I recall an incident very early in my career, fresh out of college, that still makes me laugh. We needed a new high-power microscope for the lab and spent weeks scouring the market and reviewing specs carefully. The perfect choice wasn’t obvious, but everybody desperately wanted to avoid the ‘Cheap-O-Matic’ brand based on past experience. A diligent, optimistic senior engineer took the opportunity to teach our group how to run a Pugh Analysis focused on factors including price, reliability, warranty duration, and magnification factor. We finished the evaluation and paused to scratch our heads. The dreaded Cheap-O-Matic brand was identified as the winner. We fiddled with the weighting and tried again. Cheap-O was consistently the champ and ultimately won the purchase order.

Two teammates at a desk discussing options.

Within weeks, the Cheap-O-Matic microscope was broken. We spent hours on the phone with tech support. Ordered replacement parts. Months later, it broke again. Performance never fully matched the specs. We experienced weird lighting issues, intermittent failures with no obvious solutions. Many curses and weeks of productivity were lost over the lemon-of-the-lab and years later it was abandoned and replaced.

What went wrong?

We had carefully gathered data, asked questions, and emphasized, at least generally, the right metrics. But there was no room for qualitative evaluation. We missed the importance of  experience, brand reputation, used incorrect proxies for quality (warranty duration), and had over-stressed the significance of price.

In searching for the right consulting partner, it’s tempting as an entrepreneur or engineer to blindly trust the numbers. We take comfort in metrics, statistics, error bars, and a tidy table of values that provides an answer. Don’t undervalue or ignore the qualitative components of a business relationship, and make sure your proxy values are a correct indicator of the truth you seek. Choosing the right engineering partner isn’t a simple task of rapid-fire Q&A to fill in a decision matrix. It’s about making a long-term match that will accelerate your product development process.

Choosing the right engineering partner isn’t a simple task of rapid-fire Q&A to fill in a decision matrix. It’s about making a long-term match that will accelerate your product development process.

While choosing the right partner can certainly make the difference between the extremes of failure and success, more often it makes a more subtle differentiation between a product that is a solid B-average and one that is a smashing home run. Some engineering firms may operate and iterate very well within tightly defined requirements and can carefully cut product features and product quality to hold fast to a target COGS. However, if you are looking to inspire and excite with your product, then you and your engineering partner must have the courage and flexibility to re-define requirements, question assumptions, and consider alternative architectures within a completely different solution space.

In today’s highly competitive world, products in the Consumer, Industrial, and even Medical Device markets need more than just robust engineering capabilities to guarantee success.  Whether you’re still in the stages of early development or seeking a course correction from the path already traveled, it is imperative to ask the kinds of questions that will bring the right players to the game.

So—what are the right questions? In a nutshell, you want a partner who can cover the multi-dimensional space of product development (depth, breadth, and duration), can apply systems-level thinking (discipline integration, risk and knowledge gap management), and will mesh with your team. You must ask serious, hard questions and receive open honest answers.

Question #1: Can they cover the breadth of technical disciplines you need and tie it all together?

If you choose a partner who is narrowly focused in a small subset of disciplines, it will be critical for you to act as the systems integrator or architect. You may choose to do this deliberately, but systems-level requirements, product-level compliance and safety, functional behavior, and interfaces must be managed across critical disciplines and subsystems. Test, software quality assurance, security, validation, and manufacturing scale-up (new product introduction) and other cross-functional disciplines should be integrated as seamlessly as possible.  In an ideal world, your partner has project leadership with systems thinking and general systems engineering experience. The benefits of this include higher speed development, vastly improved interface and integration management, risk reduction in scale-up, and improvement in overall product quality. It is absolutely acceptable if your partner cannot cover every topic, especially those that are part of your unique core capabilities, but they should cover MOST, and have connections and be able to quickly spool up additional technical expertise as needed with a systems-oriented view.

Question #2: Can they cover the depth of technical expertise you need?

Your engineering partner should have a deep bench in a few relevant areas of specialization. It’s likely your product will need development support in several challenging topics such as machine learning, fluidics, materials science, RF design, AI, or miniaturization. Years of experience and proven success can demonstrate this level of expertise in specific topics. How many products have they helped build with this niche feature? If it’s a new technology (neural networking, 5G, etc.) do they have a track record of bringing new technologies to the market?  (i.e. were they on the cutting edge of BLE when it became available?) Note that honesty here is good—you don’t want a partner claiming to be an expert in ‘everything’ and leading you down the wrong path.

Question #3: Do they think about your entire product lifecycle (including business needs)?

