It is absolutely critical that you hire the right engineer(s) to help develop your product. This is one of the most important decisions you will make. Hiring the wrong engineers will cost you serious money and set your project back by months, or even years.
To help you select the very best engineer(s) for your project I have put together a list of ten questions that you should ask before hiring any engineer.
I suspect this is likely the first question many of you will have when looking to hire an engineer. It’s obviously a very important question.
For now let’s assume you are paying them on an hourly basis which is by far the most common method (I discuss other payment options for the next question).
NOTE: This is a long, very detailed article so here’s a free PDF version of it for easy reading and future reference (includes printer friendly version).
The hourly rate for an engineer varies from as low as $25/hour up to $200/hour. The price completely depends on the engineer’s experience, location, and workload.
For example, an inexperienced engineer in India that isn’t very busy will be at the low-end of that price range, whereas a U.S. engineer with impressive experience and a line of clients may charge at the high-end of the range.
If you eliminate the outliers, then most engineers will fall between $50 to $150 per hour.
Question #2 — How do you bill?
There are three methods of paying engineers: hourly, fixed-rate, or with equity.
Most engineers bill by the hour because it’s the safest method for them. Hourly billing takes all of the project risk and places it on you, the client. Billing by the hour is the best option for the engineer, but the worst option for you.
The problem is that it is very difficult to accurately forecast, down to the hour, how long a complex project will take to complete. In fact, it’s pretty much impossible.
In all my time working at Texas Instruments, I never witnessed a product that completed exactly as forecasted. Regardless of money or experience, there are always unexpected problems that arise during product development.
Freelance engineers are therefore always concerned that if they charge you a fixed price, but underestimate the time a project takes to complete, they will end up losing money.
That’s why the majority of developers are going to bill by the hour. If hourly billing is your only choice then be sure to ask how accurate their estimates have been in the past?
You may also want to inquire if they offer any type of guaranteed upper limit on the number of hours they will charge to complete your project. For example, they may guarantee that their cost won’t go 50% above their quote.
Be aware that many freelancers that bill hourly will estimate on the low-side the number of hours required for your project. They don’t want to scare away potential clients. I’m not saying they are purposefully misleading you but they are likely giving you a quote that assumes everything goes perfectly.
Nothing ever goes perfectly, so in the end when paying on an open-ended hourly basis you may find yourself paying 2–3x what you were originally promised.
The preferred payment method for you is to find an engineer that will offer you fixed pricing.
It is exceptionally rare, almost unheard of, for any engineer or design firm to give you a guaranteed fixed price on the entire product development process.
However, they may be willing to offer fixed pricing for some discrete steps that are more predictable, like the design of the schematic circuit diagram or printed circuit board (PCB) layout.
When I used to offer schematic and PCB design services I did so at a guaranteed fixed price which was published on my website. I would still bill the less predictable steps like testing and debug on an hourly basis.
I haven’t seen anyone else advertising guaranteed fixed pricing for electronics design, but many freelancers will be okay with it if you ask for it.
There is a third option you may want to consider if you don’t have the money to pay for an engineer. That option is to pay them with equity in your company. It isn’t very common and it will take you a long time to find an engineer willing to work in exchange for equity.
I get quite a few emails from entrepreneurs asking me if I will design their product in exchange for equity. I always appreciate the offer, but it’s not something I have ever done.
You are essentially asking the engineer to become an investor. They will really have to be sold on the product and more importantly on your ability to make it a success.
This becomes especially difficult because you likely at this point haven’t made major progress on your product, so you don’t have a lot to sell them on.
If you’re in a situation where you’re looking for an engineer that’s not going to bill you, most likely you’re going to have to try to bring on an engineer as a co-founder. If you’re not an engineer, finding an engineer to be a co-founder is probably your best route.
Question #3 — What are your engineering specialties?
Engineering is a huge field so you aren’t likely to find one person who will know everything necessary to develop your entire product.
For example, you wouldn’t hire an electrical engineer that works for your electric company to design your new tech gadget. These are not compatible engineering skills.
For starters, you need to make sure the engineer has experience designing electronics. Not all electrical engineers know how to design electronics. They should have learned in school how to do some electronics design and analysis, but to be get good you have to design a lot of circuits.
Your electronics engineer will need to know how to select the best components, create a schematic circuit diagram, design the PCB layout, order prototypes, test the prototypes, and debug any issues found.
