This is Elecia White, embedded systems consultant with her own company, Logical Elegance.
Elecia works on all kinds of projects containing software and hardware. She authored the O’Reilly book Making Embedded Systems: Design Patterns for Great Software and hosts a popular Embedded podcast.
Sophi Kravitz: So you have your own consulting company- what is your lab like, and where is it located?
Physically I'm in San Jose, I work out of my house, although about 2 years ago we changed one of the bedrooms into a real office. So we've got great desks and a lab area in the garage.
Who is we?
My husband and I share the company, Logical Elegance. Since we are both embedded systems engineers, it works out pretty well. He has a master’s in Physics, and works on larger systems. I work on smaller devices and do more signal processing. We work together very well.
Smaller devices, what do you mean by that?
I develop devices that don't have a real operating system. They may have an RTOS, but they don't have Linux or Android or any of the big operating systems.
What is RTOS? What does that mean compared to a full blown OS like Linux?
An RTOS is the smallest scheduler you can get away with. RT stands for real time which is for devices that have to respond right away, the OS is operating system. Sure with Linux, you can push a button and it will respond pretty quickly, but not within nanoseconds. With Linux, the response time is in microseconds. With an RTOS, you're talking about fast response, used for controlling motors or working with accelerometers. RTOS’s have a fixed and published amount of latency. But, an RTOS is very small so it doesn't take up much RAM or code space. While I need the real time aspect, I use them because they are small.
When did you start Logical Elegance?
I first started it in 2004.It was just me then, I wanted to try consulting after working in a company where I figured out pretty quickly that it wasn't going to pan out. And then I left consulting and Logical Elegance to go work full time in a company- while my husband took it over. As of 2010, Logical Elegance has been the primary employment for both of us.
What made you think that you would prefer to work for yourself?
I went from a company which I liked very much but my role was changing too fast and too much to work for a company that was a startup. The startup had some big names. I thought I'd get to work with these famous people and it would be fantastic. But the big names weren't really involved. Four weeks later I gave my notice, so I was only there for six weeks in all. I didn't want to take on another full time job after two jobs in a row. I wanted to dip my toe into the consulting side of things. I had friends who were consultants and it seemed more fun because I could balance my own ideas with working for money. And that's really been the driving force, to get time to work on my own projects.
What are some of your own projects, the non-secret ones I can write about?
I'm not much for secrecy on my own projects. I wrote a book,http://www.amazon.com/Making-Embedded-Systems-Patterns-Software/dp/1449302149Making Embedded Systems, published by O’Reilly. That certainly was a major project--it takes a non-trivial amount of time to write a book. And I have a podcast called Embedded, which is about embedded systems. The podcast is more software- than hardware-based. It is also about forming companies. I'm more interested in what's your gadget, how does it work and why is it fun.
One of the physical projects that I'm working on now is a gadget to help relatives keep in contact with their loved ones.
What inspired you to design this gadget?
When my mom passed away, she fell down and it took a little while for people to find out. And that's heartbreaking for me, she lived 400 miles away and I don't know why I thought that if my mom fell down I would cosmically find out. But one of the things we can do as engineers is that when mistakes are made, we can sometimes fix them later. And I can't fix that, but I can make it so that it doesn't happen to other people.
I'm calling it the “Are You OK” widget.
It's better than Manatee, MaNDY (Maybe Not Dead Yet). I would give it to my mom and she would pat it, triggering the accelerometer every day. If she failed to pat it, the widget would text, or email or call me. Not that I wouldn't call anyway, but just a reminder.
Something like that would be really useful in the refrigerator, so that when the door is opened that action would trigger the device, so you know that mom is eating....is that what you were thinking?
Exactly. Though originally, it was less about eating, just proof of life, to see that mom got out of bed this morning. Someone suggested putting the Are You OK into toilet rolls too but I don't think I want to go there.
Maybe just trigger on opening the bathroom door then!
The first version is a Manatee (resembles the sea creature), and the nose lights up when you've triggered the accelerometer, so you know that you've done your part as the caregiver, or loved one.
My goal is not to productize this, but to make instructions that any engineer can follow. I can't make it so that anyone can follow it, because there's a little bit of coding and a little bit of soldering. But it's not really a lot. I’ve been making build instructions you can build your own. The challenge is whether can I make the instructions easy enough so that anybody who says “that’s a great idea, I want one” can go and make their own.
I think the thing that we often forget as engineers, we say that we want to make it so that only an engineer or maker-builder type can make it, while many people, in fact, the majority of people don't have any interest in building anything.
True, I can rant about the internet of things and how consumers are not being served because we expect them to be engineers when they buy our Internet of Things products. They just want the thing.
My project for this is to do the parts I want to do. It’s my project, meaning I don’t have to build a startup company around it. I can give the world something that 10 people want. If it means that more people understand the Electric Imp (a product which connects things to the internet easily) and think about this problem, great. And if it convinces people that this is hard and they should go ahead and buy Life Alert, well, that's OK too.
How much time do you spend on the podcast?
The podcast is a hobby, more than anything else, because I love to talk to people who are excited about things. The podcast also provides advertising for our business.
What does a week in your life look like?
I've had some time for the Are you OK widget this month as this month has been light on the consulting work, partially due to the EE Live Conference, since I wanted time to attend.
