Why Hardware is Hard

One of the most over-used phrases I hear is “hardware is hard”. Never a truer statement said, but I believe many who say it don’t really understand why. To most it is seemingly obvious because hardware involves physical parts? Sure, but I think a slightly more concrete but compact reason lies in first ten hires at a software startup versus a hardware startup.

The first ten employees of a software startup are more than likely to be clones of the founders. This statement isn’t judgmental, it’s just likely that they too are software engineers. This startups’s solution is a complex software stack including user facing experiences on mobile and the web, a complete back-end infrastructure including business logic and analytics, and possibly desktop user experiences. No small feat, but one with largely a singular technical discipline at its core. Hiring, while challenging, is a matter of finding more folks with the skillset(s) of the founding team.

The hardware startup almost always has to accomplish everything I just described PLUS hardware. The first ten hires have to include experienced engineers across mechanical engineering (ME), electrical engineering (EE), firmware, and production/logistics. These hardware hires must have expertise and experience, but the path to experience in hardware comes from actually doing it at a commercial scale. The discipline of building hardware at scale is not something you can easily learn at school, even at university. While the path (e.g. tools, knowledge base, peer community) to become a good software developer is readily available to all in this Internet age, this is not true yet for hardware development. The hardware startup not only has to recruit a more diverse set of initial employees, but also recruit from a much smaller available pool of experienced hardware engineers.

The first ten employees of a hardware startup staffed for success are a highly diverse group whose average industry experience and expertise is quite high. These hardware, software, and production engineers must be quite proficient in their functional roles, but also have to mesh together to create and manufacture a complex system integrating hardware, user facing experiences, software, and a complete back-end infrastructure. Role diversity, experience requirements, and the need to highly integrate this new team is (part of) what makes “hardware hard.”

Would I use the excuse that “hardware is hard” to shy away from building a solution that incorporates hardware? Hell no. But I would strive to better understand the unique challenges facing hardware startups and compensate early for them. Which just happens to be an integral part of the Lemnos Labs mission statement!