seeing is believing

The Price is Right?

Engineering ain’t free – even if (when) would-be customers think it should be.

Small. Size doesn’t matter.

Until it does.

Small companies and startups are often the worst: Junior Dictators consuming time in inverse proportion to the worth of their project. Much of that vaporized time has little relation to the technical specifics of the project in question.

As if they care.

Because the customer is always right (to monopolize everyone’s time).

So the micromanager’s ballet begins.

“I need it now.” “We are line down.” “How fast can you x-ray one board if we overnight it to you today?” “What happens if instead of one board, we send you four boards; how much and how fast?” “I’ll write a requisition.” “Parts are on the way: here is our tracking number. Please see if you can work this in, and get them done tomorrow, immediately upon arrival.” “Please send us a completion date as soon as parts arrive (tracking number attached).” “Stop! Put the job on hold: our customer changed their mind.” “Upon receipt, please return the board to us; take no further action beyond turning them around and returning them overnight.” “Yes, your understanding is correct: do no further work on this project.” “Our customer is making up their mind whether to proceed and seeking alternative means to do so.” “Cancel prior cancellation; please proceed: a PO will be issued shortly.” “How fast can you do this?” “Can we move to the head of your x-ray queue?” “When can we have images?” “When can we pick our boards up?” “Can one of our engineers sit with your technician during the imaging session?” “Is there someone in your organization we can talk to directly who can expedite this process?”

Then they get our price.

“What do you mean?  We’ve never paid that much before!” “This is outrageous!” “I’ll need three signatures to approve this!” “Can you reduce the price to this level? That way we can avoid multiple time-wasting management signoffs.” “The PO is delayed for signature. Can we simply use a credit card?” “Management will take a dim view of your minimum price. Can you take another look at it?”  “Think Big Picture and Long Term.”

As if we don’t take a misanthropic view of their management.

Further, in the Big Picture and Long Term, we’re dead. Meanwhile, life’s short, bills come due, and one person’s injustice is another’s fair price.

“We’ve already sent our customer a quote, based on what we felt was a reasonable price. We are locked into that price. Can you reduce your price this one time to honor our quote?  Going forward we’ll build your minimums into our pricing, but to do so in this situation would be awkward.” “We can’t pay that amount.” “We want to be partners.”

Yes, you can pay that amount. And partnership is code for “do what I want.” You can also sneak in the back door of your neighbor’s cousin’s twice-removed nephew’s workplace, on his swing shift, around 10 p.m., dodging the security guards, and attempt to capture root cause in the unclaimed space of a 15-minute coffee break. Capitalism provides options. Good luck. Choose well.

Move on.

Medium. “We need a simple test jig, connecting our JTAG pod to the board on the bench. Nothing more. Cost matters. Speed to deployment matters.” “How fast can you get us a quote?  Even if it’s a swag, we want to have something in front of our customer Monday morning.” So spoke the contract manufacturer, manufacturing urgency.

This, after they asked in July for an ICT program and fixtures for the subject board. We analyzed the data and told them 30% coverage was not a good fit for ICT. Undeterred, they asked for a quote anyway in August. Full speed ahead.

Then they got our price. Abrupt stop.

Curiously, they abandoned ICT, opting instead for flying probe with a benchtop boundary scan overlay. We obligingly submitted a second quote in September, this time for full flying probe and JTAG development, both from scratch.

Our second quote inspired epiphanies. Like the OEM customer’s discovery of an existing JTAG pod at its facility. (Money saved!) And an existing JTAG program. (More money saved!) Sometimes the prospect of spending real money causes some to scour their attic. You never know what can be found when you look hard enough. They ask for another requote.

So a third request went out, for the aforementioned simple test jig. With program and JTAG hardware already bought and paid for, all that was needed was a basic box, providing a straightforward interface between pod and DUT, nothing more. Sheet metal and wires. All we needed was the wirelist and block diagram from the customer to proceed.

