How to Be the Hardware Engineer at a Startup

For those who prefer the smell of solder smoke to lines of code then you may be a hardware engineer. What you should consider is how to land a job at a startup, how to work fast, be a team player, keep an open mind, and be organized. Joining a startup will be the greatest challenge of your career. You can do it! Be a hardware engineer at a startup and change the world.

Build Your Skills and Showcase Them

As a hardware engineer your job is to apply known physics to make a machine that solves a problem. Start to make stuff as soon as you can. If you’re in high school or younger start making stuff today.

As Hackaday readers we have many interests and numerous projects we could get involved in. Practice your focus, pick one and bring it through to completion. Get yourself in the habit of completing what you start.

At a startup you will need to be able to translate an idea into a working solution. Having a portfolio of completed projects shows that you are the problem solver.

Build your website and online footprint. I’ve found that showcasing completed projects on my personal website has been an invaluable resource for generating opportunities. Use your website to document and show off your portfolio. Organize content so that it is simple and easy to navigate. Many times this will come in handy when you are working on other projects and need to revisit how you did something in the past. But it goes far beyond that. This gives others a chance to see what you are passionate about, and gives them a way to get in contact with you.

Additional examples of personal websites; Tony Kim, Jennifer Estrada, Matt Beane. Similarly, faculty websites can also serve as excellent examples including this one by Prof. Ron Walsworth.

Showcase your work on your website, this will generate opportunity and collaborations.
Showcase your work on your website, this will generate opportunity and collaborations.

To keep an eye on who is looking at you add a tracker such as Google analytics. This will help you notice when your work is showcased on a website. Take the time to participate in the conversations that spring up when your work is featured. Being part of the hardware community will help increase the number of opportunities open to you.

Publish everything you can. Some of our projects belong on Hackaday, in IEEENature, or QST magazine. Be sure to publish — not matter the prestige of the website or publication — so that the rest of humankind can benefit from what you’ve done and you can join the dialog that is technological development. Startups like to hire those who are active in their field.

It does not matter what school you went to. If you have a portfolio of work that is shared online/published you will generate opportunities.

How to Get a Job with a Startup

With your skills well showcased you now have the credibility to solve problems, suggest solutions, provide examples showcased on your own website. This will enable you to seize the opportunity when it arises. Three examples from my career:

  1. About four years ago I was invited to a meeting with Jonathan Rothberg. He wanted to get a new startup off the ground. I stubbed out a three-step plan to develop the prototype in an incremental fashion with mechanical scanners, switched array elements, and finally a fully digital array. I was offered the job on the spot to make it happen. My suggested path forward carried a great deal of weight because I had built numerous scanned sensors, array based sensors, and all of this was well documented on my website. Since then Butterfly Network raised $100M and will be featured at the World Economic Forum in Davos this January.
  2. Over the years I occasionally discussed RF circuit and analog design issues with a research faculty member friend of mine. I would send specific design examples as links to radios that I had scratch-built from my website. This relationship resulted in me being a part of the founding of Hyperfine Research.
  3. I received an e-mail from an MIT professor, David Mindell, who had experience in deep sea exploration and wanted to try some very unconventional things with microwave devices. David found me thanks to my website. We had a meeting on my boat, stubbed out ideas, created a plan. Over e-mail we quickly designed a prototype, built it, and got it up and running in my garage, resulting in the founding of Humatics.

Tips:

  • Grow your network through the work you’ve done, your colleagues, and by attending professional organizations.
  • Always reply to faculty members.
  • Use LinkedIn to check credibility of those reaching out to you. Sometimes it maybe someone well known outside of your technical community. Other times it maybe someone who has no credibility of their own and more research should be done before deciding to commit time to the inquiry.
  • I wouldn’t be overly concerned about intellectual property when suggesting solutions. In other words: if IP concerns cause you to keep your mouth shut you may lose your chance.
  • Have fun! It’s great fun to think about solving problems and how you would do it.
  • There will be many problems to solve over your lifetime, do not worry that you missed an opportunity with one particular technology, there will be many more coming along.

