Celebrating Manufacturing Week: Q and A with Gradient Technology engineers

Managing Editor

Ryan Mitchell Smith
City of residence: Minnetonka
Family: I grew up in a very blue collar family and neighborhood in Albert Lea. Most of our family was either farmers or factory workers.

Ryan Smith

My father spent his entire career working for the Minnesota Department of Transportation building highways, interstates and bridges in southern Minnesota. The later part of his career was spent supervising the construction of bridges.

My mother was a factory worker until her early 40s when she obtained an associate’s degree and was able to move into the office as an assistant.

My wife Tracy and I have been married 15 years. She and I met in the engineering school at the University of Minnesota. We both graduated from the chemical engineering program there. We have three incredibly talented and smart young boys at home, ages 12, 9 and 5.

Years at Gradient: 17
Schooling:
Graduated from Albert Lea High School in 1995.
Bachelor of science in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota in 1999.
Master’s in business administration from the University of Minnesota in 2011.

Tell me about your childhood from the standpoint of when you began to realize you wanted to either do something with your hands, or be engineer or if that didn’t dawn on you until later what finally spurred you on?
My dad, Dennis, was a mechanic in the Marine Corps and then a bridge builder for most of his working career. There aren’t many household problems or projects that he doesn’t try and tackle on his own. My only sibling is much older than I am, so I was the only child in the house most of my life. That pretty much relegated me to the position of his apprentice.

The skills he passed on came pretty naturally to me. Those learning opportunities with him, combined with my affinity for math and science at school, pretty much set the stage for my engineering career early on in my youth. I honestly don’t remember any point in my life when I wanted to do anything other than design and build things for a living.

What did you want to do when you went to college? When did you zero in on what you wanted to do?
Late in high school I applied for, was awarded, and accepted a five-year Air Force ROTC scholarship to the University of Minnesota to be a mechanical engineer. During my freshman year at the U of M, I was taking a lot of chemistry and I really connected with it. I decided at that time chemical engineering was the right path for me. I submitted a request to the Air Force headquarters to switch my major. My request was rejected. I was forced to either forgo my full scholarship to pursue chemical engineering or continue on with the scholarship in mechanical engineering. Looking back, I honestly can’t believe I had the courage to walk away from that scholarship and pursue a different path, but I did it. There were some very difficult conversations with my family about my decision to walk away from it. It was definitely a turning point in my life and career, but I’ve never looked back with any regrets.

Tell me about how the opportunity to work with Gradient came about and what intrigued you about it that led you to go for it?
I was fortunate enough to get a semester studying abroad at the end of my engineering program. When I returned, I was graduated but off-cycle from the normal recruiting and hiring processes on campus. Gradient Technology was actively seeking engineers from the U of M chemical engineering program that winter to help establish some early-stage programs. The company’s mission of developing environmentally friendly technology for use by the U.S. military was pretty fascinating to me and right in line with some of my personal career interests and desire to work for a small business. It all kind of lined up perfectly.

What positions have you held at Gradient and what is your current title?
Since joining the team at Gradient I have filled the role of chemical engineer, program manager, director of operations, and I am now the company’s chief operating officer. In my current role, I still get to do a little bit of all of those things, which keeps me very connected to our whole organization.

What do you like about your profession?
There isn’t anything I don’t like about my profession. I get the chance to be involved in designing and building cutting-edge systems and assist in the professional development of the next wave of engineers entering the work force. It’s incredibly rewarding to be a part of moving both of those things forward.

What are you most proud of about your body of work?
The founder of the company used to tell his extremely young staff that the “last 10 percent is the hardest, but it’s the most important.” When you break that message down, it translates in our world that if you don’t stay committed to what you are doing all the way to the end, the product can suffer greatly. In our line of work, where the hazards include explosives and potential loss of life, there is not a lot of room for error. Our CTO, Steve Schmit, and I have worked extremely hard to live by that founding message and try to make it routine within all of the work we do. I believe that has made a huge impact on the great products our staff has brought to life and the high level of quality our customers see in our work.

What do you tell young kids who have an inclination toward math and sciences?
I have three young boys at home and they all have an inclination to math and science as well. My wife and I try our best to point out to our boys the vast career possibilities and options that open up when you develop a good foundation in math and science. New and exciting ways to make a living are being created every day for those that can achieve that.

What else would you like me to know?
Duane Goetsch (founder) and Eric Haehn (CEO) have stayed incredibly committed to creating an employee-friendly work environment with a customer-first culture. They have also intentionally kept the financial success of the business from influencing how we go about solving these incredibly difficult military problems. That corporate leadership has created an ideal environment for technical personnel to flourish and not be bound by profitability analysis.

