Surviving the transition from embedded to consulting engineer

There's an old saying that, with the rise of the on-demand workforce, seems ripe for updating: Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. To which I would add: Those who can do both become consultants.

Turning vanes in the 16 Foot Tunnel at Langley.

From world class medical researchers, architects and forensic law enforcement professionals to the brain trust of scientists firing up the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva Switzerland, today's consultants come from all walks of life. Add to this growing list a new category: engineers.

Take the example of Stuart B. Brown, and managing principal of consulting firm Veryst Engineering, Needham, MA.

As profiled in this ASME article, “Tips to Succeed as an Engineering Consultant,” Brown has learned over the years that clients hire a consultant for his or her expertise but after assessing the situation, consultants often recognize that the clients' problems require a totally different skill set. Instead, he advises, consultants must develop the ability to understand clients' problems, empathize with their pain, and find solutions.

"The right response is: 'Here's the solution, and I can do it in this amount of time.' You might not necessarily be using your specialty," he says. "But if you find a way to solve a problem, clients will be happy."

In the article Brown shares the time when his firm was hired by an athletic shoe company to investigate why some fluid-filled, shock-absorbing shoe components were failing. The decision was based on its expertise and familiarity with the failure modes of polymers and how they handle stress under impact conditions.

Shortly thereafter, Brown was retained by the client to help develop a children’s activity shoe that included sensors, circuitry, and LEDs to measure how fast a child was running and then display that speed on a set of LEDs on top of the shoe. After completing the project, the client applied and received a patent on the invention with Brown and some of his colleagues as co-inventors.

"Although this expertise was part of our skill set, it was not the reason for our original retention," Brown says.

It’s also proof positive of the real-life dividends of ongoing consultancies; in this case, the opportunity to be brought onto one project that, over time, snowballs into others.

On-Demand and On-Point

According to the American Council of Engineering Companies of Texas, hiring consulting engineering firms on an as-needed basis allows large public and private sector clients to keep their costs down by not having to support dozens of permanent in-house design professionals. Clients have the flexibility of hiring only those experts in specific specialties for whatever time they are needed. Consulting engineers also give small public and private entities opportunities to develop projects which would otherwise be impossible with their own limited staffs and budgets.

As Brown correctly surmised, people come to consultants for several reasons: they don't have the time to come up with a solution, they don't have the people, or they don't have the expertise. If they perceive you as being the best and a problem-solver, you have the beginnings of building a client base, Brown says.

Brown, who holds literary and business degrees as well as a B.S. in mechanical engineering (ME) from Washington University, an M.S. in ME from Stanford University, and a Ph.D. in ME from MIT, believes there are steps and practices engineering consultants need to take and adopt to have a successful career. These include:

  • Be better than anyone else in "something" "When you are young, you must have as an expectation and objective that sooner or later you are going to know something better than anyone else in the world," he says. "Maybe you won't pull that off. Maybe you're the best in the state or the country, but if you have that agenda and you think intelligently about what people will need [or want] in the future, you have the opportunity to get people coming to you because you have that expertise."
  • Develop as many tools as possible while young because that's when learning is easiest. Increase the size of your technical toolbox as much as you can.
  • Offer a strong point of view; people hire consultants for their idea and opinions.

On this last point Brown is resolute.

"You need to have an ego because no one wants to hear from someone who doesn't have a strong point of view," he advises. A client doesn't want to hear things like, "Maybe you'd like to try this," or, "It seems like a good idea to me." Clients hire a consultant to provide an answer. "You have to form an opinion, defend it, and deliver it competently so that people will act on it and come back to you. Why would you want to hire someone who says, 'I don't know. Maybe this is something you should do'"?

Brown also suggests that engineers not be afraid to market themselves, even if that means stepping out of their comfort zone. “With consulting, you can explore different types of work to find what you want to do and find the types of clients with whom you want to work. "You can only do that by trying. So being out there and marketing a lot matters enormously," he says.

In fact, Brown says the best marketing is a happy client. “That's why it's important to work very hard to make sure current clients are happy because they will come back to you.”

Which in turn, of course, enables you to ultimately make a living not only as a consultative engineer, but also as a successful, self-sustaining entrepreneur.