Industry Profile: Burton’s R&D Chris Doyle
18 Aug, 2009
Shay: Tell us a little bit about yourself
Chris: I’m an old school snowboard bum who has been fortunate enough to score a great gig. I’m a pilot and owner of a 1947 Luscombe airplane, I like mountain biking, longboarding, photography, motocross and my Sandy.
Shay: What is your job title?
Chris: Well, my official title is “Senior Product Development Specialist” (Yawn…) But the business card says R&D Mad Scientist”.
Shay: What’s the story behind your business card saying “mad scientist”?
Chris: For real…?? it’s the wild hair I run most of the time. I pretty much have a finger-in-the-electric-socket hair steelio going most of the time and that combined with a deranged look in the eye and being in a crazy workshop with tools and implements of destruction earned me that handle. I dunno…from the first day I strolled into Burton someone called me the Mad Scientist and it’s just stuck to me.
Shay: Did your parents question your job choice?
Chris: My Mom was just stoked that I finally got a job with health insurance…! I’d had so many jobs way more sketchy than working at Burton.
Shay: What was your first set up?
Chris: ’85 Burton Performer with the rope on the nose. I didn’t have a car that winter and I would use the board to get home from work at night. I worked up at Sugarbush and lived down in Warren Village…pretty much downhill the whole way down West hill Road and the golf course. Every now and again I would get a ride up the lower mtn with one of the groomers at night and ride the ski trails but couldn’t ride them during the day cuz we were still banned at that time.
Shay: What is your current set up?
Chris: It pretty much changes day by day depending on what we’re working on. Sometimes it’s really stock and other times it can be pretty scary.
Shay: What was your first job?
Chris: Besides mowing lawns, the paper route and trying to build a stone wall (that last one really sucked) my first “real” job with an actual paycheck and taxes was washing dishes at a local golf country club. I made $2.10 an hour.
Shay: What’s a great day of snowboarding to you?
Chris: Honestly, and this is really no bullshit…every day I get out there is a great day. I’m just lucky I still get to ride as much as I do. An exceptionally great day is when it’s fresh pow… and I’m riding with JG or any of our team riders. Best day ever was at the baker Banked Slalom 2 years ago when it dumped relentlessly for days and I rode all day on Saturday with Terje, DCP & Dave Seaone. Don’t get to do that very often.
Shay: Who are your influences?
Chris: I’ve been really lucky to be able to work with a so many of the best riders in the history of the sport and they have all had a powerful influence on me. The sort of short list includes: Craig Kelly, Jenny Hahn, Brush, Terje, Rippey, Victoria, JG, DCP, Dave Seaone, Jeff Anderson, Natasza, Spencer, and most lately, Luke Mitrani.
Shay: How long have you been snowboarding?
Chris: Since I needed it for transportation in 1985. I guess that’s awhile now all of the sudden.
Shay: How many days do you get to ride a year?
Chris: I’m usually able to pull 60-70 per year. But in all honesty these aren’t full days. Mostly a few hours before work at Stowe or a bunch of night runs at Bolton after work. Even on the weekends I like to get there early, get the goods then get lost when the crowds show up. I’m a bit of a spoiled brat who doesn’t like liftlines.
Shay: What is your role at Burton?
Chris: My role is much more broad these days than ever. I spend most of my days working on R&D with the product groups and engineers. But on many occasions I help out in Sales during demos and giving product clinics. I help out with Marketing when they need me to talk about product development with the Media, and also with Marketing tuning and prepping gear for our Pro Riders at contests. It’s not really super specific anymore. I really like it tho because it gives me opportunities to contribute in many different ways.
Shay: What are the stages of the ground-up design of prototypes?
Chris: Everything starts with an idea. It either comes from a team rider, a product manager, a sales rep or from within our engineering group. This idea usually gets kicked around some in either informal conversations or in more structured “Brainstorming” sessions. From there it can go in several directions. Either straight to an engineer who whips it up into a CAD model, or an Industrial Designer that makes sketches before CAD modeling, or straight to me to be cobbled together in my workshop. Engineering CAD models are usually “Grown” in one of our Rapid Prototyping machines. We have the capability to design and create board, binding and boot protos in house from idea to on-snow often in 24 hours or less. We can turn things really quickly.