Steve Schmit
City of residence: Orono

Steve Schmit

Family: Originally from Port Washington, Wis. I am primarily of German descent. Mother (Patricia Schmit) raised four children. Father (John Schmit) worked as a steel fabricator. He started a fabrication business (Tauern Metalworks) in Minnesota in 2000 that was eventually was merged with Gradient Technology that yielded our fabrication and integration capability.

Married to Jacqueline Schmit. I have a 7-year-old son (Nicholas Schmit) from previous relationship. He is an inquisitive child that appears to be on his way to becoming a scientist or engineer.

Years at Gradient: 19

Hometown: Random Lake, Wis.

Schooling:
Random Lake High School, 1990, valedictorian
Bachelor of science in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota, 1997. Graduated summa cum laude.
Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota, 2005.

Tell me about your childhood from the standpoint of when you began to realize you wanted to either do something with your hands, or be engineer or if that didn’t dawn on you until later what finally spurred you on?
Paternal (Emmons Schmit) was a hardworking man who owned at different points in his life a service station and a cabinet shop. He built homes and could build and repair anything. He had eight children. The family (my aunts and uncles) was close and they all helped each other building their homes or other home expansion and repair projects. That trait is heavily embedded in my dad and I learned early on that you can do anything if you choose to and if you want it done right you do it yourself. So I grew up learning everything from my dad and how to think about accomplishing tasks and how to troubleshoot problems. So my father and his father were heavily influential in shaping my thought process and learning how to build or repair things and how to approach the task at hand. My grandpa was in hindsight an old school Renaissance man and that was passed onto my dad. When I went to high school I had a strong interest in science and math, especially chemistry. As a sophomore in high school I knew I wanted to study applied chemistry (my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Vandervelden, was excellent and was also influential in opening my eyes to chemistry) and that is when a chemical engineering career was known to me. The University of Minnesota has a world-renowned chemical engineering program so I pursued my education there.

Tell me about how the opportunity to work with Gradient came about and what intrigued you about it that led you to go for it?
The founder of the company was an adjunct professor at the U of M and he recruited me in 1997. I had already accepted a position at 3M. After six months at 3M I decided I wanted to go to grad school so I called the founder (Duane Goetsch) and told him if he needed me I’d be available and that I wanted to also go back to school. He was very supportive of my decision and hired me and at the same time was extremely supportive of also going to school full time. The small size of Gradient Technology intrigued me as I knew I had the opportunity to have a larger footprint and impact as opposed to a larger company. So I returned to the U of M in 1998 and started working at Gradient Technology. My advisor at the U of M was Regents Professor Emeritus Lanny D. Schmidt. I got to know him as an undergraduate. He was very influential – a world famous reactor engineering academic, a brilliant thinker, and wonderful man. He furthered my ability to think, conduct research, and develop technology. I still maintain close ties to the chemical engineering department at the U of M. Prof. Schmidt has since retired but I do keep in touch with him.

What positions have you held at Gradient and what is your current title?
I started out as an engineer, progressed into into engineering management, then director of research and development, and lastly chief technology officer.

In layman’s terms, what is it that you do at Gradient?
As an employee at a small business you must do many things. I work to solve technical problems, develop innovative technical solutions for customers especially in the area of demilitarization. I still use the same tools I was exposed to and learned in all of my education on a daily basis. Aside from engineering solutions, I work closely with our engineers to accomplish tasks and mold them into better engineers. I enjoy troubleshooting and the pressure involved with solving problems and showing others how to solve problems and develop technology.

What do you like about your profession?
Scientific thinking and problem solving. Everything in life boils down to a thought process and ultimately science and math. The world is advancing every day so I enjoy being able to continue to learn and apply that knowledge to solving problems and advancing technology.

What are you most proud of about your body of work?
I have extremely high standards and strive to do only the best work…I am proud to have been able to apply those standards throughout my whole career and see that culture at Gradient Technology. The employees at Gradient also maintain those standards and it’s fulfilling to be able to lead by example.

What do you tell young kids who have an inclination toward math and sciences?
I tell them to keep learning. I always tell people education is the only thing nobody can take away from you.

What else would you like me to know?
The people around you as you grow are important mentors. I have been fortunate to have had those types of people around me from the day I was born. I can’t express how important family and educators were in shaping me. As a result, I have tried to do the same things for others such as my son, nieces, nephews and anyone else I interact with.