Hugo Fiennes, co-founder of Electric Imp.
Former Apple engineer Hugo Fiennes has been inside every iPhone and can probably tell you the location of your device's magnetometer at the drop of a hat. Fiennes, a co-founder of the wireless connectivity startup Electric Imp, managed the iPhone hardware team for each release through 5s and took his love of hardware to a new level.
"Apple is an incredible engineering company," Fiennes said. "Almost nothing is not worth trying. You try lots of ideas, and there are very few design rules at Apple, because you break all the rules on every product." Constant iteration taught him to "really look at every problem with very fresh eyes and without preconceptions."
Before co-founding Electric Imp and joining Apple's ranks, Fiennes published software for ARM-based machines in the late 1980s. He developed a company called EMPEG in 1998 after creating a popular in-car system for playing MP3s; Rio purchased the company in 2000. Apple took note of his success and hired him in 2006 (after trying unsuccessfully to hire him in 2004), but Fiennes didn't know what he would be working on.
Starting with a team of four, he spent four years designing chips and coordinating with factories. The last chip he worked on was a 64-bit item for the iPhone 5s. Producing an enormous quantity of uniform phones taught him long-lasting lessons about manufacturing and design.
"I spent a lot of time in factories, learned a lot about really high-quality manufacturing and process control," he said. "Attention to detail is essential if you're going to be making hundreds of thousands a day." Making chips with a variety of speeds that acted identically was particularly challenging.
Apple's attention to detail reverberated through the hardware designs on Electric Imp. That company has had only one PCB revision; the iPhone had none. "When you concentrate enough up front on the design you can… be defensive enough to ship things without revision."
Fiennes liked having iPhone carry access months before everyone else. He even enjoyed going through 65 board layouts on the iPhone 4. Trying to solve problems that might be unsolvable -- like designing a compass that wouldn't interfere with other magnets, which would necessitate a 20mm distance from any current on a board 17 mm wide -- was another grand technical feat.
Though he enjoyed working with Apple's tight deadlines and meeting technical challenges of designing acceptable phone performance, Fiennes left the company in 2011. As Apple grew, the disparity between corporate life and his lack of prior experience in a big company increased. After designing five phones, the engineering challenges became similar.
At first, "Apple felt like a startup -- like a startup with infinite resources, where you could move incredibly fast and never worry about paying the bill. It was incredibly freeing," he said. "It got to be a bigger company and bigger business, so whenever you designed something electrically, you had to check it. It started to take some of the fun out of engineering… It was a lot more work but not necessarily more discovery."
Electric Imp's BlinkUp setup solution makes it easy to integrate imps and apps. Users can connect products and services to the Internet using a mobile device.
Fiennes joined up with Nest, which had fewer problems to solve and less of a corporate structure, to do the original thermostat design and architecture. He acted as an adviser to Nest for about 18 months before founding Electric Imp.
-- Jessica Lipsky