Learn to Go Fast

Once you become a member of a startup, arriving in first place and being the first product offering of that type is what counts. You’re in a race, for this reason you must learn techniques to work faster than ever before. These are some of the methods I use to execute fast:

  • Meetings are for decision-making. Try it rather than debate or philosophize for hours on end. With limited resources and time, prioritize acting on the lowest hanging fruit with the highest payoff.
  • Never leave work on the table. If you need to spend another hour or two to get the job done then do it before you go home.
  • Make a plan. Layout the work plan with your team then have a look at the date at which you must reach.
  • Think about what could be done in parallel. Many tasks can be kicked off with back-of-envelope calculations or experience of someone who has done it before. Most of the time all you need is a ‘ball park’ spec to get the job moving, hard specs will converge over time.
  • Seek action.

Be a Team Player

Working at a startup is not all fun and games. Our worst daemons like to come out in this high-pressure environment. A few suggestions on being a team player no matter what happens:

  • Once your work is complete look for the highest priority task that is not getting done and take it on if it aligns well-enough with your skill set.
  • We all know about Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and others. Unfortunately you are not either of these people so you cannot treat your co-works like Steve Jobs famously did on occasion. Be nice and be kind as much as possible. If you screw up and are not nice then you need to be able to apologize quickly. Work on your soft skills.
  • The reason why you have a team is because you do not have all of the answers. Be open-minded, listen to your colleagues, do not be a know-it-all. It’s much faster to learn from someone who has done it before than re-inventing the wheel.
  • To keep the team moving, always place priority on completing tasks that are blockers for other team members or subcontractors. The fastest path to success lies in keeping the entire organization and its subcontractors executing. You are one, they are many.

Working With Multi-Disciplinary Teams

Work within a multi-disciplinary team. You may find yourself working with a diverse team where you must rely on each others’ expertise in very niche areas. It’s a great opportunity to learn new things on a daily basis but you likely will be the only one who knows what you know. Do not expect to be mentored. There will be errors in translation, understanding, explaining yourself to those who are not familiar with your specialty. Hang in there and be patient when working in a multi-disciplinary team.

There will be gaps in any team. Somebody must jump in to fill the gaps and oftentimes this will be you! Do not worry, you would be surprised what can be learned by picking up a textbook or reading a few IEEE journals. You will want to figure out what needs to be done enough to move the project along until seasoned veterans can be hired-in. As soon as you do hire an expert to fill the gap then quickly hand the reins over. Help the expert hit the round running.

For example, I’m most well-known for developing short-range radar devices but for my first startup I helped to develop medical ultrasound imaging technology.

Keep an Open Mind About Your Technology

As a strategy you want to continuously check your assumptions about the product. When the market reality does not agree with your product then its time for change. This is where you must be a team player, open your mind, get the productive discussion going, find quantifiable market data to guide decisions, fall in line with the decision. This moment has happened at two of the three startups that I’ve been involved in.

Be Organized

Organize yourself first and foremost. Key is to pick something simple, light weight, and stick to it. I prefer GTD.

Form your team plan starting with the expected outcome. Work backwards from some high level goal, such as an exhibit at the consumer electronics show, an investor demo, or etc. Together with the team sort-out who own the task and let that person pick his/her delivery date.

For project coordination, and tracking progress I prefer to use BPR charts developed by CEO of Ford Motor Co. Allan Mullaly. This is the guy that brought Ford back from the brink without a government bailout.

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 10.57.53 PM

Sync-up the team with weekly meetings where discussion can take place on the biggest issue at that time.

Everyone should write a daily e-mail update and circulate this among the team members. Yes, it is tedious but it does cause significantly fewer meetings because you can read about what each person has done the prior day. It also naturally synchronizes team members located at remote sites which is increasingly more common with startups.

