10 Best Tips for Hiring an Engineering Consultant

In early 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad was nearing completion in northern Utah. The Central Pacific Railroad was building from Sacramento, California and the Union Pacific from Omaha, Nebraska. The railroads and the workers were paid by the government per mile to complete the line. No one really had an idea on how the rails would unite…so they didn’t. Both railroads kept grading and laying track right past the other sometimes coming within 100 ft of each other. Why not? They were getting paid.

Working with a contract engineer can often feel the same way. You have the same goal, but entirely different viewpoints on how to get there. Without careful planning, you can end up in the same situation.

In order to hire the right consultant, you need to clearly define the problem, understand the benefits to your company, be flexible with the deadline, make sure that you can’t do the work in house, hire the best consultant you can find and check references.

A good consultant will have experience in the field needed or recommend you to someone else, indicate how future change orders will be handled and try to talk you out of working with them throughout the conversation.

1. Clearly Define the Problem You Want Solved

I have been a contract engineer for nearly 10 years (as of this writing). Most of that time was with a firm. We noted time and again that the largest obstacle to a successful project was in clearly outlining the project.

This is extremely hard to do. The client usually has a general goal they want to accomplish, but it usually isn’t written down and very vague.

I am reminded of a friend that hired a virtual assistant to setup an interview with a semi-famous person. Sounds simple, but the VA (in India) spent nearly 20 hours trying to do this. How can that be? Its a simple phone call or email. The problem was in the word “interview”. My friend was thinking podcast interview and the VA was thinking job interview. No wonder it didn’t work.

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If you have hired anyone before you know this situation. Going through the difficult and rigorous process of clearly specifying the project goals and your own internal requirements. Your company has lots of tribal knowledge and you don’t realize it. Here is a list of common things that are overlooked.

  • Are there applicable internal and external standards?
  • Are the raw materials specified stocked already?
  • How does this fit in with our processes?
  • Are there welding processes that we don’t do? (very large welds, weld after paint, preheat and controlled cool down)
  • Are we planning on purchasing components in bulk or small quantities?

This list is in no way exhaustive, but it will get the juices flowing to communicate the needed things.

I must mention here that in order to have a good working relationship, please don’t bury the consultant in a mountain of paperwork. At a company I worked for, we hired a consultant and sent all the applicable standards (over 10) to them and expected them to know and understand every part. This was an unreal expectation.

The project was going smoothly until Finite Element Analysis was run on the project. A portion of one of the standards outlined a specific way to do the FEA and it was overlooked. Our company was not happy in the results and the relationship was severed.

In the end, both parties were to blame. My point here is that if you have expectations for things, make them absolutely clear to the client and don’t bury them in a mountain of paperwork. This will save time, money and the relationship in the long run.

In Scope vs Out of Scope

As you define your project, evaluate what parts of the project are in scope and which are not. Once in the project, things tend to creep into scope and the project ends up being larger than it was at first. If you are being billed on a time and materials basis, this can get expensive when you go down multiple rabbit trails.

Know What Your Customer Wants

Recently, I took on a client that wanted a machine that matched or exceeded “current market standards”. While I know what they were desiring (specific machine specifications), I didn’t know exactly what their market is because I was many time zones away. I challenged them to talk to their potential customers and find out exactly what kind of machine was needed before we proceed.

The Devil’s in the Details

A few years back, I worked with a client who wanted me to come up with some “concepts” for solving a problem for his client. For most engineers, a concept is usually not much more than drawing on a napkin at the bar or a few doodles on a dry erase board.

I quoted him the number of hours I believed it would take me to give several concepts to solve his problem. He accepted and I got straight to work and developed around 8 concepts, scanned them into a file and delivered them to my client.

He was not happy. It turns out that he wanted CAD models of each concept (or at least the best 2) and not the nice colored pencil sketches I delivered.

His definition of “concept” and my mine did not match up because they had not been defined when I made my estimate.

2. Understand the Benefits to Your Company

It can be difficult to understand the value an engineering consultant can bring to your company. Many times the benefits won’t be known until the project has started. I once interviewed at a manufacturing shop where the manager was complaining about the wasted time to transport a heavy part over to a milling machine and then bring it right back into the process. Being an outsider, I simply suggested moving the milling machine; I was offered the job on the spot.

Engineering consultants bring value to your company in many ways that aren’t usually obvious.