Shay: What are the tools (computer, machinery) you use to design prototypes?
Chris: We use Solidworks which is the latest 3D CAD (Computer aided Design) software. We have a full on dedicated board proto shop within our Technology Center in Burlington that is constantly busy making one off novel board protos. We also have a 3D Systems Selective Laser Sintering machine (the magic Powder machine) that can create ride-able protos of base plates, highbacks and anything else we can dream up. We have a fully set up machine shop with a 3 axis CNC mill. And my workshop with all kinds of hand tools, materials and a sewing machine for fabricating or modifying anything.
Shay: What inspires you to create new products or develop a product further?
Chris: Well, nothing is ever ‘Perfect’ and there’s always a better idea to work on. Plus it’s just fun to make new, bad-ass products that make riders go “Whoa…I want THAT…!” I never get tired of seeing new ideas come to life and I love pushing snowboarding progression on an equipment level.
Shay: What’s involved in the process of choosing construction materials?
Chris: We are always experimenting with new materials and processes across all product lines. We evaluate new materials with an eye on function, innovation and cost. We have several material specialists in various groups. Some in Boards, Some in Boots, Others in Bindings and a whole crew of fabric and pattern specialists in Softgoods.
Shay: Are the team riders part of the development process?
Chris: Team riders are a HUGE and vital part of our innovation machine. We collaborate with team all around the globe throughout the development process. They love checking out new ideas even if they may not actually be into a specific concept or prototype. But it’s very powerful to have their input all along the way and they’re sure not shy about letting us know what they really think…! They are the anchor around which we swing.
Shay: How many testers take out each product?
Chris: Wow… so hard to put a number on that. We have a global testing force, all coordinated out of HQ in burlington. It really is a massive operation and the testing coordinators are basically busy year ‘round.
Shay: What steps are taken to ensure durability and quality of Burton products?
Chris: We have a huge, global quality assurance organization. From our in house testing lab at Burton HQ to labs in every factory and vendor where we build products. We test relentlessly and are constantly looking for ways to improve both durability and quality of our products. An astonishing quantity of products across all categories are systematically destroyed every year in this effort. We are very proud of what we produce and take it very hard when a product fails for a rider because we really want people to enjoy themselves using Burton Products. In the event that something does fail we have the industry’s best Product Service team and we make it right in the shortest amount of time possible.
Shay: What’s your average day like at work?
Chris: Well, I show up, say hi to Lauren at the front desk who always has a smile and a high-five for her peeps. Grab a cup of “Burton Blend” coffee, pet a few of my favorite dogs on the way to my shop then drop into answering email. Once that’s done, I dive into whatever project is hottest on the list. Maybe there’ll be some development or brainstorm sessions around my think table in the shop or maybe a team rider will pop in out of the blue and we can work on some things. In the winter I like to go ride and test protos before heading into the shop and usually that gives me lots of ammo to work on when I show up at HQ. I work…create, cut, sew, glue, help others with their projects, occasionally fix a shoe, broken glasses, creaky bicycles, beat up boards, random jewelry, give relationship advice…all sorts of crazy things run thru my shop. Lots of time I feel like I’m on my own reality show. I blow out sometime in the evening and rally home, get some dinner with my Sandy then get on Skype and help out our design crew in our Asia office for another couple hours.
Shay: What are some memorable experiences from working at Burton?
Chris: Wow…there are so many. Showing up to work a month after getting the job and finding on my desk a plane ticket to Switzerland, rental car voucher, a cash advance and orders to pick up Terje and Seaone, take them to Reto Lamm’s summer camp where they planned to shoot a lot of “Subjket Haakonsen” and work with Terje on new bindings. That was a pretty memorable day…! Another time I showed up early to find Craig Kelly sitting in my chair waiting to talk with me about some new ideas he had. It was so cool to work with him and become good friends. Trying to drink the hotel dry during a winter sales meeting in Lake Placid when we had the ice storm of the century and there was no power for 2 days. Watching Flo Strete puke on a hardboot in the middle of his presentation in front of all the north American reps at the same sales meeting. Getting my first patent… Getting my 13th patent… watching Shaun White grow up…I started making bindings for him when he was 7. That’s just a few but there are so many…
Shay: How is working for Burton (any cool work events, work environment, job perks)?