Be careful not to get sucked into overly complicated methods of team organization, these can be huge time sinks. Many methods used to organize software teams are not applicable to hardware teams. Go with what works for you.

If you are organized it should be easy to work with off-site employees and contractors. Key is to establish a work plan with clear deliverables and dates. Offsite people can read your daily e-mails and sync up at weekly meetings, so collaboration will happen. Use a reliable screen share and conference service package.

Use some sort of file sharing like dropbox. I know many people like git, but I’ve found that for multi-disciplinary hardware teams git is not embraced by all.

Congratulations, You’ve Changed the World

Try your luck at a startup. Open your mind, grow, while also working faster than you have ever before. Be the hardware engineer at a startup. The adventure is the reward. But if you have a truly good idea, backed by a talented team, your work can change the world.

Learn More

Author Bio: Gregory L. Charvat, Ph.D, is CTO of Humatics, author of Small and Short-Range Radar Systems, co-founder of Hyperfine Research Inc. and Butterfly Network Inc. (both at 4catalyzer), editor of the book series Modern and Practical Approaches to Electrical Engineering, guest commentator on CNN, CBS, Sky News, and others. As visiting research scientist at MIT Media Lab he created the Time of Flight Microwave Camera. As technical staff at MIT Lincoln Laboratory he created a through-wall radar imaging system that won best paper at the 2010 MSS Tri-Services Radar Symposium and is an MIT Office of the Provost 2011 research highlight. Greg has taught short radar courses at MIT, where his Build a Small Radar course was the top-ranked MIT professional education course in 2011 and has become widely adopted by other universities, laboratories, and private organizations.

32 thoughts on “How to Be the Hardware Engineer at a Startup

    1. You can get a free github page when using a static site generator like Jekyll or Pelican. More interview capital payoff to have my own website than to link to HaD.

      HaD is better for sharing on the internet though. And of course the Hackaday Prize.

    1. I mostly write my own software. Why not? Basic skills go far. I think of myself mostly as “embedded engineer” handling hardware or software as necessary. Maybe I’m missing some specialization from one or the other camp, but I haven’t needed it too badly yet.

      1. As an embedded software engineer of 20+ years, being able to see ‘the other side’ is a (possibly the most) invaluable tool. Sure, I could do my own digital circuits, VHDL, PCB design etc, but the real use is being able to talk on a level playing field to the guys whose job that is – to debug problems and come up with real system solutions rather than software band-aids.


  1. Hi!

    Excellent Article!

    I am looking for a Talented and (very importantly) Imaginative Hardware Engineer for my startup – Mooshic Labs – http://www.mooshic.com

    I am looking for a full-time talent to work out of our office in Hyderabad, India but it’s been quite a few months and I haven’t yet found the right person.

    Hence, am now open to distributed working also. Eg. One way in which we could engage is that I could start setting up a team of junior engineers in my office and the Hardware co-founder could guide them over Skype if required?

    Hope this post will help in finding the right person. I have fantastic yet practical b2c product ideas and need help in getting them off the ground! :)

    Best Regards,

    Joginder

  2. There’s lots of good info here, really, and some of it is in sync with my own smaller-scale experience doing some custom work (software and hardware) for some small endeavours and startups, but the good doctor is much too coy about step 0 of his steps to success: get a PhD and log some hours at MIT. (not to mention having the smarts and maturity to complete the doctorate). Frankly I don’t think that many of us lesser mortals would get many leads from having a project website like his, sans the academic achievements, published work, and startup

    Not being as well-endowed academically, I’ve resorted to a few other ways to find things to work on. One thing that has yielded a few interesting projects – occasionally browse job boards like Craigslist for intriguing listings that seem to hit on your area. Send a quick response with just enough to indicate you know what you’re talking about. For example, there was an ad asking for someone to write something in language X to do Y. I wrote back saying it didn’t make much sense using X for Y; I’d probably go for Z…. I got a meeting from that, and an interesting gig. Yes you’ll run across alot of punters, but they tend to reveal themselves in the first few emails or that first meeting.

