. We provide an all-hands catered lunch every Wednesday, and we have a snack kitchen, and people can bring their dogs to work, so it’s a pretty fun place. Plus we encourage people to organize company events, which is a really great to build community and let employees dictate the culture. In talking about Synapse as a company, we always look for ways to support the various community outreach projects people are involved in. For example, we support people who are doing job shadowing for high school students and college students. Also, we had our 10-year anniversary last year and to celebrate we decided that it would be good to give something back to the community. So we gave a $20,000 grant to IGNITE, which is a Seattle-based group a couple of our engineers are involved with. IGNITE is dedicated to encouraging girls to pursue education and careers in engineering, science, and technology or STEM education. That sort of outreach is one of the things that we continue to build upon.