As a designer for Texas Instruments, and through Predictable Designs, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the smartest engineers in the world.
I’ve worked with or hired people from India, China, Russia, the U.K., Germany, Mexico, Malaysia, Canada and others. So, don’t discount a potential engineer because of the country they work in. Don’t assume that hiring a developer overseas is always too risky.
Engineers in the US can charge between $50 to $200/hour. Outside of the US, you can find engineers charging as little as $5 to $30/hour. If you are a bootstrapping startup, the cost savings of hiring an overseas engineer can make a huge difference.
Of course, never hire the absolute cheapest developer, regardless of their location. But always hire the best engineer you can at the lowest price possible.
You can search for freelance developers to hire on the websites Upwork.com or Guru.com. These websites post reviews of a developer’s work, which also lowers the chance that you will be taken advantage of.
So, why do U.S. engineers charge so much more?
U.S. engineers are not necessarily better. But they do tend to have more experience working with big tech and hardware companies since so many of those are headquartered in the United States. Also, we’re fortunate to have some of the best engineering schools in the world.
Choosing the best engineer(s) for your product will in many ways come down to trust. Do you trust the engineer to follow through on your project? Do they have the necessary experience to complete it?
Don’t rush the process of hiring an engineer, and you need to be selective. If you are unsure of how to judge and select the best engineer for your project then you may wish to get feedback from other engineers on your candidates.
For example, if you’re a member of my Hardware Academy program then myself and other members will be happy to help you choose the best engineers for your project.
This article will help you find and choose the best engineer(s) to work on your project. Before you hire an engineer, ask them these questions:
How much will it cost me and how do I pay them?
How much the engineer will cost you for your project is likely your first key question.
Most freelance engineers charge on an hourly basis. But it’s likely better for you if you can get an engineer to agree to a fixed price for the entire project.
Remember, most projects will take more time than first estimated. So if paying hourly the odds are your final bill will be higher than the original estimate.
When paying hourly you are the one taking the financial risk. When paying a fixed price the freelancer is the one taking most of the financial risk, since if the project takes them more hours than expected they don’t get paid for those extra hours.
You always want to try and limit your financial risk. So ask potential engineers if they will accept a fixed price for your entire project. This helps to protect you financially.
Another option is to get them to pay on a milestone basis. So, for example, they may charge you fixed prices for the schematic design, PCB layout, 3D design, testing, etc.
Here is a list of clearly defined milestones for an electronic product. Note that they all have clearly defined deliverables:
- Create block diagram
- Select critical components (based on performance, cost, size, and availability)
- Design the schematic circuit diagram
- Generate the Bill of Materials (BOM)
- Design the Printed Circuit Board (PCB) layout
- Order the prototypes
- Program any necessary firmware
- Testing and debugging
- Deliver working prototypes
Protect yourself financially by only paying your engineer when they have completed each milestone. This still provides you considerable financial protection without the need for the engineer to take all of the risk.
Therefore, it is much easier to get an engineer to agree to fixed milestone prices, than a fixed price for the entire project.
Lastly, consider using an escrow is an intermediate account for paying your engineer. It functions like this – you place funds in the escrow account at the beginning of each milestone. This will give the freelancer the confidence to proceed with working on the milestone.
Once your engineer has completed the milestone, you will release the funds in the escrow account to the freelancer.
I have successfully used the escrow services offered by Upwork, but there are independent escrow services available as well.
Lastly another option is to pay by giving away equity in your startup. This is not an option I typically recommend unless bringing them on as an official co-founder.
Very few engineers will be willing to work in exchange for equity because of the high risk they will never be paid.
Negotiating an equity payment agreement requires that you find and convince them that your product will be a big success, and that is never easy especially in the early stages.
Do you have experience working with the technologies needed for my product?
Before you hire an engineer, first make sure to identify all the technologies that your product will require. You then need to find an engineer with considerable experience developing with your product’s exact technologies.
Let’s say that you are developing a WiFi video streaming device, then you want to hire an engineer who has a lot of experience developing with WiFi and video.
They don’t necessarily need to have prior design experience with every single technology that your product requires, but they must have prior experience with any of the core technologies.
For example, if your product incorporates wireless functionality you need to confirm they have the necessary experience. This is especially critical for custom wireless designs, or when routing antenna feedlines.
If your product requires a high-performance microprocessor (versus a simpler microcontroller) then be sure the engineer has the necessary experience designing with microprocessors.
Do you understand injection molding?
Be sure to ask whoever designs your enclosure or the mechanical portions of your product if they know how to design for injection molded technology. You will usually hire an industrial designer or a mechanical engineer.
Injection molding is the technology that makes custom plastic pieces during high volume manufacturing. It isn’t an easy technology to understand.
