How to build a hardware tiger team

Anna-Katrina Shedletsky

To design a great product, you need to start by designing a great team. Instrumentalists have worked on, built, and observed hardware teams at companies of all sizes. From all that experience, we’ve learned some important lessons about how to build high-functioning hardware teams.

Whether inside a large company, or as part of a startup, building a new hardware team is about more than just adding hardware engineers — you’ll need software, manufacturing, and operations resources as well.

How big should the team be?

I’ve personally seen hardware teams as small as five to as large as 60 — and even some teams into the hundreds. The general calculus is that the bigger the size, the greater the financial risk and the more difficult it may be to pull together (or hire) the resources you need. Large teams are not as nimble as small ones. On the flipside, while smaller teams can change directions quickly, they may be stretched too thin to push on all necessary areas in parallel.

So what is the “right size”? The most important principle to keep in mind is that team size should correlate to product confidence. Before having full product confidence — proof from the market that the product will be viable — you should fill your team with just enough to cover the core technology of your product in-house. Avoiding premature team expansion will save you money, and buy you more time to build confidence. Where startups will have natural time and budget constraints, larger companies will have constraints determined by the level of financial and business risk that management is willing to take to bring the product to market.

The smallest successful team we’ve seen get a product shipped that met their customers’ needs and succeeded in the market is five. The product included relatively simple hardware and a mobile application.

A more comfortable size that we’ve seen generally work well is starting at around 15 or so, and then growing to approximately 25 as the product approaches readiness.

Who should be on the team?

The key to keeping your small team effective is to stack the deck in your favor by filling it with people with experience in exactly what you need to do. Prior experience in high quality, high volume production, and first-hand engineering/operational know-how will go a long way towards doing more with less.

In the case of the five person team, every single member had significant prior experience, making the super lean team possible. As another example, a friendly hardware company we know has only a single product design engineer. This engineer has previously been through multiple high volume, high quality programs at a large company. He was able design and deliver the mechanical and manufacturing design for an entire new product on his own, with resulting product quality rivaling that of the biggest brands (who might have assigned five product design engineers to develop a similar product).

What are the roles on a hardware team?

There are four broad disciplines on a hardware team: design, technology, operations, and software. Big teams can use many people to cover all the roles within these disciplines. Here’s an example of some of the individual hardware-related roles you might find on a big team:

  • Design:
    • Mechanical Engineer
    • Industrial Designer
    • FEA Engineer
    • Materials Engineer
    • Engineering Program Manager
    • Reliability Test Engineer
  • Technology:
    • Electrical Engineer
    • Antenna/Bluetooth Engineer
    • Camera Engineer
    • Display Engineer
    • Battery Engineer
    • And more…
  • Operations:
    • Test Station Designer
    • Manufacturing Engineer
    • Operations Program Manager
    • Tooling Engineer
    • Quality Engineer
    • Supply Chain Manager
    • Procurement
  • Software:
    • Firmware Engineer
    • Hardware Test Engineer
    • Software Engineer
    • Web Developer
    • And more…

Small teams have no choice but to cover these roles with far fewer people. This means that for most new teams, there will have to be a decision on which roles to cover in-house, and which ones to outsource.

What can I outsource?

First and foremost, make sure you cover roles related to your core technology in-house. Ultimately, your requirements will be unique. There are a few general guidelines that typically ring true (though we’ve seen exceptions):

  • I’m biased (as a former mechanical engineer), but you usually don’t want to outsource the mechanical design. You want at least one person on your team overseeing mechanical engineering and product design. They will own the overall function, reliability, and fit & finish of your product — and likely the physical parts that make up your core technology. They will be empowered to fix issues, and they will be incentivized to do so to prevent long and grueling trips to your factories overseas. This person is often versatile, and can fill in for a broad range of expertise including some operations roles and also lean on vendors when needed.
  • You usually don’t want to outsource roles related to factory relationship management. This person will own the relationships between your company and its vendors, which are critical for program success. Better relationships can sometimes means better quality, price, or service with a vendor. This team member will also own the schedule for getting your product out on time, which is essential for hitting your sales goals.

So what can you outsource? Specialized roles that are not related to your core technology are a good place to start. Some examples of roles that can typically (but not always) be outsourced are:

  • Industrial design. Even if product design is part of the core technology, most of the contribution from the industrial designer is compartmentalized and up front. Moreover, continued industrial design “meddling” can actually reduce the efficiency of your mechanical engineers.
  • Siloed technology engineering roles. These roles, such as battery engineers, display engineers, or camera engineers, are often too specialized to provide ongoing value throughout the entire development process. Even for electrical engineering, it’s sometimes the case that your electrical design is simple enough that you don’t need a dedicated full-time person, and can instead rely on another engineer on your team with sufficient EE experience or contract a resource for a short-term engagement. If you’re building a camera product, you probably need a camera engineer in-house — but maybe not a battery engineer if you can source off-the-shelf parts.

Again, these are not hard and fast rules. In fact, we know of one successful hardware company who realized their core technology was truly only software — so they built their tiger team to reflect that, concentrating staffing decisions to focus on software application design, UX, and UI. They built only a minimal in-house team for the actual manufacturing, and managed to outsource their mechanical engineering.

Your roster will vary

To sum up: keep the team as small as you can, build core technology and differentiating features in-house, and fill the gaps with consultants. Your team structure will vary based on product, complexity, and founding member skill sets. Best of luck on your journey!

Supercharge your tiger team with Instrumental’s powerful assembly line monitoring, failure analysis, and quality control technology. Contact us to learn more.

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