what it’s like to build some printers, and figure out engineering along the way

Areena Akhter
6 min readJan 4, 2022

january 4th, 2022

the hopes and dreams of a software engineer
A bit like someone trying not to get their hopes up before a first date, I try not to let myself Google a company’s office before getting the job. It’s hard to fall for a company (and their espresso on tap) before their team falls for you. I did this once, visiting Shopify’s distillery-themed office in the pre-Digital-by-Default days, and have not heard from them since.

By the time I applied to Formlabs, the 3D printing startup that blew up Kickstarter ten years ago and is now featured in a Netflix documentary, I was careful to manage my expectations. This is how I found myself at the door to 35 Medford Street in Boston, Massachusetts, unable to picture how the next four months as a Formlabs intern would unfold. This is my attempt to share that with you.

The view on my commute to work, and work itself — 35 Medford St. in the heart of Somerville

so this is what they were talking about
Obviously, I was enticed by the novelty of unlimited snacks and living plant walls at work. Free lunch three times a week? I don’t think I bought groceries once. But I knew tech was like this, and these perks faded into normalcy. One thing that hasn’t faded after my time at Formlabs is the unshakeable feeling that I belong in engineering — something none of my internships have given me so far.

Formlabs is an incubator for ideas, where the walls brim with patents that change the way that 3D printing works, and the patent-holders are literally coding next to you. I learned to differentiate “2D” and “3D” printers by practice (very futuristic), and how to 3D print anything I dreamt of (or was tempted to buy on Etsy). Without the stress of school, I finally understood why people “engineer” — because building shit is really fucking cool.

i ❤ my users, let me dissect your problems
At a company town hall I attended, our CEO, Max Lobovsky, described our company as somewhere “every employee, including himself, should want to work at any given point in time.” Working on the cutting edge of 3D printing means every engineer is an inventor, asking the question: how do we create a product that makes 3D printing faster, cheaper, and accessible to everyone?

As a user interface engineering intern, I got to ship UI improvements to the first firmware version of our new large-format post-processing machines, shaping the user’s initial experience with a new line of our products. Even though I’d only worked on this project for a month, I became a point of contact for the workflows, and inevitably the bugs, that users found on these machines. I felt that this must be why engineers like to build — to know, from the inside out, how something works.

One of the workflows I built for our new post-processing machine, the Wash L!

think first, code second
Formlabs was founded at the MIT Media Lab, the “wild west” of interdisciplinary problem solving, and somewhere I now hope to work. Every problem I encountered at Formlabs felt similarly expansive. How many different types of creators will it take to answer the questions we’re asking?

During my internship, I learned to take an interdisciplinary, first-principles approach to software development (actually applying concepts I’ve learned in school!) Most of my work started by asking the PMs, designers, and internal users (thanks, fellow interns) “is this what you think the end user wants?” Even code architecture was worth debating and evaluating before I pursued it. And when all the pieces came together, my C++ and QML and Qt code made the printer respond beautifully to the user’s interactions with a screen I had designed so carefully. This made writing code feel like crafting a piece of art, which I loved. Who knew engineers could feel like artists?

becoming bilingual
Near the end of the semester, tickets for Olivia Rodrigo’s debut concert went on sale (and instantly sold out.) Within hours, teenagers like my younger sister were scouring the internet for tickets priced somewhat more reasonably than the scalper’s rate of $900 a pop.

This is how I learned the value of the design engineering skills I built at Formlabs: examining screen recordings of the Ticketmaster app for font inconsistencies that would indicate a bad Photoshop job. At some point during my explanation of the difference between Helvetica and Averta (Ticketmaster’s design system font), I realised that this internship taught me to speak the language of design, equally as much as engineering.

This fall, I found and devoured the foundational HCI book, The Design of Everything Things by Don Norman, at the cost of 2$ at the Harvard Bookstore. I spent hours reexamining the same workflow for UI/UX concerns before I pushed up any pull request. And, after two years of wondering why I collage, journal, and create Figma mockups in my free time, I realised that one day, I’d like to work at the intersection of design and engineering (sorry for employing the overused LinkedIn bio phrase) to solve systemic problems affecting society. This realisation has felt like a long time coming.

Happy interns, a man in a kangaroo suit, and giant Jenga at Formlabs’ 10 Year Anniversary party!

face to face fun, with some good people
I would be remiss to not mention the fun I had working in person in Boston this fall. After two years trapped behind a screen, I’d almost forgotten what it meant to be a social butterfly. I zipped around the city on the T, danced with someone in a kangaroo suit at our company’s 10 year anniversary igloo party (evidence of the party, and the kangaroo, attached), and saw my favourite artist live in concert. I made a lifelong friend from MIT (via Tech Twitter of all places), and built a family with my intern group at work. By the end of this term, seeing them started to feel like coming home, not just because we were 60% from Waterloo to begin with.

I’ll miss Formlabs and this city, from Harvard to MIT to 35 Medford Street, for the confidence I built here as an engineer, and the inspiration I’ll take with me to keep building wherever I go next. Thank you to my manager, recruiter and coworkers for taking a chance on this people-focused engineer :) I hope we stay in touch.

p.s. so, you want to build some printers too?

Hopefully at this point I’ve convinced you to join the band of builders at Formlabs. If you were like me and had no idea how (or where) to join this movement to change personal manufacturing, here are some tips:

The interview process for internships at Formlabs has three stages* — phone screen, technical take-home challenge, and a live technical video interview. Although mine were software-specific (and I’ll share a future post on prepping for those), my advice is to imagine what problems you’ll solve on the job, and how your experience will enable you to solve them. The process focuses on role-specific engineering problems that you’ll use your experience to solve, so I’d review the first-principles engineering concepts behind anything on your resume.

Finally, don’t be afraid to reach out to alumni or Formlabs employees on LinkedIn. It was an inspiring conversation about the culture at Formlabs with a fellow software engineer from uWaterloo that drove my desire to work at Formlabs in the first place.

Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn or on Twitter.

Learn more about internships at Formlabs here.

*Your mileage may vary.

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Areena Akhter

thinking about people, computers, and the space in between them 💭 computer science @ uwaterloo, coding @apple, bloomberg, uber 👩🏽‍💻 she/her