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All new products start with an idea and then continue through the stages of development. What are the 5 habits that can accelerate product development cycles? In this interview series, we are talking to product managers, founders, and authors who can share stories and insights from their experiences about how to accelerate product development cycles. As part of this series, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dustin Vaughan.

Dustin Vaughan

Dustin Vaughan, Vice President, R&D, Robotics at Asensus Surgical is responsible for the strategic direction of global engineering and development staff for robotic capital systems across multiple disciplines. Prior to joining Asensus, Mr. Vaughan held roles in various R&D teams primarily focused in the medical device space and holds 15 years of experience in engineering and product development; he has served in lead capacities with Teleflex Medical, LORD Corporation, and RFMEDS. Mr. Vaughan received his MS in Electrical Engineering, Robotics Concentration as well as two bachelor of science degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Engineering from North Carolina State University.

Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Throughout my childhood and high school years, I planned to enter the field of medicine and was quite passionate about radiology. However, I was introduced to a gentleman who owned a controls and automation firm, and I was hired as an intern to build cables for robotic solutions for industrial automation manufacturing. As I progressed in this role and was exposed to certain plants and facilities that specialized in this manufacturing, I realized I might be a better engineer than a physician. I’ve been passionate about robotics since that moment and learned that I can actually combine my interests through medical device engineering.

Do you have any mentors or experiences that have particularly influenced your approach to product development and user experience?

Joseph Fisher was my manager during my time at Apple, and he was one of the iPod hardware leads. He was a brilliant mind and an exceptionally disciplined engineer. Culturally at Apple, product development is conducted in a very unique way that is hard to compare to any other company. Not many organizations have the capacity, resources or discipline to approach product development in the way that Apple does. The way that Joseph mentored and managed our group of engineers while also managing pipeline pressures and allowing us to operate with a significant amount of flexibility and trust was so vital to my understanding of product development.

It has been said that our mistakes can sometimes be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

During my tenure with the first medical device company, I worked with, we did some consulting work on the side for radio-frequency integrated circuits (RFICs) and we built a large, complex testing circuit board and found an error in the design. I, of course, felt terrible about this error, and we had spent the entire morning attempting to isolate the problem and just couldn’t find it. There was a short somewhere on the board that turned out to be an artifact of our process selection. My boss at the time, Jon Jorgenson, was the most influential engineer in my life—he actually passed away about a year after this happened—came up to me while I was trying to solve this and suggested we get lunch. He walked us to his car, and he took out jumper cables and hooked them up to the board, and his car battery and the short immediately blew up. He turned it into a fuse. My first thought was, “This is crazy!” The boards alone were over $20,000 each, and we only had three of them, and it was a genuine brute force approach. I’ll never forget this day—it was snowing in North Carolina, which it rarely ever does, and he threw the circuit board into the snow and said, “Let’s go to lunch.” By using the car battery to short these two nets, he was able to attach enough current to fry that short and open it up.

Young engineers tend to think every single mistake is going to ruin their careers. That morning felt like such an overwhelming event, and I felt so embarrassed. But then, here goes this experienced engineer throwing a valuable circuit board into the snow, which was brilliant. It taught me that you’re going to make mistakes and you can have a little bit of fun along the way. And that needs to be a culturally accepted process within your organization if you want to succeed.

What do you feel has been your ‘career-defining’ moment?

I feel that from a career perspective, the most defining moment was my decision to come back to Asensus Surgical. I was a boomerang employee and was here for three years and then returned after a two-year hiatus. I went to another large medical device company and learned that I really missed the pace of early research and development. I also realized I had become very passionate about surgery. I had left to join an anesthesia team, which I enjoyed, but still found myself wishing I was on the other end of the patient table. Leaving the structure and revenue of these larger companies for smaller groups with potential risks may leave some people confused. But for me, I have so much more enthusiasm for my work at Asensus Surgical and love the way this company operates.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I experienced a difficult time when Jon Jorgenson, my mentor, passed away early in my career. He died unexpectedly at the same time that he was privately financing our work. So, I lost my mentor, a great friend, and my job all in one phone call, which was certainly difficult. Though this was challenging, I knew that this was my passion, and I was going to continue in this field. I did not ever think about giving up because I knew what I had to do next and knew I wanted to continue in the medical device space.

How do you stay on top of market trends and developments in the product management space?

I keep up with the news cycle on social networks and key media outlets and attend industry events. I also find it highly valuable to create intentional opportunities for my team to generate research and showcase technologies or ideas that they might have. Internally, we encourage a structure that requires people to provide a report of learnings after they attend a conference or trade show. We ask that they give a 15–20-minute presentation on learnings or takeaways from the event. This encourages our teams to think cross-functionally within the organization. 

What role does cross-functional collaboration play in accelerating product development cycles, and how do you foster effective collaboration across different teams and departments?

Successful product development cycles allow for horizontal and vertical collaboration and innovation, bringing a more holistic approach to product development. Our organization leverages multiple skill sets and styles to approach a problem or product, which usually results in more effective and efficient results. We also benefit from frequent communication and collaboration across departments to ensure the R&D team is aligned with our business goals and expectations. And most importantly, in the medical device space, we frequently need to work around regulatory clearances and approval requirements, so we need to be incredibly tight with our coordination with our regulatory affairs and quality engineering teams.

