Here is some sage advice which is just as appropriate in a tight labor market (the fortunate situation for those of us who are engineers) or in a weak labor market. The advice to those of you who are hiring managers (and HR recruiters, too, for that matter) is: Don’t be afraid to seek out and hire engineers not from your specific niche industry.
This is not to imply that you should lower your standards for key staffing criteria, such as technical competence, depth of experience, niche technical expertise, self-motivation, and communication skills. Au contraire. The point here is to focus on hiring engineers with strong skill sets and cut back on the laser focus on finding someone who has created your exact product. Here’s why:
1. Adjacent product design experience brings new design insights
Bringing in engineers from other industries or product categories can bring new ideas on how to solve problems in your product category. It will likely be a pleasant surprise to find out how the solution to technical problems in another product category can morph into solutions for your product designs. Bringing in outside engineers brings new perspectives.
2. Other industry experience adds new ideas around testing and quality
Quality and testing standards for medical devices, DoD systems, commercial electronics and consumer products can have very different standards for quality and testing. Consider the value of engineers coming out of the DoD world joining a company trying to create rugged, commercial products. Such products can often benefit from the experience and know-how around the highly structured and tightly specified DoD product categories.
3. Engineers from other industries can accelerate your process
Sometimes long-established companies with mature product lines can evolve into tight but artificial “rules bound” processes. In such industries, having engineers on the team that come from fast-paced and demanding consumer product development companies can help accelerate your processes. Such engineers, if they come with self-confidence, can challenge pre-conceived notions of what “must” be done and help break the mold of “we have always done it this way.” Of course, managers (and peers for that matter) have to be open to new ways of thinking and supportive of new possibilities.
4. Great engineers can readily pick up your nuances
Every product category, especially those that are mature, has tribal knowledge based on past experiences. Good engineers coming from “other” industries will know how to ask the right questions. As a manager, help get the new engineer to network and connect with your internal domain experts to provide a channel for a new “outside” engineer to learn the nuances of your company’s communal past experiences. Of course, this all demands that the current workforce is willing and open to sharing experiences. Building a diverse team will be a challenge if everyone is trying to protect their knowledge and is unwilling to share.
5. Outsiders can learn and assimilate new regulatory and industry standards
This is a common complaint. An engineer coming from “Industry A” will not know the specifications, test standards or regulatory processes of “Industry B.” While this may be true, a great engineer can quickly read and assimilate new standards. These just boil down to process definitions and design inputs. However, just because an engineer comes in knowing the regulatory processes or standards for your industry does not mean they will be a good engineer. Unless you are specifically recruiting someone to be a pure regulatory engineer, any good engineer can learn the standards of a new industry. It is not rocket science.
These are not academic arguments for building a team with “outsiders.” It is a practice I have used at multiple companies, including at IPS. These are lessons learned out of necessity. Because our local economy was heavily defense-oriented at one time, experienced engineers often came with a heavy DoD background.
Personal experience has shown that these high-performance engineers coming to our company from DoD backgrounds brought new insights into medical, consumer, and industrial products. Contrary to the perceptions of some, great engineers also readily pickup and enjoy the fast-paced and dynamic environment of the commercial product world. Past experience has also shown that staff with lots of commercial product experience can move into the DoD world, and accelerate those product development processes. Building a team with high-powered engineers from diverse industries not only opens up the potential resource pool, it also creates a more powerful team. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Mitch is the President and Cofounder of Intelligent Product Solutions (IPS), a leading product design and development firm. He honed his deep knowledge of product design on the strength of a 30-year career with companies that manufacture commercially successful products for the consumer, industrial, and DoD markets. Prior to launching IPS, Mitch was VP of Engineering at Symbol Technologies. Always espousing a hands-on approach to design, he holds a portfolio of numerous United States and international patents. Mitch holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Hofstra University, a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Columbia University, and an MBA from Fairleigh Dickinson University. He can be reached at email@example.com.