Looking from the view of a packed office, it may seem that having a private consulting business with a private lab would be paradise. Nobody to walk up and bother you when under the gun. Nobody to use the communal toaster oven to heat up stinky leftover fish. Nobody to steal equipment from your bench without so much as a note.
But once out of the office, the negatives which were recently so keenly understood fade as the positives start to be missed. When working solo, there’s nobody to come up and pull you away for a beer when you’re spinning your wheels. Nobody to tell you that your lunch of stinky leftover fish gave you murderous breath before your client meeting. And it’s amazing how many tools have moved away from my bench despite me being the only one around (I’ve been stealing from myself this whole time!).
Getting out and interacting with peers is critical to long term success of a lone-wolf consultant. It helps in keeping current on the tech, understanding the current trends in industry, keeping up with the joys and challenges of the office worker, and identifying opportunities for both clients and collaborators. How does an engineer optimize for peer interaction while maintaining the benefits of a private lab? Find new ways to engage peers!
The first and best resource to suggest is friends and colleagues from previous jobs with whom you maintain a good relationship. The history and experiences shared makes for some of the most fun people to meet up with. You’re probably still connected with most of them so you see invitations come all the time about gatherings. It is imperative, however, that you accept most of the invitations that come in. After missing a few gatherings the invitations will stop. It may be difficult to convince your wife/husband that going out to the bar with old work buddies is an important part of being a consultant. Feel free to use this article as a reference; nobody would dare refute an article from the internet!
Apart from previous contacts, some of my favorites are technical events that are put on by manufacturers. TI’s Tech Days might be my favorite general seminar source, but I’d never pass on an LT Spice seminar from Linear Tech, especially if taught by creator Mike Engelhardt. And it is a great way to keep up with FAEs and chip sales people who can help out when you’re in a bind with a technology or supply chain issue.
Another remarkable source of technical knowledge is your local IEEE section. In addition to having great resources online like sample contracts, members can enjoy seminars and networking events. I’m always amazed at how closely the atmosphere of an IEEE event matches that of an engineering department. Everyone even wears the same style clothing!
There are some newer spots to connect with technical people in an informal environment. Makerspaces, hackerspaces, and meetup groups are quickly growing into some of the most active communities available. While not as intensely technical as manufacturer or IEEE events, the gathering of a wider range of people makes for more interesting conversation. I’ve visited a hackerspace once where I learned about Arduino from someone covered in face tattoos and piercings! I’ve been an engineer my whole life and that was a first.
So before you leave the comfort of the office that is maintained, heated, and cleaned by someone else for a spot of your own, be sure to cut out time for connecting with peers. Becoming a recluse can have horrible outcomes. Don’t believe me? The Oatmeal has a remarkable comic on the whole thing!
James Benson is writing a series on 'Engineers As Consultants' to educate and encourage salaried engineers to consider if hanging a shingle is right for them. New posts on the first Monday of every month.
Dog on chair: https://www.flickr.com/photos/iain/15341019438/sizes/m/