There are a few common lessons that get repeated by anyone who takes on the task of assembling a few hundred PCBs, but there are also unique insights to be had. [DominoTree] shared his takeaways after making a couple hundred electronic badges for DEFCON 26 (that’s the one before the one that just wrapped up, if anyone’s keeping track.) [DominoTree] assembled over 200 Telephreak badges and by the end of it he had quite a list of improvements he wished he had made during the design phase.
Some tips are clearly sensible, such as adding proper debug and programming interfaces, or baking an efficient test cycle into the firmware. Others are not quite so obvious, for example “add a few holes to your board.” Holes can be useful in unexpected ways and cost essentially zero. Even if the board isn’t going to be mounted to anything, a few holes can provide a way to attach jigs or other hardware like test fixtures.
Other advice is more generic but no less important, as with “eliminate as many steps as possible.” Almost anything adds up to a significant chunk of time when repeated hundreds of times. To the basement hacker, something such as pre-cut and pre-tinned wires might seem like a shameful indulgence. But cutting, stripping, tinning, then hand-soldering a wire adds up to significant time and effort by iteration number four hundred (that’s two power wires per badge) even if one isn’t staring down a looming deadline.
Last time in Life on Contract, I discussed ways to figure out a starting point on how much to charge for your services. However, sometimes you and a client may wish to work together but for some reason they cannot (or do not wish to) pay what you have decided to charge. If you are inexperienced, it can be tempting to assume you have overpriced yourself and discount down to what they are willing to pay. But if your price is a number you have chosen for reasons you can explain, dropping it is not something you should do unless you have thought about it carefully.
Instead of just agreeing to do the same work but for less money, it is often possible to offer a lower overall cost without cheapening the value of your work. I’ll share a process I use to find opportunities to make this happen.
It Should be Win-Win, Not Hard Sell
The best case scenario is a client wants your service, your cost is within their budget, and everyone agrees to work together. Tragically, the process isn’t always that smooth. If cost is an issue, the alternative to lowering your price is to fine-tune what you provide to better fit the actual needs. To do that, you will need two things:
A detailed understanding of your own time and costs for the work.
Knowledge of what things your client considers most important.
If you’re comfortable with the technical side of becoming a consultant or contractor but are unsure what to charge for your services, you’re not alone. “How much do I charge?” is a tough question, made even tougher by the fact that discussing money can be awkward, and at times virtually taboo.
As a result it’s not uncommon for the issue to get put off because it’s outside one’s comfort zone. Technical people in particular tend to suffer from an “if you build it, they will come” mentality; we get the technical side of things all figured out and just sort of assume that the rest — customers, money, and so forth — will fall into place afterward. If you’re lucky, it will! But it’s better to do some planning.
The short and simple answer of how much to charge is a mix of “it depends” and “whatever the market bears” but of course, that’s incredibly unhelpful all by itself. It’s time to make the whole process of getting started a bit less opaque.
A stubborn determination to solve my own problems has given me plenty of opportunity to make mistakes and commit inefficiencies over the years; I’ve ended up with a process that works for me, but I also happen to think it is fairly generally applicable. Hopefully, sharing the lessons I’ve learned will help make your own process of figuring out what to charge easier, or at least make the inevitable blunders less costly.
What’s better than a cool build? A cool build with valuable advice! Add a few flashy pictures and you have [Martin Raynsford]’s Reuleaux triangle coasters blog post. [Martin Raynsford] wanted to share his advice about the importance of using jigs and we’re sold. He was able to make 100 coasters in a single day and if he’s like us, after number ten, the work gets a little hurried and that is when mistakes are made.
Jig is a broad term when it comes to tooling but essentially, it holds your part in place while you work on it. In this case, a jig was made to hold the coaster pieces while they were glued together. [Martin Raynsford] didn’t need any registration marks on the wood so even the back is clean. If you look closely, the coaster is two parts, the frame and the triangle. Each part is three layers and they cannot separated once the glue dries. If any part doesn’t line up properly, the whole coaster is scrap wood.
I believe higher quality learning happens from sharing failure than from sharing stories of success. If you have set your mind to living on contract, I present this cheat sheet of some of the most simple and effective ways to muck it all up that have surprisingly little or nothing to do with your technical skill, knowledge, or even deliverables.
The previous installment of Life on Contract discussed how one might find clients as an engineering contractor or consultant while also taking a bit of time to pull apart the idea of whether life on contract is appropriate as opposed to, for example, bootstrapping a business instead. Assuming you are set on working as a contractor, let’s talk about what happens after you have found a prospective client (or perhaps more likely: after they have found you.)
WARNING: this article features an utter lack of success tips and tricks. Partly because those can be found in any seminar or business self-help book, but mostly because I do not have a foolproof recipe for success, and cheat codes to unlock easy mode still elude me. But I have witnessed (or committed) and reflected on many excellent ways to fail at contracting; or at the very least succeed in not being invited back.
Just because I won’t be sharing success stories doesn’t mean success has no learning value. Got a success story, or a better way to fail? Tell us about it in the comments!
Meetings can actually be useful. It’s hard to believe, but they can actually save time if done right. While most of us are in a perpetual state of torture by Kevin in marketing holding another three-hour meeting during lunch hours, there are a few of us who know their hidden power when put in the right hands.
Working as a contractor, wasted meetings mean wasted billable hours. Even wasted meeting time is covered in the cost of the contract it runs the risk of giving the client the impression that you’re not as productive as originally thought. Organized, productive meetings show that you know what you’re doing and that the cost of your services as a whole is a good value. Yeah, some meetings suck but they are necessary and should be productive.
A meeting needs three things to be worth the time spent on it.
A well prepared for, simple, and clear agenda.
A time limit.
Something needs to be written down at the end of it.
I’ll start with the third item as it shapes the rest. The point of a meeting is to have something to write down at the end of the meeting. Any meeting that ends up in anything requiring fallible human memory was a waste of everyone’s time. This includes, verbal agreements, handshake agreements, ideating (pronounced idioting), brainstorming, think tanking, and the like.
You sit there, irritation bubbling deep within as minute forty-five of the meeting ticks past on the clock in the corner of the office. Fight or flight is in a contest with your attention span as you struggle to keep an interested look on your face while they drone on. Real work could be done in this time. Maybe if you go to the bathroom you could sort of… fast forward the meeting. Panicked thinking continues for a bit until your awareness snaps back to the babble of words in the room.
“How long will it take you to do this?” the manager asks.
“A couple of days maybe?” You reply in turn. The manager nods and you take your escape. Little do you know that you have failed.
The project swerves out of control. Two days on the dot the manager is there expecting results. How? How did this happen again? It felt right! Two days is all you’d need to do such a simple project. It ended up taking a week.
The next meeting you say two weeks just to be sure. Everyone nods gravely, upset that something would take so long, but the work must be done. Two days later you sheepishly wander into the manager’s office with a completed project. He looks pleased but confused. The next meeting, he insists that you can do it in half the time. You and your fragile pride bowl ahead only to deliver late. The mystery!
This was my life until I started bugging the more experienced around me. I learned a lot from them and I ended up distilling it down into a few rules.
There Is No Other Unit Than Hours
Promise a Range. Give a Deadline.
Why does someone want a time estimate? What are they going to do with this information? When working on a contract job it often feels like sticking a foot in a trap when a time estimate is given. Are they going to hold me to this? What if it goes wrong? After all, we are not fortune tellers. Unless the manager is extremely bad or you show yourself to be extremely lax in your duties, it is unlikely that a time estimate will be used against you.