Aaron Aikens, a 2007 computer science and electrical engineering graduate of West Virginia University, has seen firsthand the effort and mindset it takes to transform a small startup into a major industry power.
Aikens works for Allion USA, an engineering services company which specializes in technical product validation. The company started in 2008 with just three engineers as the United States branch of Allion Labs, headquartered in Taiwan. After a couple years of slow growth, Allion USA has expanded to almost 200 employees and recently moved into a 40,000 square-foot building just outside Portland, Ore.
“It’s been a crazy ride,” Aikens described. “Everything changed in 2010 when our company introduced a new president and he completely shifted our existing business strategy.”
The company’s new plan was to rely more on prioritizing system-level validation and creating unique engineering partnerships with major companies, and less on the traditional compliance and logo certification testing that had been very successful for the Asian branches of Allion.
Aikens and the company knew this was a dangerous risk, but the motivated team accepted each challenge and it paid off.
“Immediately after the change in 2010, we found ourselves in unfamiliar waters. We would get projects that we either couldn’t do yet or weren’t sure how to test.” He said. “But we would learn as much as possible as fast as possible.
“There was a huge learning curve, one that turned out to be very rewarding for the company as a whole. Once we completed a new project, we found that we had also built a knowledge base and gained experience that opened the door for future opportunities.”
One of the first big success stories Aikens recalls was in 2011 with a validation project with Nest, then a small digital thermostat company. Allion USA was asked to characterize their thermostat’s wireless capabilities against more than 100 different wireless routers and access points.
However, Allion didn’t initially have the resources or the inventory to tackle the project when they first started, so Aikens and his team went out bought every access point they could find. The client was thrilled with Allion’s test results and began referring other companies to test their products.
“It’s very expensive to invest in device libraries. However after the initial investment, we found many companies wanted to utilize our inventory. Since then we’ve been very successful building and offering testing against libraries of access points, Bluetooth devices, cell phones and other consumer electronic devices,” said Aikens.
The transition from a small company to a larger one did not come easily. Aikens said the hardest, yet most rewarding, part of Allion’s expansion was the process and wearing many different hats to keep up with new project requests.
Aikens is wearing fewer hats now, as he has advanced to the position of engineering lead at Allion USA. His day-to-day role has switched from a hands-on, technical validation position to meeting with clients and taking the lead developing new validation plans.
He has been able to work on numerous validation projects, including work on Amazon’s Kindle tablet lineup and Microsoft’s latest gaming console, the Xbox One.
“It’s really cool to work with new technology before it’s released to the general public,” he said.
Aikens looks back on his education at WVU as paramount to his success with Allion USA.
“I learned how to work in a team environment and knowing how to relate to people has been important in my job,” he said.
Actually, Aikens attributes his time at WVU directly to landing the job with Allion USA.
“When I was interviewing with Allion USA, the (former) president’s phone rang. His ringtone was the University of Colorado’s fight song. I recognized it from watching a WVU football game that past season and asked him about it. Turns out he was a Colorado alum,” Aikens recounted. “We bantered about the game and it turned into a great interview.”
Aikens has always been an opportunity grabber, and says he continues with this philosophy in his work.
“I have learned that when the opportunity is there, grab it. That’s how we operate now at Allion USA,” he said. “I’ve also learned how important it is to stay on top of new technology. We have to figure out where the new opportunities are.”
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