Two and a half months later, we received them. Seems they neglected a few things in the original requirement. The new documents described a new project: firmware loading, UART debug, adoption of an external transceiver to facilitate debug, functional tests. An integrated test fixture, combining the new features with the old, plus automation. All captured in a drawing (another new requirement), to be signed off by the OEM, in the person of a cantankerous, insufferably arrogant engineer, who had recently returned from a lengthy extraterrestrial sabbatical and inserted himself into the process after the third quote, outraged at the insufficient clairvoyance of our first, second and third quotes. Which, naturally, inspired a fourth quote.

And a fifth quote, after the drawing was rejected, point by feature-creeped point.

It’s now February, month eight in our odyssey, with no baby to show for the intermingling. We haven’t even started fixture fabrication. They make more changes to the drawing. We build in more money for our time. Engineering ain’t free.

Inconsiderate meddling in peoples’ time has no upper bound.

Simple indeed.

Quote six, bearing as much resemblance to the original concept as a paper plane to a 787, is submitted Feb. 2. Silence follows. And follows.

Two weeks later, we can’t stand it any longer. What the hell is going on? Hit send.

“Sorry we haven’t responded sooner, but we’ve had meetings. We decided to go in a different direction.”

Complete silence.

Large. Doing business with them is a privilege, their websites proclaim. Helpfully, those same websites self-servingly trumpet adherence to the highest ethical standards (theirs).

One company is a market darling. Its stock price carries its own cachet. The horde of aspirants clamoring to supply it attests to this. The herd converges and creates its own demand. Suppliers want to bask in the glow.

Nevertheless, they approached little us, rather than the other way around. We have two things they want: skill and speed. Better than their own internal resources. If the price is right.

Another company is well-dispersed: manufacturing sites, operating divisions, responsible departments, complete accountability. Nobody talks to anybody, so nothing of consequence gets done in a timely way. On the other hand, reassuringly, their legal department will survive a thermonuclear first strike and a disaster readiness audit.

Once again, we offer fast solutions to problems made possible by their own system. Skill and speed strike again.

A third is just big. And ponderous. And cautious. Even timid. Not unlike certain nations, and cultures, and home offices. Institutionally embodying the evolution of the disease it was established to treat. As if their mantra said this:

“What do we want?”

“Gradual change.”

“When do we want it?”

“In due course.”

Like an amoeba: It always gets where it’s intending to go, given a decade or two to spare.

Why do business with these guys? The behemoths are Big Dictators: demanding – really imposing – the best price, delivery, quality (you know, like the 787-9). They want the paperwork filled out. They want their legal teams to review every NDA and contract (see you in six months). Their POs and payments originate from the Asian subcontinent. Manufacturing is in Mexico or Southeast Asia. R&D lurks in Florida. Responsibility is everywhere and nowhere.

The common threads: dispersion of authority and decision-making; enforcement of rules through ironclad control of documents. Semicolons matter when governed from 7000 miles. Bureaucratic little men (mostly men) rejecting W-9s in far-off places because we signed an older version. Or placing an invoice on hold because a lot charge doesn’t match a unit price. And portals. Many portals. Like penance.

Why, as a small supplier, should we bother?

Because they are prisoners of their own systems. They still have deadlines, often the consequence of financial targets. Small suppliers like us can circumvent some of those systems. Recognizing these corporate shortcomings enables certain suppliers, like us, to act from a position of strength. Time remains, after all, of the essence.

So the first company needs ICT development support for a product launch, and its current suppliers do not inspire confidence. In we come.

The second company jettisoned a previous supplier, whom they deemed insensitive and unresponsive. The universe of replacements in the ICT/boundary scan sphere with ITAR and AS9100 qualifications is a small one, so we got the email.

The third is a legacy customer. It’s a long legacy: We haven’t done any business with them in more than 10 years. But we remain the one supplier for test support of this product on their AVL. Pity.

Sometimes you just need to get stuff done and screw the restrictions. Enter us. We bear our burdens with dignity.

And price our services accordingly. As long as we’re prepared to walk away. We are, and they don’t.

Maybe we do stand a chance.

For the right price.Article ending bug

Robert Boguski is president of Datest Corp. (; His column runs bimonthly.