Going Freelance in design and engineering

Tips on going freelance as an engineer

1963 0

Making the transition from employee to going freelance is not as straightforward as most assume. Erin McDermott offers some tips on how engineers can navigate the journey successfully and step into the role of expert leader

If you’re transitioning from engineering employee to independent professional, how do expectations of your performance change? Do you know how to fill the role of an expert leader?

This subject isn’t often meditated upon by new business owners working in product development, so I’d like to offer some points to ponder to those considering going freelance.

I created a type of engineering firm that only has one employee – me.

Yet I still wanted to provide a breadth of offerings in a manner that could scale beyond my personal limits, so I built my business in an unconventional way; it includes a network of other, totally independent professionals.

Some of the pros I added to my network only had academic experience or previously worked in roles where their every action was governed. Eventually, I realised this meant that many of them needed coaching.

While their experience and technical ability were top-notch, things like communication and mindset could still create disastrous pitfalls.


The first conversation I have with prospective subcontractors usually includes two topics: money and the expectation of taking up the role of a leader to our clients.

Money and leadership

Money is the easier conversation. Instead of haggling with my subcontractors in an effort to persuade them to charge less, I often advise them to charge me more – advice they happily take.

When starting off, it’s easy to overlook all the extra expenses for tools, software, advertising, travel and taxes that freelancers cover themselves. I remind them of these costs.

For my company’s sake, I need individuals in my network to be able to survive on their own and not go crawling back to corporate employment.

The tough part of the coaching is always getting across what it means to provide a higher level of service. So you charged me more than you ever received as an employee? Good for you! Now how will your work, your attitude and the deliverables you provide rise to the same level?

Unfortunately, years of being told what to do and how to do it as an employee can hamper a person’s ability to step into the shoes of leadership. So what does providing expert guidance mean to me?

Let’s think about communication first. When my subcontractors communicate data, those deliverables are ultimately meant for engineers and laymen at the client site who are rarely experts in the optical engineering specialties we work in.

The first conversation I have with prospective subcontractors usually includes two topics: money and the expectation of taking up the role of a leader to our clients

Oftentimes, I get reports and data conveyed in a way that even I need help understanding. When that happens, I know that the end audience for sure will not be able to follow along.

Are you using esoteric jargon, without translating into layman-ese? Do your charts and graphs have detailed labels? Are units of measurement made clear? Is all the data included useful for explaining a concept or an important point – or is some of it extraneous noise? Is it clear what points you are making?

Are there any CYA disclaimers you should include? [‘Cover Your Ass’ – The answer is always ‘yes’] Are you pointing to something with a big, exclamatory, inflamed red arrow, making clients erroneously think there is a horrific problem when none exists?

Besides clear communication, another thing I get routinely from larger engineering firms – but need to ask for from independent subcontractors – is comprehensive communication.

If you ran an experiment or a simulation, do you remember what you learned in science class? Are you reporting in a way complete enough that someone else could reproduce your experiment and verify your results?

Mindset is everything

The remaining points, and really everything mentioned already, come down to mindset. Are you acting as a benevolent expert guide or do you look for someone to lead you? Do you leave decisions up to the client, who might paint you into a corner and handcuff your ability to design what you promised?

Or, instead, do you provide recommendations and stipulations based on technological foresight?

How often do you say, “That’s not my job?” Sometimes, it’s necessary to draw the line between your expertise and another discipline, but oftentimes, guidelines can still be provided.

If a prototype arrives from the factory and things aren’t working as expected, how do you react? Hopefully, you have enough experience dealing with factories, especially foreign ones, to know that most of the time, the design is not the problem.

Investigating to the point where you can defend your design is the best course of action, when possible. Any other action can jeopardise your reputation, especially when your clients don’t understand the details of your work.

Sometimes the idea of leadership gets twisted into the mindset of removing all risk and liability from the freelancer. If you include a blanket clause in every contract that says, “By the way, I don’t guarantee any of this will work”, is that something a trusted guide would say?

In short, when making a decision, charging a rate, crafting an email, or editing a report, ask yourself, “What would I expect if I were paying a trusted, toprate engineering firm for this?”

If you can follow through with that, then, congratulations! You’ve brought your work to the level of an expert technical leader.

Get in touch:Erin McDermott

Erin M. McDermott is Director of Optical Engineering at Spire Starter and a digital nomad (read: vagrant).

She travels the world meeting hardware engineers who don’t know that things using light (cameras, LED illumination, LiDAR, laser processes etc) need competent design, optimisation, and tolerancing like the rest of their widget.

Reach her at spirestarter.com or @erinmmcdermott


Leave a comment