At the end of November, in a post called Are Engineers and their Employers Growing More Distant, I cite some points from a blog post by Jeffrey Pfeffer over at the Harvard Business Review called Take Care of Yourself First.

My perspective is that organizations — which have laid off millions, which have workplaces filled with disengaged and dissatisfied employees, and which regularly, even in partnerships, cast people aside — can (and do) take care of themselves. My point of view is quite consistent with the popular idea of employees as free agents and the evidence on the ever-weakening bonds between people and their employers.

The free-agent attitude comment intrigued me. It reminded me of another industry that went through a radical transformation in terms of employment. Let me do a quick summary of that and then bring it back to engineering below.

The Transformation of Localization into a Networked Service

Years ago, manufacturers often employed translators at Full Time Employees (FTEs) to localize technical content into the various languages of their target markets. Over time, this localization work fluctuated depending on product launches, leaving many FTE translators with periods of time with no technical content to localize. After being forced to find ways to cut costs time and again, some manufacturers found that outsourcing the localization of this content to Language Service Providers (LSPs) would actually be less expensive than employing translators as FTEs. While some manufacturers transition from internal localization to outsourced localization by LSPs, a number of those FTE translators went to work for the LSPs. However, many LSPs realized that the amount of work in a technical field by language also varied dramatically. Instead of hiring most of these translators as FTEs themselves, the LSPs setup contract based work with a broad network of self-employed translators. Overall, the localization industry underwent a dramatic transformation. It started with translators being directly employed as FTEs. It ended with manufacturers outsourcing localization work to LSPs who then contracted out the localization work to a broad network of self-employed translators

Could Engineering Transform into a Networked Service?

Could this sort of scenario play out for engineering functions with manufacturers? Actually, this sort of scenario isn’t some faraway and future vision. It’s already beginning, albeit, it’s still very early. Back in July, Cyrena Respini-Irwin from Cadalyst magazine wrote an article titled Many Hands Make Light Work of Product Design. Essentially it focuses on a company called Redpoint Engineering (company site) that acts as a brokering middle man between manufacturers and a broad based network of engineers.

What’s the advantages or disadvantages of taking this outsourcing approach to engineering for manufacturers?

  • Manufacturers could flexibly increase or decrease engineering bandwidth to support new product development projects as necessary.
  • An engineering network could provide access to a technical expert deep in a specific field that could solve big nasty product development problems.
  • A downside is that you could lose critical knowledge not only about your products but also in how, when and why you make key engineering decisions.
  • Another disadvantage is a manufacturer would lose engineering leadership across the enterprise and product lifecycle.

But what about engineers? Are there some advantages or disadvantages here too?

  • For true experts in engineering, this could be a lucrative self-employment opportunity. This might be a means of really getting the most out of your years and extensive knowledge in a specific engineering field.
  • Partnering with a service provider as a middle man would address one of the biggest concerns about starting your own company: business development.
  • Self-employment often means losing a variety of FTE benefits such as health insurance.

What do you think?

I’ve love to hear what the community thinks about this idea. Would outsourcing of engineering work as a networked service actually work? What are the negatives I haven’t listed here? What are the other positives? Sound off. Let us know what you think.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.