Chris: I think working at Burton is the best gig ever for me. I mean, I’ve had the chance to do a lot of different things to earn my bread, roof and wheels over the years and working at burton is by far the most satisfying and generally damn fun. I get to make innovative snowboard gear working with incredibly talented people and we ride a lot. Company ride days are a blast, Jake’s fall bash is always a great time and it’s just a great place to walk thru the doors and make a living. I know first hand that most jobs suck by comparison.
Shay: What experience/experience did you have before getting the job?
Chris: I spent 13 winters as a tech at Sugarbush. Summers I spent either in summer school to get thru college (I have a finance degree from Syracuse University) or after graduation, working as a Jr Accountant in a bank in NYC (that SUUUUUCKED…! I lasted 6 months and 3 days…basically as soon as I saw the first snowflake I fled) an apprentice airplane mechanic for an airshow pilot (Loved that job but it paid so little), And 5 summers as a Motorcycle Mechanic. In the fall of 89 & 90 I traveled around the country giving tech clinics with the Ski Mechanics Workshops and it was there that I developed the first snowboard tuning clinics because most of the people taking the tuning classes were new shred techs looking for the goods. Then I was one of the founders of GRINDrite. I did that for 5 years then went to Burton when GRINDrite was sold. I also wrote many tech columns for Transworld Business and Transworld snow, had a regular column in Snowboard Life and did occasional features in Snowboard Journal. All in all I’ve had something like 74 articles published.
Shay: What’s the best perk you’ve gotten from your job?
Chris: The blessing of working in a vibrant, fun, still somewhat punk-ass industry. All the young guns coming in every year teach me new things and keep me on my toes. I love the power of youth and never want to let that go…
Shay: Any disadvantages of your job?
Shay: Since you started in the industry, what’s been the biggest change?
Chris: Well, when I started out nobody made boots, bindings were primitive and boards were just growing plastic base & edges. There were a half a dozen companies supplying boards and I pretty much knew everyone on the mountain that rode. Then everything blew up so huge. There were a couple hundred ‘Manufacturers” at one time. I mean there were kids all over So Cal working out of storage boxes making boards… New ideas and innovation just ran rampant…step-in bindings came and went… Jibbing came—went—and came back again. And now it’s all consolidated into a few primary manufacturers and is very mainstream. I mean, when average soccer moms ask me if I know Shaun White…
Shay: Do you try out other companies products?
Chris: Every chance I get… I respect our competitors and like to know what they’re doing.
Shay: What’s the busiest time of year for you?
Chris: Hard to say any more. It’s all busy… If I had to say tho, the heat really turns up in September and it’s just full on throughout the fall, winter and spring. But then, as soon as the last contest is over we’re already deep into working on R&D 2 product years out so there’s not much time to catch a breath.
Shay: Education vs Experience…which do you think is more important?
Chris: They travel in a bundle. My education has been very useful and has opened doors for me that might not have been otherwise. But my experience is invaluable. Doing all the different things I’ve been fortunate to try along my road has taught me so much and I put it to work every day. And I never stop learning… What advice would you give to people wanting to go into R&D? Well, these days it really helps to have an engineering background with lots of CAD experience. Either that or you can be an Industrial Designer lots of Illustrator and Autodesk. Learning and becoming proficient with CAD and design software is a good ticket to get yourself noticed. Then pay your dues… It’s not an easy nut to crack. In this time of industry consolidation there aren’t as many R&D positions open as there might have been at one time and you have to contend with old guys like me who will have to be dragged out kicking and screaming…! Don’t get any ideas about blowing up my car or anything.
Shay: Final thoughts?
Chris: Thanks so much for asking me to talk with you. It’s been really fun. And I just want to thank jake & Donna for taking all the risks and busting their asses so hard in the beginning and persevering to create a company and really, an entire industry that brings so many people around the world such great joy…and has provided me with an opportunity to create and grow beyond my wildest dreams.