Preparation is key

Robert Chamberlain '74

Robert Chamberlain ’74

Robert Chamberlain ’74 is in the business of helping companies and governments think ahead. As president and CEO of Monterey Technologies, Inc. (MTI), a human factors engineering firm, he’s worked with clients like the U.S. military, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and others to make smarter engineering decisions that take into account the needs and predilections of the end user. His teams of psychologists and experts analyze quantitative data to better understand users’ needs, then assist in developing more user-friendly products.

Chamberlain was not always so big on preparation. When he was accepted to Colgate in 1970, he lived in Europe, where his father was working. Chamberlain flew back to the United States solo to begin his college career. He had assumed that there would be public transportation upon arrival. “So I arrived in Utica, went over to the lady manning the information desk, and asked where I got the train or bus to Hamilton. She just started laughing.”

Luckily, the ill-prepared young man was able to hitchhike to his first day of school in a courier truck. Over time spent at college and in the military, Chamberlain eventually came to see the value of planning ahead. He earned a degree in economics and, after graduation, joined the Navy and fulfilled his dream of becoming a naval aviator. After 7 years of active duty, Chamberlain transferred to the Navy Reserve and transitioned into a business career, starting multiple businesses before joining MTI.

At MTI, Chamberlain contracts with various branches of the U.S. and Australian militaries, NASA, and the FAA. He’s not at liberty to discuss details, but his work has helped shape the design of helicopters and warplanes in use around the world.

To illustrate what his company does, he took an example from the less-classified sphere of medical equipment: a pharmaceutical company that hired MTI for advice about packaging design. The product is preloaded glass syringes delivered directly to customers who suffer from inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis.

“In opening the packaging, the customers were damaging or breaking the syringes,” Chamberlain explained. “This is a classic human factors problem. The engineering design team only worried about one stakeholder in the process, the mail service (how to build packaging for this delicate syringe so the mail/delivery service doesn’t break it). But they never gave any thought to the end user. What if it’s an 86-year-old grandmother with arthritis in both hands? Will she be able to easily open the package and remove the syringe?”

After a series of studies, Chamberlain’s team proposed a different package style, and changes to the information on the package label to make it more logical and useful for the end users, while still withstanding the mailing process.

Recently, Chamberlain has lent his expertise to Colgate students preparing for the business world through the Thought Into Action Entrepreneurship Institute. “It’s fun to work with student teams, to help them flesh out ideas that they have, see the complexities of an idea, and turn it into a viable business,” he said. “The good idea is ten percent of what it takes to run a successful business.”

The rest, of course, is preparation and hard work. In Chamberlain’s industry, that work is mostly done by accredited experimental psychologists. In his volunteerism for Colgate, Chamberlain was surprised to learn that many psychology majors had never heard of human factors engineering. He’s tried to change that, giving several career services talks. “It’s a whole new vista for these kids,” he said.

One more happy ending: Chamberlain’s daughter Kathryn Roberts ’01 followed in his footsteps to Colgate. Well, not literally: As the child of two Colgate alumni (her mother is Rita Everts ’75), she was well prepared to find her way to campus on her first day.

— Story by Mike Agresta, photo by Scott Campbell