Keep in mind that anything- any shape, size, configuration, can be designed using 3D modeling software. Also just about any part can be produced using 3D printers without many restrictions.
But if that design does not take into account the many limitations of injection plastic molding, it can never be mass manufactured.
So make sure that your engineer understands injection molding. To access their experience level with injection molding you may wish to ask them to explain draft, side actions, and uniform wall thickness requirements.
Do you have sufficient time for my project?
This is a really important question to ask because it will be very frustrating if you hire an engineer who doesn’t have enough time for your project.
I went through this myself when I brought my own product to market. Since my product was more mechanically complex than electrically complex, I hired a freelance mechanical engineer to handle this part of the product design.
In hindsight, I should have asked him how much time he actually had to devote to my product, because I knew he had just secured a big deal related to his own product – a medical device used in hospitals.
He ended up only focusing on his own project. He never met a single deadline or request, and all I got were excuses.
So I decided to move on, and I hired a second mechanical engineer to finish the design. Unfortunately, I thought his progress was too slow (we entrepreneurs can be impatient) because he was working on so many different projects.
Start by asking potential hires if they do freelance engineering on a full time or part-time basis? Do your best to only hire someone that does freelancing full-time.
If freelancing is their main source of income, they are more likely to take your project seriously.
Next, ask how many other projects they are currently working on. If they have a dozen other projects on their plate, its best to find someone who isn’t as busy. Look for someone who only has a few other active projects in addition to yours.
You have to be realistic and realize that any freelance engineer you hire will have other projects and deadlines.
If you want to hire a full-time engineer that will cost you a whole lot more. At the same time you need to keep your project moving forward. Be wise about when you need to cut a freelancer free and move on.
How long have you been doing freelance work?
Make sure that freelance work isn’t something they’re 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 will ditch you as soon as they get a new full time job.
Remember that replacing an engineer mid-project creates a lot of complications that cost you time and money.
Are you okay with independent design reviews?
There’s one way to significantly reduce your risks and the costs of developing a new product.
If you are hiring freelancers, I always recommend hiring a second engineer to review your main engineer’s work. That way you can know if the work is problematic in any way, or avoid being ripped off. Ideally, this second engineer is someone you already trust.
This second engineer can conduct independent design reviews at various stages during development. This really is the secret to hiring low cost but high quality developers.
If you are completely non-technical, then an even better strategy for you may be to hire this second engineer to help you manage the other lower cost engineers.
If your startup has a limited budget (and what startup doesn’t?), hiring engineers is a large financial obstacle. This is why hiring low cost engineers overseas, coupled with independent design reviews, may be the best way for you to go.
The risks are higher when you hire outside of your country, making design reviews even more important.
If your startup has a limited budget, hiring engineers is a large financial obstacle. This is why hiring low cost engineers overseas, coupled with independent design reviews, is the best way for you to go.
I’ve worked with clients who paid thousands for custom electronics to be designed overseas, only to realize that the design they bought was fraudulent.
When I was a design engineer at Texas Instruments, all new designs had to be presented to the whole department. Large companies know they can reduce design errors by conducting formal design reviews.
When interviewing an engineer ask them, do you have other engineers review your work? That being said, in my experience very few freelance engineers have a formal design review process.
Your safest option is to hire your own independent engineer to review your other engineer’s design. This will reduce mistakes and also ensure you are really getting what you paid for.
What design software do you use?
When working with freelancer engineers there is a good chance that you’ll need to switch engineers before your product reaches the market. In some cases, you may find the need to change engineers multiple times during development.
Of course, always strive to find the right engineer upfront that will stick with your project all the way to completion. But, nonetheless, you need to prepare for the fact that it’s commonly required to switch engineers mid project.
For the electronics design, the main issue becomes the design software being used. There are dozens of PCB design software packages available, and many of them are not compatible with each other.
If the different engineers hired use different PCB design tools, then there’s a good chance they aren’t compatible. Many times this means the new engineer has to redo the design in their own software which is prone to errors.
This is why it is beneficial to hire an engineer that uses one of the more popular PCB design tools such as Altium or Eagle. It will be much easier to then find replacement engineers when needed that use the same design tool. This will greatly simplify the transition to a new engineer.
If you want to hire the best engineers then you need to ask the right questions. Don’t rush the hiring process, because selecting the right engineer will save you time and money.
Remember, you will hopefully be working with any engineers that you hire for a long time, so take the necessary time to research and hire the right engineer(s).
But, also be prepared for the fact that you will likely need to switch engineers at some point during your project.
Finally, keep in mind that hiring freelance engineers is typically your lowest cost option, but it also has the most risks. On the other hand, hiring a large established design firm is considerably more expensive but comes with less development risk.