  • He will be a licensed engineer bringing professionalism, a passion for engineering and competence in the trade
  • He should have specific knowledge of the governing standards and code and should have experience working with inspectors.
  • He will have access to specific resources like technical data, FEA etc.
  • He will be an outsider and have a different perspective. This leads to questions about the status quo.
  • He may find that the problem you intend to solve isn’t the ultimate problem that needs to be solved.

We all have blind spots, so as you talk with a potential consultant, ask where they will bring value to the project.

3. Be Flexible with Your Timeline

I once headed up a project with a firm 19 week deadline so that the new machine could be showcased at a trade show. We delivered on time, but we had to throw lots of extra resources on the design and fabrication. This lead to more money being spent than need be. The customer was not thrilled at the cost of the project especially since the machine did not meet the customer’s expectations. (See Tip #1)

I have found that having firm timelines in your design will cause you to be over budget consistently. Yes, we all want to get to market fast, but they are not always as firm as we think they are. Is it worth the extra effort and money it takes the consultant to meet your deadlines?

As a consultant, I am very concerned with how I spend my billable hours. Often, I find myself stopping work to ask questions as to the direction of the project or even for a sanity check on my progress before continuing. On many occasions, this pause in the work paid off because I was not going in the right direction and I ended up saving the client thousands of dollars.

4. Make Sure That You Can’t Do the Work In House

I often compare hiring a consultant to hiring a plumber. I’m pretty handy and can do some basic plumbing. Over the years, I have gained more and more skills, but I am not a plumber. With some effort, I could train to become a plumber, but I don’t want to.

If you don’t have an engineering department, chances are that your company wants a product designed or has a specific problem that needs to be solved, like production bottlenecks. Hiring a consultatn is the obvious choice.

If you do have an engineering department, you need to ask yourself why you need outside help. If you just need more help in the short term for a project, you probably just need to hire some contract engineers and train them in house. (This is the study to become a plumber route.)

Many times though, your engineering group does not have specific skills. At one job, we brought in a fastener expert even though we had a whole team of mechanical engineers. He was worth it because he had dealt with the exact situation were were in many times. In cases like this one, hiring a consultant for specific skills is essential. It is the equivalent to knowing that you are out of your league and hire a plumber.

In both cases, it is still going to take a significant amount of time to manage the project; you either need to spend time on-boarding new employees or make sure that the consultant is on the right path. Generally, this will take around 30% of the project to do. We often don’t bring on new personnel because most of these hours are upfront. We justify it with “if I just work 1 more hour a day I could do it myself.” That’s great, but there are only so many hours in a day.

Before hiring a consultant, ask yourself if you can do the work, if you can grow the team or a team member’s skill set or if you really need to find “the best.”

5. Get the Best Consultant You Can Find

Many companies think of a consultant as a temporary employee. STOP. They are not contract engineers, they are experts in their field. Moreover, they are free! Let me explain.

Image Courtesy of Scott Ward

I say that the experts are free because they will want you to be successful and bring in far more money than what you are paying them. Having a committed member of the project is far better than finding a hired gun.

If your potential consultant doesn’t seem committed to your success, don’t hire them. You won’t regret it either.

6. Check References of Familiar Work Experience

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This should be a no brainer. You would check the references of employees, why wouldn’t you do it now. Be sure that as you do your due diligence to focus more on experience rather than education. Having a master’s or doctorate degree doesn’t necessarily make you the best consultant.

When I first started out as a consultant, I was working on a fairly large project with an engineering intern. As we started to assemble the large pieces together, he was remarking about how it was all going to together so well. He asked, “did you know it was going to go together this easily?”

“Yes! I wouldn’t have stepped out on my own if I doubted my skills,” I replied.

As long as your project is in the core competency of your client, they should have plenty of experience to show you.

7. Ask What Separates Them from Other Consultants

This is the question that separates the experts from the general consultants. If the consultant is an expert, he will have specific skills pertinent to your project. This may be previous design experience, access to needed software or references, specific knowledge of applicable standards or industry best practices. It may also be the way they communicate or write reports.

If your candidate seems underwhelming, you may not have the right person for the job.

8. Discuss What Happens When You Need Changes

Engineering changes will happen without fail. Your contract needs to communicate how this will happen on an ongoing basis. Sometimes changes will occur during the project project and it is simply part of the work. Other times it will be a little trickier, as in long term support.

I once designed a machine and there were a few problems getting it running smoothly after the project as mostly complete. Quite a few times, I received a phone call to troubleshoot in the middle of the night. I was more than happy to help. But after the third time, we had a discussion about my availability and expected response times.