There's always a pipeline with consulting. First you have to let everyone know that you're free, then wait for them to realize that they need you, then wait for them to call and then of course 3 or 4 people call on the same day and ask about your availability so that's a juggling act. I let my pipeline go flat for the month but now it is filling back up.
This week, I worked a little bit for a past client where they needed a white paper written. I also have a couple of potential clients to meet with next week and I just hope that the Are You OK Widget is in a good place to sleep while I go mine salt.
Where do you get most of your consulting work?
Almost all of our business comes from people we know, and we know many of these people from our time spent in standard full time employment.
It's a small valley, people change jobs a lot, once you know someone is pretty good from one company, then you want to hire them at another company, too.
What would you say to someone who wanted to start consulting?
Tell the people you know. It’s not bugging them. Some of them are genuinely going to want to give you work or they're going to know someone who wants to give you work. Prepare for the work to be very bursty...sometimes you'll work very hard for a month and then you have a month off. That can be a lot of fun, if you have your own personal projects that you want to work on, but it can also be terrifying because you won’t know what next month is going to hold.
Make sure you have a reasonably good network. If your network isn't big enough and you think you need to know more people, then go to some of these events and meet-ups that are held everywhere, especially ones that are in your area. So if you want to be a consultant, you have to be willing to network as much as engineers don't really like to do that.
I think there is a myth about the introverted engineer, I see plenty of engineers traveling around, giving talks, showing off projects. I don't know that the typical engineer at home, in the basement, is the only kind out there.
Giving talks is a great way to meet people and network too. You may not get a job after the first talk, but after maybe 10 talks, you might actually start to get contracts. It really helps for people to perceive you as an expert.
In the Silicon Valley, what do you feel like the competition is between you and other consultants? Is there enough work to go around?
There is usually enough work to go around, and since we are usually getting work from people we know, we aren't often competing with someone else. I've worked with Nuvation, Mindtribe and Gener8, which are some of the bigger design firms where you bring them a napkin sketch and they can do it for you. So those firms compete with each other because someone will bring their concept around to all of these design firms and ask for quotes. But Logical Elegance is not competing with those kinds of firms.
So let's use the Are You OK manatee as an example- how much do you think the electronics and software would cost to have made by one of those three firms?
I'll try to lead us through the quote process. The BOM for the materials for the one-off product is about $100, which is stupidly expensive, but that is for individual quantities. The off- the shelf parts also could be trivially put together for much less.
Even the LEDs cost 4 times what they would in bulk. So if I wanted to productize this, I could get the electronics down to $10. The NRE to make this is about 6 weeks of engineering time plus probably 4 weeks of firmware plus 2 weeks of manufacturing software plus--to make it pretty--another 4 weeks. So this is about 16 weeks of engineering time, which is how one of the big design firms would figure it out. And then they'd calculate out the dollar amount, which would be close to $200/ hour.
The rate is high, but they need to cover high overheads and also cover themselves for the time that they are underutilized. That's true for any contractor, actually. And then you have to pay for some of the support staff, even though you're paying for engineering time, you still have to pay for the accountant, the managers, and the sales staff somehow.
How do you figure out what to charge yourself since you don't have the same overhead?
I have a spreadsheet to help figure out what your salary should be. Basically it works out to whatever your annual salary was divided by 1000. So if you were making $100,000/ year then your contract rate should be $100/ hour, which is a little high, but it assumes that you're not working 100%.
I provide discounts, if I want to work with the product or there's a new application or technology that I want to learn. I like working with little companies so I have a startup discount. Making a difference in the world is important to me and I don’t want to make another phone. I worked on an exoskeleton robot for a startup. I gave the project a huge discount because that project was so cool.
And then there are reverse discounts- I don't like to commute so I'll add a bit if I have a far commute. Or if they want to pay me net 90 there's an extra fee because that just means I'm lending them my salary for 90 days.
Would you recommend quitting your day job if you really don't have the connections?
That is so individual. I’d recommending waiting until you’ve been in the position that a co-worker leaves the company you both work at, then the co-worker invites you to come to their new company. That shows that someone wants both your skills and personality. It means you have a good chance to make it as a consultant. On the other hand you can always get work by chasing things listed on job boards.
Do you see yourself pursuing a product based business, coming up with something you can monetize?
I used to be so sure that I was two or three years away from being co-founder in a startup. And now I don't know, because I know just how much blood and sweat it takes to make a startup work and I know (as a consultant) just how cushy my life is.
I'd have to really love a product to really put that effort in. I'm not a big believer in 60 hour weeks. I don't think that startups require that, but I do think they require a devotion that I prefer to give to my family and my own projects, so I don't think that kind of business is going to happen for me right now.
I've also found great satisfaction from sharing and not productizing something so that I can spill the guts of what is inside, that is really appealing and fun for me. This is that hacker movement that everyone has been talking about for 10 years and I've only just been poking at. Turns out it is just as cool as everybody said. People are genuinely nice and enthusiastic, even when what you are building isn't in their wheelhouse.
Why are you happier with your consulting life than you were with a regular job?
You hear about a lot of people working crazy hours and that's not me. When I'm working a regular job, I don't have a sense of what is expected and how many hours other people are working. As a consultant, I am paid for the hours I work. If I want to end the day at 2pm because I’m done with what needs doing, my hours-paid are completely proportional to the hours worked. And consulting lets me work less hours, which I like in order to have time to work on personal projects.
Link to Elecia's blog on element14