In addition to the required electronics design software they will also need to have a lab to test and debug their design.
If your product has wireless functionality, requires a fast microprocessor, or uses large amounts of power, then the electronics design (mainly the PCB layout design) becomes significantly more complex. In those cases you need to be especially selective on the engineer you hire.
Question #4 — Have you worked with the required tech?
Before you find an engineer, you need to make sure you know what technologies are required for your product. Otherwise, how can you find the best engineer if you don’t know the technologies needed?
Once you know the technologies required for your product you can focus on finding engineers with lots of experience developing with those technologies. For example, if you are developing a WiFi streaming video device then you need to be sure the engineer has experience developing with WiFi and video.
They don’t necessarily need prior design experience with every single technology required, but they definitely need prior experience with any core or complex technologies.
Question #5 — How much time do you have available?
This is a really important question to ask because it will be very frustrating if you hire an engineer who cannot devote the necessary time to your project.
First ask if they do freelance design on a full time or a part-time basis? I highly recommend that you focus on finding someone that does it on a full-time basis. If freelancing is their main source of income, they’re going to take your project more seriously.
Next, you want to find out how many other projects they are currently working on. If they tell you that they’re working on a dozen other projects then I would recommend finding someone that’s not quite so busy. Try to find someone with only a couple of active projects.
I went through this myself when I brought my own product to market several years ago. My product was more mechanically complex than electrically complex. I’m an electrical engineer so I initially hired a freelance mechanical engineer to handle this part of the product design.
The first engineer I hired was too focused on his own project. Every day I would get excuses from him. His priority was his own project and my project was too low of a priority.
So I hired a different mechanical engineer to finish the design. Unfortunately, I became frustrated once again with how slow things progressed (like most entrepreneurs patience isn’t my strength). This time the progress was slow because he was busy working on too many projects.
Finally, I decided to teach myself 3D modeling and design for injection molding. Ultimately, I did the rest of the mechanical design myself at a much faster rate.
You have to find a balance between keeping your project moving forward, and realizing that any freelance engineer you hire will have other projects and deadlines. They are not your dedicated full-time engineer. If you want to hire a full-time engineer that will cost you much more.
Question #6 — Do you have other engineers review your designs?
How can you reduce your risks and the costs of developing a new product? Always get other engineers to review your design before proceeding to the next step.
When I was a design engineer at Texas Instruments, all new designs were required to be presented to our whole department. These design reviews were big open sessions and any engineers were welcome to come.
There’s a reason that Texas Instruments, and any experienced tech company for that matter, requires design reviews. They know from experience that the more engineers that review a design the lower the risk of design errors.
It’s always best to have at least one other engineer review your design before you spend any money on PCB prototypes. The earlier you catch any issues the quicker and cheaper it will be to develop your product.
When hiring an engineer ask them if they regularly have other engineers review their work. Perhaps there are two engineers working as a team, with each reviewing the work of the other. That being said, from my experience very few freelance engineers have any formal design review process.
The best option for you is to hire your own independent engineer to review their design. Hiring a completely independent engineer to review the work of your primary designer will not only reduce mistakes, but it also serves as a safeguard to ensure you are really getting what you paid for.
For example, a couple weeks ago I did a design review. It was quickly obvious to me that whoever did this design didn’t have the necessary experience. The design would have never worked as intended.
Fortunately, because of my independent design review the client discovered this before spending any money to prototype their faulty design. They quickly hired a more experienced engineer to redesign their product with much better results.
Unless you have the necessary engineering skills yourself, how can you ever hope to judge the quality of the work you are paying for? The only way you can is to hire another engineer to serve as an independent check and balance on the first engineer.
Question #7 — Do you have experience working for a product development firm or established tech company?
This is an important question to ask because when you work for a company that continually brings new products to market, you’re going to gain a broad understanding of the entire process that goes into developing a product.
This includes all the development work, the testing, and the project management that’s required. Working for a larger company with an established product development process gives you much more insight into the full process.
Although they may charge less, be wary of hiring someone fresh out of engineering school or even someone that only has experience with freelance design.
Companies that develop a lot of products have likely spent millions of dollars and decades of time, in many cases, fine-tuning their development process. Hiring an engineer with this type of experience will be a significant benefit for your project.
Question #8 — How many years have you been doing freelance engineering?
It’s in your best interest to find developers that are already established in their current business.
