Big Ideas

Here’s how to build out your engineering team

So your hardware startup just received Series A funding. Congrats! Now, you’re looking to productize your prototype and bring it to market. At this point, you’ve probably built a core technical team, but the team doesn’t have the size or the full range of skills needed for a successful launch. To accelerate development and get the product right, you may be thinking about working with consultants and manufacturers.

Before you do that, however, you need to make sure you’ve assembled the right engineering team. Which technical roles should you have in house, and which ones should you feel comfortable contracting out? This is a question we often see from companies at this stage.

From our experience working with hundreds of companies, there are three key roles that serve as the core of your hardware team:

  1. Systems Lead: This person will act as the central hub of hardware engineering, and help architect and coordinate activities across the mechanical, electrical, and software subsystems. Ideally you want this person to be a jack-of-all-trades who understands the different disciplines, and have also taken products from concept through to production. We often find that electrical engineers can be good systems leads because they sit between mechanical and firmware, and so are well positioned to cross into other disciplines.
  1. Firmware Lead: Today, even the most basic hardware products require intelligence, leveraging data from sensors and communicating to a cloud service or mobile app. This functionality is going to be a major pillar of your competitive advantage and differentiation. As a result, you want someone on your team who understands the core elements of your firmware codebase. Firmware is also one of the hardest subsystems to quality control because code can become complex very quickly, so you’ll want someone who enforces good coding practices throughout development. Unfortunately, good firmware engineers are also some of the hardest people to find. It’s imperative you get on the hiring process early, as it can take a long time to find the right person.
  1. Operations/Manufacturing Lead: Too many companies underestimate the importance of maintaining a good relationship with their manufacturers and having a team member dedicated to managing it. As your product progresses and you get closer to manufacturing, overseeing this process becomes time intensive, and this job should not fall onto someone’s plate by accident or default. It’s a full time job in itself; manufacturers will be asking for an enormous amount of information around test plans, forecasts, and more. Though this is a core role, it is possible to outsource this role to consultants such as Ops On Tap.

Moreover, as your technical team grows beyond five people, this team member can also serve as a de facto project manager. We have found that a team larger than five quickly nears what we call the “communications explosion,” where the likelihood of breakdowns increase dramatically if someone is not managing the team:

3 people = 3 lines of communication                                  5 people = 10 lines of communication

That should serve as a good backbone for your engineering team. From there, you can hire other functional leads or leverage external partners to fill gaps.