How to Become a Freelance PCB Designer and What You Need to Know to Thrive

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: May 2, 2018  |  Updated: September 8, 2022
Freelance PCB Designers: What You Need to Know to Thrive

If your career as a hardware engineer is getting stagnant, you may be tempted to switch careers or turn into a freelancer. After all, the major difference between working full-time and freelancing is not having the 9-to-5 routine and being able to work on projects while sipping a piña colada at the beach. When you’re equipped with the top-notch design skills and knowledge of a hardware designer, what could go wrong?

Freelancing as a PCB designer is a difficult prospect, especially if you try to get into the industry as a young professional with no experience outside of your core university education. I made the switch several years ago and I had a very difficult time communicating my value as a physicist-turned-engineer. Eventually, I learned the skills outlined below, which includes both technical and non-technical skill sets.

Important Technical Skills

To get started in any area of PCB design as a freelancer, whether as a front-end engineer doing schematic capture or as the layout engineer, there are plenty of important technical skills you will need to learn. You don't need to know all of this stuff as soon as you start freelancing, but these skills are important to develop over time:

  • Circuit design and analysis, at least with some of the basic interfaces used in modern digital components
  • The basics of PCB manufacturing, as well as the basics of DFM
  • Simulation for simple circuits; most designers will probably learn this in HSpice or LTSpice
  • The workflow involved in PCB design
  • How to create a schematic symbol and a PCB footprint for a component
  • The basics of programming in at least 1 popular language, ideally C/C++ or Python. You don't need to be a pro software engineer, but you do need to be able to talk to those folks on their level.

These technical skills are important both as a freelancer or as someone who is gainfully employed by a company. For freelancers, you have to remember that you are running a business, and there are other important skills you will have to learn to reach success.

Awesome PCB Design Skills Aren’t Enough to be a Successful Freelancer

When you ditch a comfortable, regularly paying job to be a freelancer, you need more than just technical skills to survive. In the blink of an eye, you are running an independent business and before you can even tackle a project, you need to hunt for work and secure a contract. Getting continuous work can be an uncomfortable process that your previous job as a hardware engineer simply didn’t prepare you for.

There are some skills you can develop to make the transition easier, whether you’re freelancing part-time or full-time. Before starting my own PCB design company, I spent two years as a freelance PCB designer. Based on my experiences, here are some tips to save you from making costly mistakes:

1. Build Sales and Marketing Skills

Most hardware engineers seem to detest the idea of developing sales and marketing skills. They perceive sales and marketing in a negative light, like a slick salesman trying to persuade an innocent old lady to buy some cooking pans. The truth is, real-world marketing is completely different.

When you started applying for jobs after college, you sent hundreds of résumés to various companies. Strictly speaking, you were engaged in marketing. Then, when you went through rigorous interviews to convince potential employers that you’re the best guy or gal for the job, you practiced fundamental sales skills. Sales and marketing are normal parts of anyone’s career.

To be a successful freelancer, you not only need to create great a great PCB layout and design but also convince potential clients to hire you. Build a website and design fancy business cards but don’t neglect to create real relationships with people, as personal connections can determine the difference between merely surviving and thriving as a freelancer.

2. Develop Time Management Techniques

Even if you’ve never struggled to meet a deadline, you should still focus on enhancing your time management skills. As a freelancer, you will wear multiple hats to run your mini-business; being able to allocate ample time for various tasks, any of which could take longer than planned, is crucial. Between attending meetings, calling potential clients, invoicing for payments, and networking to build your client portfolio, you may find yourself spending more time running your day-to-day business than working on a PCB layout and designs.

To thrive as a freelance PCB designer, you must be able to organize yourself without being overwhelmed. Consider using a productivity app to keep track of all of your to-dos and appointments. Realize that it is impossible to manage all tasks yourself and develop your ability to delegate tasks and leverage resources. When it comes to freelancing, balance is the key to success.

An array of clocks at various times

How many clocks can you manage at once?

3. Learn Basic Accounting

When you’re employed, you receive a steady paycheck every month. As a freelancer, you may need to wait a month or two to be paid in full. Based on common sense, make sure you have enough savings to sustain you for at least 6 months until your freelancing career is stable.

Besides that, focus on developing basic accounting skills to track project expenses and earning. As a freelancer, it’s tempting to neglect your accounts and simply work on what you love. However, neglecting your accounts can mean unnecessary cash flow issues down the road. Timely financial management is crucial to sustaining your freelancing career in the long run.

4. Invest in Yourself

As a freelancer, you it's important to continue learning and networking, while also making yourself aware of the newest tech trends that clients might demand in designs. It's important to be proactive in this area and stay updated in the newest areas. There are some great resources out there to help you, and they are free of charge:

  • Industry publications (online and print)
  • Conferences
  • Professional groups on LinkedIn
  • Newsletters from standards organizations (like IPC)

In today's digital landscape, it's never been easier to attend conferences because so many great events have gone all-virtual. There are a few key industry conferences that are also trade shows; those will remain in-person and it will still be important to attend them. However, knowledge of important trends can still be gained at these virtual events, and I personally leverage these events to stay updated on the most important trends affecting my customer base. You might also be exposed to a new type of design or piece of software that piques your interest and ends up totally transforming your business.

5. Build a Design Portfolio

As your career advances, you'll work on many designs and you'll have a chance to greatly 

design software

Screenshot of Altium Designer selection grid

You wouldn’t want to waste time dragging tracks across layers.

6. Use Powerful Printed Circuit Board Design Software

Finally, if you're going to go the freelancer route, you can't skimp on design software. You need to have the best tools that the entire industry demands. Realistically, this means you will have to forego many of the luxuries an established company might offer as you puruse your career as a freelancer. To save money, you may consider using a free version of PCB layout designer software. However, selecting PCB design software based on cost alone would be a big mistake.Ultimately, your success as a freelancer depends on your ability to produce excellent results despite tight deadlines. When you’re juggling multiple projects, you will wish that you had selected more intuitive and powerful PCB design software application.

Throughout my freelancing career, I have relied on Altium Designer products. The combination of interactive routing and auto-routing saved me precious time in my projects and enabled me to expand my freelancing career into a full-blown design company. Chances are, Altium Designer will help you kickstart your freelancing career as well.

Wondering how design software can help you in your freelance career? Talk to an expert at Altium Designer to learn more.

About Author

About Author

Zachariah Peterson has an extensive technical background in academia and industry. He currently provides research, design, and marketing services to companies in the electronics industry. Prior to working in the PCB industry, he taught at Portland State University and conducted research on random laser theory, materials, and stability. His background in scientific research spans topics in nanoparticle lasers, electronic and optoelectronic semiconductor devices, environmental sensors, and stochastics. His work has been published in over a dozen peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings, and he has written 2500+ technical articles on PCB design for a number of companies. He is a member of IEEE Photonics Society, IEEE Electronics Packaging Society, American Physical Society, and the Printed Circuit Engineering Association (PCEA). He previously served as a voting member on the INCITS Quantum Computing Technical Advisory Committee working on technical standards for quantum electronics, and he currently serves on the IEEE P3186 Working Group focused on Port Interface Representing Photonic Signals Using SPICE-class Circuit Simulators.

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