If you’re an entrepreneur with a great technology idea, you might be looking for some additional engineering help. That could mean finding someone to assist with a subset of your project, or outsourcing the entirety of your design. In either case, it can be hard to know exactly how to proceed when you need to expand your engineering bandwidth. But doing so will be well worth it. Getting additional support for the full-time engineers on your team can help you make up for a skillset you might be missing. In this Q&A, Arrow Applications Engineers Jeff Brown and Keaton Andersen discuss everything you need to know about finding engineering help on a per-project basis.
What are some of the first things you should do when developing your tech product?
Jeff: Regardless of what your product is, it’s essential to have a plan for turning your idea into a product and getting it to market. Set deadlines and budget estimates early to plan each aspect of the project that may be working in tandem. Understanding the basics of product development is key to understanding what processes take the most time to accomplish and which items have the highest upfront expenses. If you are thinking about or currently designing a product, do your due diligence to research similar products and the related product design/development process for cost and time estimates.
Keaton: If I was designing a new product today, I would start with identifying every piece that would go into building it. Does it have software? Does it need an app? Does my hardware require certification? From there I would determine the deliverables I’d want to produce and make approximations for how long they’d take. Those rough time and material estimates provide a good framework to ensure that you can account for everything that will go into your design and get help or outsource the pieces that are outside your skillset.
Why is it important to set a timeline?
Keaton: Establishing a timeline is critical for a new design. To start, a timeline helps ensure that your product will reach production on the needed schedule. For example, if you are doing an Indiegogo campaign your backers will want to know when they might receive their product. With an accurate timeline you can give an estimate on how you plan to deliver. Second, a timeline sets the expectation for when your product will make it to market. Timelines demand accountability and push you to accomplish the goals of your product. Finally, timelines can identify what pieces you may be able to finish concurrently. Is your app able to be developed while someone is building the hardware for your IoT product? If so, your date of delivery will be significantly faster than your competitors if they are doing every piece in sequence.
Jeff: Timelines are important because they can help you set appropriate deadlines for your project. Your deadlines need to be fair to the work and time required so that you can set realistic goals with your engineering team. Any time lost will have a cascading effect, postponing the subsequent stages of the design process and postponing the launch of a product to the market. Timelines that are set at the beginning of a project also help manage your efforts and keep you from getting tunnel vision on a given task.
Why is it so important to find the right engineer?
Keaton: It can be hard to know if an engineer’s prior experience will be applicable to your project. I was working with a team that had brought their project to the Arrow Certification Program and was outsourcing their electrical engineering needs. On the surface, the engineer seemed like he could be a good fit, but he didn’t have the right engineering experience and they ended up having major problems in their design resulting in their PCBs needing multiple changes. Luckily, we were able to catch it in time; otherwise, those errors might have cost them thousands of dollars. In the end, they chose to use a new engineer because of the difficulty they were having.
In general, when someone works with the Arrow Certification Program, we want to see any updated engineering work on a weekly basis so we can support catching mistakes early if they’re there. In this instance, the engineering work wasn’t being checked. Regular reviews and check-ins are critical to ensuring a successful hire for your product team.
Do you have any tips for communicating with the engineer?
Jeff: It’s important to establish communication with an engineer that you trust. Communication between the entrepreneur and engineer is so important. This is a minor thing, but try to get time zone alignment if you can. It’s good to have the option for an in-person conversation (or phone conversation) at an appropriate time. If you hire someone who is on the other side of the world, you might struggle to find time to talk to them. The same goes for language barriers. You don’t need to speak an engineer’s language fluently, but you do need to be able to talk about the milestones you want to hit and do check-ins throughout the project.
How can entrepreneurs get started finding an engineer?
Jeff: There are many ways to find an engineer that can work as a consultant to aid in the project’s completion. The most common ways to find engineering services are by either choosing a design firm or finding freelancers. Design firms can typically be found in most major cities across the globe, and usually consist of several engineers specializing in different fields of study. Design firms are a great turnkey solution for product development, but it does come at a high cost. Freelance engineers are plentiful and with new online platforms it is easier than ever to find engineers that will suit your project, even if you have some unique technologies or skillsets required.
Keaton: We have a platform called ArrowPlus that is intended to match you with engineering talent capable of meeting your exact project needs. It’s a partnership with Freelancer and enables you to enter your project details and requirements and have multiple engineers bid on your project. From there you can review the bids to see if any engineers match your needs and qualifications. You only pay once the work has been completed for your project.
When ArrowPlus is used in conjunction with the Arrow Certification Program, your project first undergoes an engineering needs assessment. Someone on the Arrow team will discuss your project with you, identify what skillsets are required, and point out some important questions to ask if you are hiring an engineer through ArrowPlus or another avenue. The Arrow Certification Program can help with scoping too. One of the biggest challenges you’ll face is making sure that you get every piece you need for your project. Leveraging support to scope and size your design can enable you to achieve success sooner than attempting the project on your own.
What is usually included in an engineering service?
Jeff: There are a few general items you should look at when getting quotes for any project. The number one item is usually a statement of work (SOW), which should explain in detail what is being asked and what the engineer will deliver. This should include all the needed parts of the project (software, hardware, mechanical design, testing, etc) with associated deadlines for each. It should also include a process for communicating project updates to make sure the project is proceeding as planned. It is important to spend time upfront on what the specific deliverables, milestones, and deadlines should be, otherwise you can end up paying for services that set you back on time and budget.
Keaton: If you are looking to have your product manufactured by a contract manufacturer, some of the files required are a Bill of Materials (BOM), Schematics, and PCB Layout files (more commonly known as Gerbers). Keep in mind, that’s just a minimal list and doesn’t include any STEP files that may be needed for 3D printing or design. When working with an engineer I would ask what is and isn’t included in what they do. If you have trouble with the files, will they help fix their work? If changes are needed to the BOM due to obsolescence, will they help? What format do they deliver files in? These are the types of considerations you should take into an engineering service engagement and the Arrow Certification Program is able to help navigate if you are unsure what questions to ask or what support you might need.
Need engineering support? Qualified entrepreneurs who join the Arrow Certification Program can get an engineering needs assessment with an expert at Arrow to help them get started on their design process.