Another issue is general availability. Contractors and consultants usually have multiple projects going on at the same time with varying priority. He may not have the availability to help immediately. I have been contacted several times while on location at another client or on vacation and was not able to help as much I would have liked. Being limited to phone calls and emails makes it difficult to troubleshoot problems and propose solutions.

Discussing your expectations for support and changes needs to be done early on. You may find that there are higher rates for “after hours” work that you did not plan for.

9. They Should Talk You Out of Using Their Services

Another sign that your consultant is an expert is that they will tell you when they cannot be of value to you or your project. Its kind of surprising, but refreshing at the same time.

Being smart is knowing what you don’t know. This seems like an oxymoron, but it isn’t. I don’t know biology or chemistry, so I don’t work on projects that do. I have more education in HVAC and thermodynamics, but I have no experience in power plant design. I will not add value to your project.

An expert won’t travel outside of his core competencies just to get another client. He should tell you exactly what he is and is not capable of doing. Most experts will also have a list of other experts that can fill in when needed. If they don’t it might be a red flag.

All this is to show that they want your project to be successful over winning a new contract.

Image Courtesy of Hannah Hill

10. Talk About Money

Money is one of the last things that should be discussed when hiring a potential consultant. If this ranks high on your priorities, you probably don’t see the value in what the consultant brings to the table. In my experience, the project will probably take much longer and you will spend much more on the wrong person.

Issues with Time and Materials Projects

Many projects are done on a time and materials basis. If you have done this previously, you know the issues:

  • Budget Overrun – In many projects, the end can’t be see from the beginning, so projects are done on a T & M basis. Complications from the real world kick in and the hours start mounting. It’s only natural.
  • Lack of project scope – When a consultant is getting paid by the hour, the natural tendency is not to care about total project cost or the end goal. We will do what you ask us to. This always leads to budget overrun.
  • More Extravagant Solutions Proposed – If your project is done on T & M, the solutions will be larger and more costly than you desire simply because the contractor will need more time to implement the solution.
  • Lack of Innovation – When your contractor is being paid by the hour, there is no incentive to automate tasks or find creative solutions.
  • Hesitation in making additional contact – Let’s face it, we often hold back or hesitate before sending an email or calling because we are afraid of the bill that follows.

How Fixed Costs Change Things

None of these lead to a healthy working relationship. Let’s see how fixed costs change this working dynamic.

Budget overrun is eliminated because the work in the scope of the project is a fixed cost. Whether the project takes us 20 hours or 2000 you pay the same amount. Undercharging is our problem, not yours.

In order to give an accurate bid, we will need to have a well defined project scope. A well defined scope forces both parties to talk about the end goals, project values and outcomes desired. Having these well defined at the start of a project always leads to client satisfaction. This also prevents overly extravagant proposals and replaces them with common sense solutions.

Fixed costs promote a partnership between the contractor and client. With a well defined scope and cost, a level of trust develops between the parties because even if the project takes twice as many hours to complete, it will cost the same. There will not be tension if you believe that we are not as efficient as we should be and think that we are “milking the clock.”

Finally, additional phone and email contact will be part of the contract. We welcome you to share your thoughts and concerns about the project without hesitation.

What if we can’t see the end from the beginning?

In many projects, I have looked back and said, “I wouldn’t imagine that the solution would look like this.” It is impossible to quote a fixed cost for the entire project when you can’t see what the end looks like from the beginning. Unfortunately, many projects switch to time and materials at this point.

But, let’s back up for a minute. We can definitely break up a project into sections that we could see the end from the beginning and quote each of those as fixed cost projects. For example, the first stage of a project could be simply to come up with 3 or 4 concepts that could solve the problem at hand. From there we could decide on one and develop if further.

I have found that most projects can be broken into the following stages; concepting, preliminary design, detailed design, final design and implementation. In each stage a clear scope and goal can be set and a fixed cost can be quoted.

Conclusions

Selecting a consultant can be a very challenging endeavor. It takes a leap of faith to hire an expert who may or may not be able to help you achieve your goals. Using the tips above will help make that leap smaller and give you confidence that you made the right decision.

Corey Rasmussen

Corey is the Managing Director of the Mentored Engineer and owner of Rasmussen Designs. He received his BSME from Baylor University and holds a professional engineering license in North Carolina and Texas. He has been an engineer since 2002 with extensive experience in engineering design, fabrication and troubleshooting. He specializes in mobile equipment, hydraulic systems and machine design. He has two patents

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