    These aren’t always lucrative and not all undertakings end up in an IPO, but I’ve turned a few bucks and gained some great experience that builds my confidence to keep looking for challenges.

  3. > if IP concerns cause you to keep your mouth shut you may lose your chance.

    Oh man I’ve met so many people who want you to be interested in their amazing and awesome idea “But I can’t tell you much, it’s gonna be big!” annnnd now I’m no longer interested! It’s gone, poof.

  4. I tried that with my friend once, and we were tricked. The lock to the “office” door was changed, and We couldn’t retrieve our tools/instruments. We had to go back a few months later (when we had known they have an important meeting (most likely with investors)) to get back our properties.

    So be very careful before join to a startup!

  5. Maybe he should have written a bit more about the part how being at MIT helps. Any regular person with such a shitty website would have never ever gotten that much opportunity. What he writes is certainly valid, but equally certainly not the most significant source for his success.

  6. Kinda feel lucky that i have a job in a bigger company for almost 10 years now.
    We would not get anything done if we were reading and writing reports about what everyone has done every day. We once had a manager that wanted us to have weekly meetings where everyone would join in and discuss what we did for the week, but the only thing we got out of it was less productivity, because we lost >4 hours of work per week from every engineer that was at these meetings. The idea (and the manager) were kicked pretty fast. Of course we do have meetings, but they are not on a fixed schedule and focused to discuss specific projects, features or problems and only involve people who are actually affected or involved, and not use up ressources of the rest of team.

  7. I love the linked Steve Jobs quotes, especially this:
    “”Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?” he asked. When the team answered, Jobs replied, “Then why the fuck doesn’t it do that?””

    I’d hate working for the guy, but I gotta admit I laughed and nodded.

  8. The number one requirement to be considered for a startup is age or lack of it. I did not believe this until I reached my late 40’s. I’m now 60. I have never stopped being extremely creative but I find it is now a punishable offense. It used to be wonderful to come up with a concept, fight for it, design it, get it in production, destroy the competition, put the patent on the wall and move on to the next one. Now I’m the old man being berated for new ideas by the very same management that thinks it takes an ever smaller “box” to turn around their dismal performance. The age keeps me from being considered at any startup and I have tried. I was recognized for my technical skills by the first grade and was an engineer at 18. Only now am I beginning to see some of the things I wanted to do or predicted over 30 years ago. I went the route of creating my own product that by all accounts would have been a fantastic spring board to run my own startup but the fickle economy, 9/11. and my lack of low morals killed my ability to get capitol.

    1. Also an older guy, but I do my best to stay creative. If the paid work I’m doing isn’t stimulating enough, I do personal or side projects that are.

      One thing that comes with age: maturity (well, mostly). I’ve learned to better keep my cool and to power through the boring or draggy parts of work. I’ve also learned that being able to “social-engineer” at work to get my way or to solve issues is also sometimes creative and stimulating. ;-)

      Keep on creating.

  9. Curious…

    If you have a PHD, why aren’t you teaching in academia? Why even bother with start ups at all?

    How about, learn to give vague advice, but say it with confidence.

    What about:

    You have limited energy, as a result decide where and on what you want to spend it. Is your company a power supply company? No? Then maybe it’s better to buy (including hiring a subject matter expert to design one) vs make one yourself instead of going through the pains of learning how to do it through several iterations.

    Network as much as possible.

    Good luck.

  10. If anyone is looking for a job in Hardware engineering at a startup please message me! Stasis Labs is a Los Angeles based medical device startup company building connected health monitoring systems for hospitals in the emerging world. We are a small team looking to add a passionate, independent, and driven full-time employee to the team. Strong experience in circuit design, embedded system programming, and a willingness to learn is essential. Email me at contact@stasislabs.com.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.