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The project of my life: a day in the life of a Principal Hardware Engineer

I’m the kind of person who likes to make things.

Even at home, I always have a project—you’ll often find me working on some carpentry or tinkering with a Raspberry Pi. Right now, I’m finding a way to synchronize the automatic feeders for my two cats. It’s fun.

It all started with my upbringing. I grew up on a farm in Southern Maryland, but my father is an electrical engineer by training and that became a focus for me too.

He constantly had projects going on—so many I can’t count them all. He built the speakers for his band, and he designed a whole series of custom furnaces with an automated hopper so we could heat the house using corn.

So from an early age, I knew electrical engineering was where it’s at.

I love software—I write a lot of code—but I’m a sucker for being able to physically hold a product that I built. So it’s very exciting to see new XGS Series firewall appliances out on the (online) shelves, because I contributed so much to that product.

A generational leap—rebuilt from the ground up

The new generation of Sophos hardware appliances has been the biggest project of my career so far; it’s consumed a large amount of my time, for a few years.

To put it in context, in the time I’ve been working on the XGS program I’ve gotten engaged and married—my wife Kate is a manufacturing engineering manager at a robotics company—and we’ve bought a house together. It’s a whole chapter of my life.

Throughout that time, the project has dictated my work patterns. One of the unique things about hardware design is the way your work life is bound to the product development lifecycle.

Early on in the process, you’ll find us gathering requirements, defining high level features and working on proofs of concept alongside product management. Once the product starts shaping up, we work with the software team to align technologies.

Then we get into the implementation details, like schematics and layout. There’s a lot of co-ordination with our manufacturers as well. We have to be in lockstep to ensure we meet schedule.

When the initial prototype arrives, that’s where it gets really interesting. It’s hands on, doing all the validation activities and executing test plans that we developed to make sure the product is reliable and meets all the requirements.

This phase affects where I work, too. I can work from my basement office some of the time, but the really big test equipment is in our lab in Pittsburgh.

A unified way to boost performance, from entry-level to enterprise

The XGS Series firewall project is interesting because we wanted to make a generational leap in performance, which needed a ground-up design for both the hardware and software architecture at once. So I spent a lot of time working with software teams.

The big goal—and the reason Sophos brought me on board—was to find a way to scale up performance at a faster pace. Importantly, we wanted a unified design for software and hardware, that would be effective from entry-level appliances right through to our largest enterprise-level products.

The key was finding a way to split up some of the processing features. We wanted to move low-latency, high-bandwidth work onto dedicated processors—freeing up resources for compute-intensive activities like antivirus scanning.

The result is our Xstream architecture, which is effectively built around two hearts—with separate subsystems tuned for computing and network processing. And the real leap was when we unified those dual systems into one seamless, integrated solution—that’s where you get a lot more performance.

That will make a real difference to IT professionals, because they can support more users and see faster performance without having to move up an appliance model. It also means we can continue to develop and upgrade the platform, so it grows with the customer.

A “slam dunk” when all the pieces come together

The thing about hardware engineering is that you feel a strong association with a physical product that you helped develop. But it’s a huge team effort—and the XGS project is important to me, because I’ve worked with this team for a very long time.

We have co-workers all around the world, but the network security community in Pittsburgh is a relatively small group, so I’ve known many of the people on this project since I left college. We’re a family.

The thing I’m most proud of is the way the new appliances align so well with the entire Sophos ecosystem. There are so many interesting possibilities in the future roadmap where all the products work together.

I’ve always wanted to work at a company that had a vertically integrated product, and I do think Sophos has a slam dunk when all those pieces come together.

It’s very cool to work for a company where we have a whole cloud computing team, super-interesting endpoint protection, and a centralized management dashboard, and it all just works with our XGS Series right off the bat. And having our products at the backbone of it all feels really good.

The last couple years have been a pretty wild ride—a lot of work, and all the changes in my own life—but where we’re at now is great. It’s a foundation for what’s to come.

From a personal standpoint, my input has touched all the XGS models—potentially hundreds of thousands of units, shipping out all over the world, to organizations of all sizes.

My parents are pretty impressed by that, I think. Dad has been up to the lab a few times, and he always takes an interest. Their latest project is building a small local distillery, with a visitor center and tasting room—so who knows? Maybe one day they could be a customer too.





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