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Engineering with Empathy: The Secret to a Rewarding Career

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High-caliber training. Experience innovating under pressure. Tried-and-tested technical chops.

These are all requirements for candidates looking to land an in-demand engineering role. However, this list doesn’t include what experts say is the most important trait for any engineer to have in the future of work: empathy.

The ability to understand and share the feelings of others is critical to the process of solving complex problems. Just ask David Knapp, VP of Corporate Research at Boston Scientific. Helming an organization tasked with thinking about the “technology platforms that can be leveraged across multiple divisions and businesses” and tackling “new clinical problems that haven’t been addressed” are day-to-day challenges faced by — and welcomed by — Knapp’s team. And being at “the front end of innovation” for the medical device company means focusing on improving the health of patients, which requires keen technical chops and, yes, empathy.

Dave Knapp Boston Scientific

“I’ve been with Boston Scientific for nearly 20 years, and over that time the constant has been the focus on patients and transforming their lives,” says Knapp. “When you think about it that way, it really has to be about compassion and empathy.”

Engaging with and understanding patients and their needs are critical elements to being able to develop devices and therapies that Boston Scientific delivers. That could mean spending time listening to patient stories, making rounds with healthcare providers, and collaborating with many teams to fully comprehend a project and iterate towards success.

So what does it actually look like to be an engineer with empathy? We asked Knapp to dig into what really makes an engineer not just a problem solver, but a relentless innovator. If you’re applying to an engineering role or eyeing an opening at Boston Scientific, you’ll want to read on. Here’s what he said:

Be fueled by caring.

Caring

Meaningful innovation

High performance

Global collaboration

Diversity

Winning spirit

“We have six values at Boston Scientific, and the one that really cuts through everything is caring. People may not necessarily think about R&D as being fueled by caring, but in order to really make it all work, it takes passionate people.”

Knapp insists that it is this caring, along with grit, that powers his teams to tackle projects that could take years to complete and go to market.

“People who are really willing to work through all of the failure, who have the grit to work through what it takes to actually move an innovation forward—they need to have that caring fueling them.”

Bring your full-self to the task at hand.

With a highly diverse employee base, Boston Scientific leverages many teams in every project to bring their perspectives to bear. “It takes a diverse set of eyes for people to see the different facets of the problems at hand,” says Knapp. “We do a lot of work at the beginning of a project, getting out of our desks, out of our chairs, out of the building, and into wherever patients are. We go wherever they’re being treated or living in order to do a lot of observation—ethnography work—to really understand what the real clinical needs are. So first we translate our observations into needs, and then we spend a lot of time analyzing those needs and validating them with our customers.”

When “everybody brings their own pair of eyes to a problem,” the true innovation beings. According to Knapp, “that’s where we really pull in the empathy of all the employees to truly make a difference.”

Never stop learning (and teaching).

Given the cutting-edge technology and fast-paced world of medical devices, employees at all levels are tasked with learning new techniques and skills that are required to solve a problem. “We ask people to continue to iteratively improve and hone their knowledge and leadership skills, so that they can survive and thrive in multiple roles. You can’t just own one tiny part of a problem, you have to be more holistic and multi-disciplinary in your approach.”

Furthermore, it’s imperative for engineers to learn from failure. In fact, assessing this ability is at the core of Knapp’s job interviewing strategy. “One of the things I look for when I’m interviewing people is how did they manage failure, have they really experienced it, and how did they lead a team through tough times.”

It’s this interest in the technical and soft skills that motivates Knapp to mentor younger engineers and team members. “I do a lot of work on mentoring and sponsorship here. Inevitably I learn much, much more from somebody I’m mentoring than what they get from me. It also keeps me close to the junior levels of the organization in a way that is very healthy, so I can hear how things are going and evolving over time.”

Stay connected to your core customer.

The word “customer” can seem distant and cold, but for Boston Scientific, their core customers are the clinicians who treat millions of patients with the company’s life-saving innovations and devices. Remaining connected to these clinicians and to the patients they serve, says Knapp, allows for employees to always keep focused.

“We have a day each year called Everyone Makes an Impact and we put up a gigantic tent where we bring in patients who have stories to tell about the benefits that they’ve received from getting a Boston Scientific device and the therapy that they’ve received,” says Knapp. On this day, every employee can be in touch with the impact they’ve made and get real feedback from the lives they have changed and saved. “It is the best day of the year because we’re all together celebrating as one team what we’ve been able to do to help save lives, and there’s nothing more powerful than that.”

At another annual event, the company hosts an open innovation contest where Boston Scientific solicits ideas from people all over the global organization to answer the question “How can we make a difference?” Winning concepts from employees in every corner of the organization receive funding to bring them to life. It’s this relentless passion that pushes Knapp and his Boston Scientific team, even on the tough days.

“There’s nothing more frustrating than when a good friend finds themselves in a rough spot from a health perspective, and you know about a solution that could help them but it’s not yet out on the market, or it’s not available,” admits Knapp. “Whether it be the health of a relative, friends, or colleagues, more and more I’m seeing people going through the challenges that we’re very directly trying to face.” Knowing that people around the world — friend or otherwise — are depending on Boston Scientific’s solutions keeps him motivated. “This is why perseverance and empathy are so important. None of this work happens overnight.”

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