Based on your experience, what are your “The 5 Habits That Can Accelerate Product Development Cycles”?

1 . Focus through structure and process

In product development, everyone wants more in their devices or products. More is one of my least favorite ideologies in product development. In ideation, it’s great, but then you must attempt to distill what you are developing and give your team the opportunity to execute a viable plan. It’s our responsibility to create an environment where we aren’t trying to accommodate too many different things. We can’t make scope changes deep into the design-build phases, or worse, later in production or verification. To work around this, you need to have an organizational structure and process for product development that creates room for mistakes and challenges.

2 . Take risks! But when?

The medical device industry generally attracts risk-averse people, and we need to consider risk constantly. Risk dictates much of product design and can often serve as a detriment to the success of the product. For example, many technology startups in Silicon Valley are built upon risk and often succeed because of the brilliance and enthusiasm they have for the solution. In medical devices, you need to be sure you are enabling room for risk-taking early in your product development lifecycle. Ensure there are adequate opportunities to incorporate technologies that haven’t been as developed for your application or that your team isn’t as competent with. Take all those risks and be sure to attempt them as early as possible, so that you can retire certain technical risks from the product plan if needed. You have to execute, win or lose, and then you need to move on. 

3 . Improve the velocity of money and purchasing overhead efficiency

Saving money is an obvious priority, and the concern is not about how much you spend but the way in which you spend. Approval processes often become quite cumbersome, even though they are well-intentioned. We know that ensuring product viability and understanding the process is critical to success, but time is also an essential factor to profitability. I do my best to generate a process that is efficient and provides plenty of freedom to operate, while also maintaining accountability. 

4 . Isolate, plan, and drive alignment for minimum viable hardware

In my field, we isolate plans and drive alignment for a minimum viable product, or in other words, the simplest version of the product that will become viable for your problem statement. As an individual who prioritizes hardware development to enable software progress, I always focus on developing a robust and stable hardware platform so that the rest of our global software group can access a plan for their development efforts as early as possible. By aligning and delivering on the hardware set, you can accelerate into development and scale your efforts quickly.

5 . Disciplined dry run testing and engineering evaluation efforts

Teams that lack discipline have parts come in or subassemblies come in, and then they reach a point where they need to figure out how to test it. You need to make sure that you have a very consistent methodology for testing, evaluating and verification, and validation in advance of the project starting and clearly defined goals for each build phase. 

What are some of the common pitfalls that you see product teams fall into when trying to accelerate their development cycles, and how can these be avoided?

Companies often run into issues when they are misaligned on goals or outcomes, or they try to complete tasks in an inappropriate time frame. Teams can also get caught up when they add unnecessary complexity to their products. To avoid those pitfalls, they need to be cognizant of immature systems engineering, which often forces teams to rush the process early on and ultimately leads to issues down the line. Risk is a huge factor, and carrying technical risks too late into the development lifecycle can be a huge detriment. As I’ve stated earlier, you need to encourage as much risk-taking as possible in the very early stages of development so you can avoid these issues later on.

Can you share an example of a time when you had to make a tough tradeoff between speed and quality during a product development cycle, and what was the outcome of that decision?

In healthcare, the stakes are so high that you cannot sacrifice safety issues, and you have to have the flexibility to adjust the timeline if necessary. The other tradeoffs then become costs, engineering challenges or small functional features. You don’t want to dilute the value or the efficacy of your product with a half-baked feature. So, I always push for a “less is more” type of approach to ensure what is delivered to the field is going to work flawlessly.

How important is a data-driven approach to product development, and can you share a story where data significantly influenced your decision-making process?

Engineers are naturally data-driven decision-makers most of the time. It can be challenging to derive explicit data without a large user base so, we frequently go with a hybrid approach and try to elevate the customer’s voice. That approach can be highly valuable in medical device product development features, such as ergonomics. Often, you might just have to use your best judgment when it comes to the company's experience and exposure to the product landscape. 

Can you share an instance where user feedback led to a significant pivot in your product development strategy?

Our current product, the Senhance® Surgical System, has an active eye tracker that enables the surgeon to manipulate the endoscopic field of view based on where their eyes are focused on the screen. Some of the other functions of our earlier implementations used a head pose tracker, but we found that these trackers are less effective when the surgeon is wearing certain kinds of surgical masks. So, we decided we needed to be more granular in our algorithm and approach because we need to account for all of the added factors of working in an operating room, such as a hairnet and face mask. It’s incredibly valuable to have the opportunity for surgeons or customers to come and experiment with early-stage development because we receive important feedback like this. 

Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?

I’d actually like to chat with someone who is leading a group of development engineers or algorithm developers, in another safety-critical field. I’m interested in learning more about how others are using AI and how they are solving the world’s safety problems, whether that be medicine, aviation, or automotive.

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By Hannah Clark

Hannah Clark is the Editor of The Product Manager. Following six years of experience in the tech industry, she pivoted into the content space where she's had the pleasure of working with some of the most brilliant voices in the product world. Driven by insatiable curiosity and a love of bringing people together, her mission is to foster a fun, vibrant, and inspiring community of product people.