James Long, Ph.D., P.E. Retired Analog and RF Consulting Engineer
What type of consultant do I need?
Sorry to sound like an attorney, but it all depends. In general, hay is always cheaper after passing through the horse, you get what you pay for, and it is faster and cheaper to do it right the first time.
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There are four basic orthogonal parameters that are continuous variables, Specialist-Generalist, experience, age of first showing an interest in the field, and motives for practicing in the field.
As in all employees, there are traits to watch out for.
The Generalist-Specialist parameter depends mostly upon the project and your engineering and managerial experience.
Specialists are best when you are fully knowledgeable in the project and its technologies and can accurately specify the technology area knowledge that is necessary. If you are not accurate, there will be a severe mismatch between needs and skills resulting in a large expenditure of time and money producing poor results.
Generalists will be able to see the real problem and apply their skills to solve it.
One example of this is when a digital project manager wanted an expert in bypass capacitors. I examined their measurements and found that the scope probe was on the wrong ground. When it was placed on the proper ground, the waveforms were within specifications. A specialist in component engineering would have spent weeks and thousands of dollars to solve a non-problem.
Experience level is the same as in employees and has the same selection criteria as Specialist-Generalist.
If you are knowledgeable and experienced, you can accurately estimate the difficulty of the problem and select the needed experience level to optimize the schedule and budget impact.
If you are not knowledgeable and experienced, it is best to get a highly experienced consultant to do the initial examination and overall high level design. After that you may be able to employ a less experienced consultant at a lower rate to continue the now well-defined path with possible occasional review by the more experienced consultant.
Age of First Interest
Age of first interest is a sensitive test of how skilled a person is.
Analog and RF is similar to many other fields, such as linguistics, gymnastics, and artistic areas. The younger a person is when they start, the higher skill level they attain as an adult.
One example of this was described to me by a division manager at HP in 1974. This was back when employees were college trained in analog as well as digital. HP found that people who practiced digital design could not be successfully cross trained to practice analog and RF. They did not have the spiritual powers developed to do a good job. You can imagine how poor the performance will be for someone who has no analog or RF college training or job and hobby experience until later in life and who is motivated to switch fields by economic considerations.
Motives for Practicing
Motives for practicing is a sensitive test of how skilled a person is.
A person who practices a field for the love of it is almost always more talented than someone who does it for the money, fame, or security.
Traits to Watch Out For
As in all employee candidates, consultants sometimes use verbiage to compensate for talent. This especially true for marginal performers who do a poor design and then add multiple layers of band aids to get it to work. These people are frequently energetic experimenters who rush in and flail about. One famous semiconductor company division is a poor performer because all of the staff is of this type.
A dead giveaway for this is when the consultant, on the first interview, spouts off a stream of words only slightly related to your problem instead of making specific, pointed suggestions. A good example in a management consultant is, "Harvard MBA, schedules, budget, theory x and y management, cost benefit ratio, market share."