First of all, you want to make sure that freelance work isn’t something they’re just doing between full-time jobs. You don’t want to hire a freelance engineer who just got laid off from a full-time job. Otherwise you may find yourself working with an engineer who has no intention of being around for your entire project.
This is because as soon as they get their next full-time job, your project priority goes down to zero. You’ll get stuck finding a replacement engineer mid-project. That creates a lot of complications and the transition to a new engineer will cost you additional time and money.
It’s always best if you can stick with the same engineer through the entire process.
Question #9 — Do you know how to design for injection molding?
This question is specifically for the person that you hire to design your enclosure or the mechanical portions of your product. For most products this will be a plastic enclosure that will be developed by either a mechanical engineer or an industrial designer.
Injection molding is the technology that will be eventually used to produce your custom plastic pieces in high production. It’s a challenging technology to understand.
There are a lot of people out there that can design a beautiful enclosure for your product as a 3D model. But if that model is not designed with injection molding in mind, then it may be impossible to manufacture. You want to make sure that your engineer understands injection molding.
Here are few questions that will help you determine if they truly understand how to design for injection molding. If they seem clueless on these questions then keep searching for a better engineer.
Question #9a: What is draft?
Answer: Draft is a small angle that must be added to any surfaces that are parallel to the direction of pull from the mold. The sole purpose of draft is to allow the part to be easily removed from the mold.
A draft angle is usually only a couple degrees and it isn’t something you will normally notice, but every plastic part will have this small draft angle.
Question #9b: Explain a simple pull mold versus a mold with side actions?
Answer: A simple pull mold is one that consists of just two halves that when separated allow the finished part to be easily removed.
Side actions are moving parts of a mold that come in when the mold is closed. Once the plastic part cools and solidifies these side actions are pulled out so the part can be removed.
Side-actions become necessary if the design doesn’t allow the finished part to be pulled from the mold.
Question #9c: Why is uniform wall thickness important?
Answer: When designing for injection molding, you can’t have thick sections of plastic along with thin walls on the same part. Everything needs to be a uniform wall thickness.
Uniform wall thickness is required so the product cools in a uniform fashion. If you have thick sections of plastic in some areas and thin walls in others, they’re going to cool at different rates. The thin wall sections will cool much faster than the thicker portions. This phenomenon creates a temperature differential that causes the part to warp as it cools.
Question #10 — Do you have experience designing complex Printed Circuit Board (PCB) layout?
In order to help you determine if an electronics engineer has the necessary experience to correctly develop your product I’ve put together a few technical questions below.
These questions cover some of the more common design mistakes I’ve seen made on custom PCB designs.
Question #10a: Do you have experience with wireless design?
Answer: For wireless designs the PCB trace that connects the radio transceiver chip to the antenna is very critical. This is called a feedline or a transmission line. Proper design of this feedline is both complex and highly critical.
If your product requires wireless functionality you need to ensure the engineer you hire understands how to correctly design an RF feedline. Many times this complexity can be completely eliminated by using a radio module that includes the antenna built-in already.
This feedline needs to be designed in most cases to provide a 50 ohm impedance. This is not to be confused with 50 ohms of resistance. Many inexperienced designers incorrectly think a 50 ohm impedance feedline means the resistance of the line. That is completely wrong, and in fact it means the complex impedance from the feedline to ground.
The width of this feedline, the distance between it and the underlying ground plane, and the dielectric constant of the PCB insulation layers are what determine this impedance.
If you find an engineer that understands how to correctly design a PCB feedline then they very likely have the skills necessary to design other parts of your PCB.
Question #10b: What are the rules for decoupling capacitors?
Answer: Decoupling capacitors provide a nearby electrical storage component that is always placed as close as possible to the IC pin they are decoupling. These capacitors help to ensure the IC has a stable supply voltage.
Decoupling capacitors can also be used to filter out any high-frequency noise from the supply voltages.
Question #10c: Do you have experience designing with fast microprocessors?
A product that requires a fast microprocessor is a lot more complicated to layout than a microcontroller-based design. Ask your engineer if they have experience designing a PCB that use fast microprocessors with off-chip RAM memory.
If you want to hire the best engineers for your project then you must ask these 10 questions. Don’t rush the hiring process, and it’s definitely worth your time to be selective about the engineers you hire.
You will be working with them for a long time so be sure you take the necessary time to research and hire the right engineer(s).