Breaking away from the corporate world and being a consultant for a firm means total freedom, completely getting away from the corporate bureaucracy, and lots more money. Right?
Those are some† reasons Design News readers who responded to our annual Career Survey think they will work for clients under the umbrella of a consulting firm rather than one employer. Forty-five percent of responding engineers think engineers will work for engineering service firms 10 years from now, while 16% say engineers will be in consulting firms.
Kevin Johnson broke out, but he says consulting's grass is not always greener. Once upon a time, he was a nine-to-five mechanical engineer working on electromechanical devices related to digital color copiers at Eastman Kodak in Rochester, NY. After his sixth year there, Kodak pulled the funding from the project he was working on.
Johnson looked for a job within Kodak and found it doing internal product design and development consulting for the company. By what Johnson calls a stroke of luck, a vendor referred Johnson to Design Continuum, a Boston-based consulting firm with offices in Milan and San Francisco.
Johnson's experience at Kodak made him feel like another brick in the wall. "I remember there was a gate we had to enter in the morning, and I always felt like a head of cattle," he says. "Whether you're a success or failure in a large company like that, with so many people the bottom line is that your contribution is minimal. You are a small voice."
In contrast, Design Continuum, where Johnson is director of engineering, doesn't make its employees choose between technical and management career tracks. "The environment is for those who love doing project-level work but want to be in a position to influence things," he says. "At Kodak, there might have been 15 levels of hierarchy between me and the CEO, and my ability to influence what was going on was limited. Design Continuum emphasizes flatness in its management structure."
That doesn't mean there is no room for growth. "On our senior level, there are principals, client-facing engineers who have the ability to affect a large part of our business," he adds. "You start as a part of the general work force, and then you get promoted to a principal." After that, he adds, there are group leaders, then the president and COO.
So are there new challenges in consulting engineering? Absolutely, Johnson says. "You never feel like you're coasting," he adds. "You are always humbled by the next project, client, and technology that comes through the door."
More money? Not really. "If people are getting into consulting for the money, they should reevaluate, although it is solid pay," he says. "Big companies have big pocketbooks, and can afford to bankroll really talented people."
Freedom? "Freedom comes when you are not beholden to others, and in consulting, you are totally beholden to your clients. It's a service industry," Johnson says. And as for bureaucracy, Johnson thinks there is no escape. "Whenever people are not exposed to every decision made, they think there's bureaucracy. It's impossible to involve everyone in every decision all of the time."
The clients Design Continuum works with who are most successful using the consulting firm shield the consultants from their corporate bureaucracy. "We relay to clients that a lot of corporate red tape is not going to get the job done," he says.
Design Continuum's Boston office has 86 employees, 25 of whom are engineers. Three engineers are electrical and the rest are mechanical. Projects tend to last anywhere from two to six months to one to two years, depending on the process, Johnson says.
Tools of the trade. Design Continuum recently launched a web-based client management software, an extranet which the company is excited about, Johnson says, since "communication is often the hurdle, not technology." For CAD, the company uses software including Pro/ENGINEER from Parametric Technology Corp., AutoCAD, and Vellum Solids from Ashlar Inc. Design Continuum also is a heavy user of the Internet and e-mail.
The workload is cyclical, Johnson adds. "We get a lot slower around vacation times. The challenge is smoothing out business coming into the company, so there are no peaks and valleys."
The atmosphere at Design Continuum is a team one. "We have an exceptionally creative staff that works in a multidisciplinary environment," he says. "They work together as part of the process. It's important to have an open mind."
What else do Design Continuum engineers have to have? The "spark." "We say that a lot around here, that somebody 'gets it'," Johnson says. "'When you have to over explain something, it's a problem because we are constantly communicating with clients. We like to have people who are engineers in life, not just work, who are eternally curious and look at everything for the opportunity for creative problem solving."
Testing the waters. Kevin Johnson isn't the only one who felt stifled at a large company. Al Stephan worked for Fluke, an Everett, WA-based test and measurement company, until he decided he needed to "go off and test myself. I believed that people within the company were holding me back, so I decided to see if it were true."
Stephan founded Stratos Product Development and Design LLC (Seattle, WA) 12 years ago, and works on about five projects at a time with his staff of approximately 48 engineers. The projects include electromechanical design, circuit board development, and machine redesign. Stratos' clients range from major corporations to venture capital groups. "We're working with both the large guys and emerging innovation," he says.
Stratos' tools of the trade include Pro/ENGINEER and I-DEAS from SDRC on the mechanical design side and Alias from Alias/Wavefront on the industrial side. The company is also a heavy user of the Internet, both in development of technology and client problem-solving, Stephan says.
Often, a company will ask Stratos to take total responsibility for the introduction of big new products, including setting up production environments. "That's a lot of responsibility," Stephan says.
Ups and downs. Stephan tries to provide his employees with the benefits of a big company, since many engineers have come to Stratos from one. The company provides full medical and dental, stock options in distribution deals, and disability and life insurance. He also provides his employees with another benefit. "We have a condo in Hawaii that they can use," Stephan says.
Another perk is the flexible working hours, Stephan adds, which fits into readers' perception of consultants having freedom. Stratos employees come in between 7:30 and 9 a.m. "When they leave is up to them. They have their own delivery schedules worked out with customers, and know their responsibilities."
New challenges are definitely a big part of the job for engineering consulting firm employees. "The benefits are education," Stephan points out. "We work on a new type of technology every nine months or so, which is why we want people to come in trained in manufacturing technology."
However, the challenges are not all within new technology. "The success of a consulting engineer is based on how good a listener he is, and his ability to synthesize new ideas," Stephan adds.
An engineer's downfall in a consulting firm can come from within. "You don't survive in our kind of world if you have a lot of fears," Stephan says. "You have to be confident about yourself. We take on unique projects, where there's not a clear pathway to create success."
Escaping bureaucracy is impossible, Stephan says. "All you're doing is transferring from the bureaucracy you understand to one you don't, a whole new level to deal with," he adds. "You have to modify yourself to the client, or you're going to fail."
So why do so many people want to work in consulting firms? Stephan agrees with Johnson on the reason. "The grass is always greener," Stephan says. "But it's all work. In consulting, you have to take a lot more personal responsibility for yourself and your success."
Stratos stays consistently busy. "In the summer, when engineers are on vacation at our clients' companies, we get a rush," Stephan says. However, the company does not tend to take on rush jobs. "Most of the organizations we work with keep us informed on projects they want us to work on in the future," Stephan notes.
Stephan thinks the media has overblown an increase in outsourcing. "People are trying to stabilize work environments and create an environment where employees feel safe," he says. "However, often corporations do not want to send projects out of house, because of the loss of control."
Typical in the consulting world, Stratos does not advertise, but gets new business from word-of-mouth recommendations. "As a consultant, you're selling someone on futures," Stephan says.
Overall, Stratos provides a challenging work environment for its employees, summarizes Stephan. "My company operates on the premise of if you are a hot dog right now, would you like to find out how good you really are?"