Where are you in your product development journey? Are you passionately driving your startup to the ends of the earth with nothing more than a back-of-a-napkin sketch? Perhaps you are the lead Product Manager at a large company, and your manufacturing process has run off the rails and requires constant firefighting. Either way, your partner needs to align with your business needs, and your current position on the product development timeline to move your product forward through mass production. This means supporting product development not just cradle-to-grave, but thinking about next-generation features, complementary products in your ecosystem, product disposal, and supply chain longevity. A true partner seeks to understand your business strategy in order to align the design of your products with this in a meaningful way. To maximize the value in this type of relationship, you must be willing to share data and insights that paint a bigger picture of how the product fits into your long-term strategic plans. This can enable a paradigm shift in your product ecosystem (i.e. moving from cloud-based services to licensing or disposal to reusable), or the ability to build a truly groundbreaking product with new technology.

Question #4: Are they managing risk like a Labrador Retriever or a squirrel?

Does your partner find risks at the last minute, attempt to bury risks, hide risks, or unknowingly ‘forget’ about risks? (Hint: this is bad.) Don’t take on a ‘risk-squirrel’ of a partner—look for the features of a determined, reliable partner in this department.  When it comes to risk, you want a ‘risk-retriever’ of a team who seeks it out through thick and thin, brings it back, drops it at your feet, and is ready to take on the next challenge with a big sloppy smile.

In all seriousness, managing the unknowns, risks, and knowledge gaps in the world of product development are crucial to success. Your partner should focus on learning the right things at the right time. They need to openly admit when they don’t have all the answers, but seek to find them with an appropriate level of prioritization.

A good partner should actively manage risk in a quantitative way,  revisit the list of unknowns frequently, and handle the risks with transparency and partnership. Risk management is a tireless, unending effort that will remain part of product development from beginning to end.

Question #5: Are they wearing YOUR hat?

Will YOUR company, YOUR product, and YOUR project be the true focus? Is this the focus of their company, or are you asking for services that are secondary to their main business (perhaps selling software or a standard product)? Will you have a dedicated program manager and technical leads for the duration of your project? Will you have engineers with very specific and relevant experience working on your team? Will they (literally) move their desks and create lab space to efficiently support your development effort? How many other projects and initiatives must your team juggle while simultaneously running your project? You certainly want and need your product development effort to be treated with a world-class level of focus, effort, and respect, even if you are the smallest client.

Engineers smiling and working on electronic components at a workbench.

Question #6: Do you go together like biscuits & gravy?

You will be spending many, many hours with this company, specifically the project team and project leadership. Meetings at least weekly, perhaps daily over months and years. Hundreds, maybe thousands of messages and emails. Do you like them? If you locked yourself in a lab with them for a week would you emerge a better person, or would you run for the hills?

This is by far the most difficult question to answer in a quantifiable way, and one of the most important. Plenty of research and academic articles, have attempted to quantify the benefits of comradery, shared purpose, even shared hardship and shared laughter. Without question, good team chemistry and diversity are exceedingly important to the ultimate success of a project.

It may take a number of meetings before you start to have those magical feelings of mutual respect and trust. A partner team that is uniquely different from yours may also feel like it slows the initial bonding process, but with internal, external, organizational, and worldview diversity, the odds of long-term project success are greatly increased.

To answer this question, you may need to step further away from your weighted decision matrix.  A good partner will challenge you, elevate your vision, and walk the path of product development expertise with you. Finding your ideal outsourcing partner will take an investment of both energy and time, but with a strongly shared vision and unique project culture, your product will ultimately benefit.

Question #7: Do they have a business license? …Don’t forget the basics!

Please don’t take my entertaining anecdotes as a dismissal of the basics. Ask these questions of potential partners first, and make sure [most] of the boxes are checked.

  • How many years have they been in business?
  • What is their annual revenue?
  • How many employees do they have?  Where are their offices located?
  • Ask to hear about existing and past clients. Ask for a few relevant case studies. (Note: How big were these clients in relation to your company? Another note: Can you see your company as part of this portfolio?)
  • Ask for examples of success and failure in past projects.
  • What conditions lead to the best outcome in their work with clients like you?
  • Do they have the number of resources available to meet my timeline?

Once you’ve screened potential partner firms, don’t forget to continue asking these types of questions through the bidding and contracting process:

  • Does the contract type and structure support your product development needs?
  • Has risk been addressed?
  • Has the schedule and cadence been covered?

This is a concise, high-level list of basics. Lots of great blog posts and guides out there can offer more comprehensive lists of questions like these.

Now Go Find That Partner

Once you’ve established the need for accelerating development or overcoming multidisciplinary challenges in your product lifecycle, you need to make sure you’re asking the right kinds of questions to find a well-suited engineering development partner.

DO ask the basics, also ensure you understand partner when it comes to:

  1. Technical depth and breadth
  2. Systems-level thinking (product lifecycle, risk)
  3. Qualitative factors (client-focus, compatibility)

Once you find a partner who checks all the boxes, take that chemistry and momentum and run with it. Time is a valuable resource, and being first to market, launching in time for holiday sales with a unique feature set, or releasing a paradigm-shifting product into the industrial world will all benefit from an efficient team focused on your success.