There’s a giant difference between hiring engineer #2 and hiring engineer #10

Last summer, we talked on this blog about when to hire new CAD help. A reader, Jason Thompson from Sparta Engineering, sent me a note with this observation: As you weigh the costs and benefits of hiring a new engineer, you also need to consider whether you’re adding your tenth engineer or your first or second. He’s right, and here’s why.

Startup Stock Photos

Scrappy Startup to Engineering Department

Product development companies form in different ways. Some start with one or two engineers as founders. In others, all the early engineering is contracted out. Thompson says that he often sees something in between, cases where someone within the organization, but with no CAD training, picks up design software on the fly—because there’s simply nobody else to do it.

Over time, those companies grow. Business expands. And startups need to find capacity to keep up with customer demand. That is, they need to hire. The company’s first non-founding engineer (let’s call him or her Engineer #2) can up company productivity, just as any new talent. But like it or not, Engineer #2 often represents the launch of your engineering department—something no company should take lightly.

Why 10 Doesn’t Equal 2.

With Engineer #2, you’re setting the tone for the future. Unless you’re exceptionally lucky, expect to invest more in finding, training, and creating a productive environment for this hire than you would for, say, Engineer #10. Consider the following:

Engineer #2 must have broader skills and experiences than Engineer #10. With larger engineering departments, you can employ specialists dedicated to, say, mold design or simulation. That’s not the case on small teams where core members have to cover every part of product development—concept design to rework. If you believe one self-proclaimed hardware hacker, “There are roughly 873 important facets to making a real product,” from PCB layout to design for assembly.

Whether you agree with his figure or not, clearly this is no job for the single minded. Your new engineer will need to know something about everything.

Engineer #2 must be much more carefully vetted than Engineer #10. Lemnos Labs, an investment firm that specializes in hardware startups, gets at the heart of why Engineer #2 matters so much. “A talent hires more A talent,” the company writes. “While B talent tends to hire C” Decisions you make now determine your success for the years to come. “Your first 10 hires will in turn hire the first ~70 people in your startup.”

Engineer #2 will help pass on or even define the corporate culture, attracting or repelling future waves of engineers. He or she will have to be comfortable with, or even energized by, the uncertainties, surprises, and emergencies that come with working in a new company. With all that in mind, Engineer #2 better show signs of leadership, too. The takeaway? This may take a while.

Engineer #2 is more likely to upset your CAD strategy than Engineer #10. CAD vendors like to think you choose your software based on its distinct architecture, features, and usability. But just as often, people choose software because they learned it in college or because a client or partner once preferred it.

There are two reasons Engineer #2 could lead you to revisit that decision:

  1. The most talented people available may or may not use the software you use. It’s tough enough to hire top talent, do you want to rule out someone who doesn’t use your choice of software? Are you willing to wait for them to learn your tools? If the available talent pool generally uses another software package, this might be the time to switch.
  2. You’re probably about to double down on your software investment with the new team member. Your current CAD strategy may be just right. But, if hiring a second engineer means buying another expensive seat of design software, it’s about to get twice as expensive to change your mind later. Does the thought of signing that check give you cold feet? Or are you ready to renew your vows to your modeler?

Engineer #2 may need more help executing efficiently. “Once you add a second or third engineer, how do you make sure the product is uniform?” Thompson asks. “How do you know that engineers are doing it the same way? And that they’re talking to each other?” The truth is, as you build an engineering department, you may need to add structure to the team —like vaulting systems and formal workflows.

Establishing a data management processes and tools now provides insurance that your current and future team members can pick up work that others started and quickly move products forward.

If business is so good that you’re thinking about adding a first or second engineer, congratulations. You’re probably on to a good idea, your market has begun to find you, and there’s plenty of work. However, as you consider this next hire, it might benefit you to stop, briefly, and think about who and what you want for your company and its future. More than any later hires, Engineer #2 will help you get there.


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