Hardware Development Team Composition - Managing Roles & Responsibilities
While the previous article focus on Engineering roles, this piece gives an overview of common managing roles and responsibilities in hardware development teams.
Usually the key roles - Product Manager, Supply Chain Manager, Technical Program Manager - are organized among the founders team in early stages and might even be taken by a single person. The below overview will help to identify required tasks and at a later stage discuss team growth and the changing role of the founder.
For established companies, the roles and responsibilities are almost the same but depending on the companies setup might become more focused on sub-responsibilities e.g. implementing a dedicated Warranty Manager or Sub-System Project Manager.
Product Manager act at the intersection between customer, company management and hardware development. They play a crucial role and are one of the best communicators in your team - unbiased, able to walk in all stakeholders shoes and with a professional sense for decision making by consideration of all available data. Product Managers feel comfortable to weigh all inputs and to make decisions even when data is not yet available.
Accountability for Product Roadmap and prioritization of features
Perform market and customer research - know the target market and ensure continuous product-market-fit including steady market research for new trends and test of competition
Requirement Gathering from all aspects of the product life cycle
Stakeholder Management - communicate status and decisions, conduct feedback and act as mediator between stakeholders with opposite interests
Manage the project together with Technical Program Manager and Operations Manager with respect to features and launch timelines
Test the product in all phases and ensure quality, test new features in rapid prototypes
Plan product launch and post-launch activities like user feedbacks, early field failures analysis and maintenance feedback as well as plan product retirement strategy
The Product Manager is a crucial role. In any case - have a Product Manager in house. In early stages one of the founders is likely acting as the Product Manager and may combine the e.g. Technical Program Management and / or Supply Chain Manager in one person. Once the company grows, the founder role itself changes and hence the founders have to decide carefully and in awareness of the responsibilities, how to organize the Product Manager role in the future.
Technical Program Manager
The Technical Program Manager (TPM) has her expertise in project management, technical coordination, and stakeholder engagement. She heavily contributes to the successful delivery of hardware projects, ensuring that they meet quality standards, timelines, and business objectives. The TPM usually links all different teams from engineering over manufacturing to operations. The perfect TPM has not only vast project management experience but is also a strong cross-functional communicator and facilitator of decision making and prioritization to navigate complex challenges along the way. She knows the hardware development process by heart.
Project Planning and Execution including defining objectives, milestones, timelines, and resource allocation.
Cross-functional Coordination, strong communication and cooperation to navigate towards the development milestones
Requirement Management, ensure clear, well-documented and understood requirements across the hardware team
Risk Management, develop risk mitigation strategies to minimize risk impact
Resource and Timeline Management, plan and allocate resources - personnel, equipment, materials. identify bottlenecks and optimize workflows
Supplier and Vendor Management Support , coordinate with suppliers throughout the process in tight cooperation with the Supply Chain Team
Quality Assurance and Testing, support definition and implementation of quality assurance and testing, collaborate with test engineers
Documentation and Reporting, responsible for documenting project progress, milestones, and key decisions. Create reports, presentations, and dashboards to provide stakeholders with visibility into project status, risks, and achievements.
The role of the TPM is crucial from the very beginning and most likely one of the founders is taking this role early on.
Operations Program Manager / Project Manager
The Operations Program manager is the jack-of-all-trades and responsibilities vary a lot depending on companies and candidates' individual skills in this role. OPMs scope can range from hands-on support functions for TPMs or SCMs up to managing own sub-projects in terms of time, quality and cost with full project responsibility.
Project Management: plan and execute project plans, define milestones and deliverables, plan resources and coordinate all stakeholders
Manufacturing and supply chain coordination: work closely with suppliers and the engineering team to organize samples, coordinate manufacturing schedules across suppliers and ensure manufacturing schedules align with the overall program schedule
Logistics operations: monitor parts logistics, optimize inventory and parts delivery among suppliers, coordinate with forwarders and evaluate potential logistics optimization
Monitor product quality, collaborate with quality engineers to evaluate non-conformities, arrange and monitor warranty claims and exchange parts / inventory
Post Launch Support: manage continuous product improvements, arrange product change management and monitoring in collaboration with all stakeholders, cooperate with customer support and operations team to gather data on product reliability, quality and product-market-fit
OPMs are the backbone of hardware development success. Their flexibility and hands-on problem solving are crucial when growing the company.
Supply Chain Manager
The Supply Chain Manager is a core function in a hardware development team as she oversees and optimizes the end-to-end supply chain operations. She ensures the smooth flow of materials and parts, coordinates logistics and commercially manages the suppliers. She closely works with the Supplier Quality Engineer internally and the suppliers project- and account managers.
Evaluate, select and commercially manage suppliers for hardware components, materials as well as services.
Identify reliable suppliers, negotiate contracts and monitor supplier performance
Develop demand forecast and analyze markets trends to ensure future in-time supply of required parts, materials and services
Spare parts and inventory management: coordinate with internal teams and suppliers the availability, stocking and tracking of spare parts with minimizing excess inventory and associated costs
Coordinate logistics with logistic partners, negotiate logistic contracts and optimize transportation to minimize cost and maximize speed
Risk management in supply chain: identify potential risks and develop mitigation strategies such as dual sourcing, inventory buffer and others for each constraint such as supplier capacity, geopolitical factors etc.
Active cost management: analyze cost drivers, negotiate favorable pricing and identify potential for cost reduction in supply chain, focus on cost optimization and work collaboratively with product managers and engineering team in order to minimize cost in balance with quality and time.
Continuous improvement and Warranty management: commercially negotiate warranty provisions, organize warranty claims and continuously work together with suppliers and SQE to improve supplier performance
The Supply Chain Manager role will be filled early on since hardware development basis is a perfect setup of a supply chain for every part, material and service. No reliable supply chain - no reliable product. Failed supply chain due diligence in early stages will highly likely cause disruption along the hardware roadmap. It is highly recommended to address the Supply Chain Managers responsibilities within the founders teams from the very beginning.
With a growing team, the SCM responsibilities will focus on supplier development, risk management and cost optimization. At this stage, support from Operations Program Manager can be given e.g. to arrange logistics or organize the warranty process.
Working students are true hidden champions in hardware development. Long Term engagement with students in part-time support functions are extremely valuable both for the company and the student when organized the right way. Have a look at this article “Hidden champions in engineering” solely dedicated to working students. Working students are great team members to support in engineering as well as in managing hardware development.
Responsibilities in early stages
One word on responsibilities and growing a company.
In a small and energetic early-stage team composed of only the founders and first hires, it is almost always clear who owns which development stream and who is responsible for which component, supplier or task. Everyone aims for the same target and communication is frequent and tight.
Nonetheless there will come a time when the team grows in heads and/or the tasks grow in size and volume. As one may shy away from formalizing responsibilities too much and lose speed by looking at spreadsheets - I still want to recommend the RA(S)CI system to at least have a guided conversation on who is responsible or accountable and where there might be support required. The question will appear sooner or later also from potential investors, partners or applicants anyway.
Having a common understanding of ownership will at the end secure the entire hardware development process and with every joining team member or external partner the RASCI system gives a good start for onboarding as well. Again, there are multiple sources out there to understand the RACI / RASCI system. The article of Interfacing Technologies is a good starting point.
Required skills and team composition - inhouse vs external team
Knowing about common roles in hardware development teams is a good preparation to start “composing” the team. But “composing” is very individual, depending on the company's focus and the founders / management team focus areas. The next article will dive into the required skills and opportunities for / risks in insourcing & outsourcing in a general way.