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Bridging the Bay – Notable Badger – Michael Szewczyk

Michael Szewczyk, BSME ’12

UW Majors: Mechanical Engineering

Co-Founder & Business Development, Factor

Q&A with Michael Szewczyk

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I’ve always thought that if you “Show up and try hard”, good things will happen in life. And in general, it’s true. But, coming from Wisconsin, I’ve hung on to that “Midwestern Nice” attitude that makes me feel uncomfortable asking directly for what I want. I’m afraid to impose on the other person. Moving from engineering to business development, it has been beaten into me: “If you don’t ask for what you want, you won’t get it”. People aren’t mind readers and the majority of people like to help others out. So when you ask a friend of a friend for a quick chat, the usual answer is “Of course, I’d be happy to”.

What are you reading now?

Because I am starting a company, most of my current readings have been focused on team dynamics, personal growth and psychology. Here are my recent favorites:

Radical Candor by Kim Scott
Dare to Lead by Brene Brown
The No Asshole Rule by Bob Sutton
Extreme Ownership: How Navy Seals Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

What occupies your free time?

Since most of my close friends, family & girlfriend live in San Diego, WI, MN & the East Coast, I spend a lot of my weekends traveling to see people. In addition to travel and work, I try to do things that make it appear like I live a normal adult life: work out, try something new like paintball, & cook (occasionally).

What was your first job?

My first engineering job was a summer internship at a manufacturing company (MEMPS) in northern Brazil (Sao Luis, Maranhao). I was given the opportunity from a UW-Madison student org, IAESTE, which connects students with international internships. These were some of the most educational 3 months of my life. I worked in design & manufacturing, learned Portuguese and how to work effectively in another culture. I also was lucky enough to be hosted by MEMPS’ CEO, Ene Oliveira, and saw what it takes daily to run a company after he built it from nothing. I credit him for inspiring me to start my company.

Tell me something about your last job, other than money, that would have inspired you to keep working there.

I worked as a R&D Mechanical Engineer at Thermo Fisher Scientific before Grad School. The scientists were the best in their field and my engineering & manufacturing co-workers were terrific. I loved the people that I worked with every day. Our products change what research scientists can discover. But it was a large corporation and there was a general feeling of “our processes are immensely cumbersome and slow us down at every turn, and there is nothing any of us can do to change that”. It kills the ability to take risks and innovate. So I fought through and went around the system during the first product. When I realized I would have to do the same thing again on the second product, I started making plans for Grad School.

What’s the most interesting thing about you that we wouldn’t learn from your resume alone?

My manager kicked me off a work project for 3 hours. I had a mild panic attack because I didn’t know what happens when you get “kicked off” 1 of your 2 projects. I was being stubborn about a design change we had agreed to as a team and I had done my designs based on this presumed change. Now the responsible engineer said he didn’t have time to do it. I knew it would cascade and cause more design changes and increase the cost by ~$100 per instrument. Once I had been reinstated on the team, I came on Saturday and made the necessary design changes.

When have you been most satisfied in your life?

I was most satisfied during the Spring of 2018. After spending my undergrad and professional career in Mechanical Engineering, I spent my Grad School summer as a software product management intern at a small company in London. This internship gave me the confidence and experience to feel like I could start fresh and pick any job or company that I am interested in. In the Spring of 2018, I met a Harvard Business School student who was also interested in improving the way hardware products are developed. I joined him in co-founding a software company, Factor.

Tell me about a project or accomplishment that you consider the most significant in your career.

I am most proud of receiving the Citizen Teacher of the Year award for my volunteer work teaching 3 STEM classes with Citizen Schools. To me, it represents a willingness to try something that made me uncomfortable, presenting to a group, and a willingness to try something where I had no experience, teaching STEM to 25 middle school kids. While the award itself mainly reflects the skill of the great professional teachers Citizen Schools paired me with, the experience gave me the confidence to push myself and try new things.

What type of leader inspires you?

The outspoken “crazy ones”. Leaders with a clear vision who build a great company culture and are willing to invest in what they believe, even if it may come with some risk or criticism. Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, pursues his career ambitions, gives back to the world, promotes diversity and supports local businesses. Leila Janah, CEO of Samasource, is not afraid to address the hard challenges in the world and build a company that will have sustaining impact.