Remote Robotics Consulting - 3.5 Years In
This is the third blog post in the series of posts summing up my experience working as a Robotics Consultant. My recent realisation is that I’ve been consulting for half my career now, so hopefully some of the things I’ve learnt along the way will help someone else out there.
Previous Blog Posts
If this update is your entry point to my reflections on working as a remote Robotics Consultant, then you might want to start with my previous blog posts: 1 Year In, 2 Years In. I’ll do my best not to talk about the same things, but instead focus on the things that have either changed or that I’ve developed new thoughts on.
High Level Business Update
Let’s start with the client maps, as I’ve had 10 new clients since the last update:
When it comes to clients, there have been some significant changes to my approach since the last update. I have two different rates for clients now. Simply put, for short-term engagement work, I charge more than for long-term clients. I’ve found that this approach has helped a lot with my work-life balance and that the premium for short-term consultations adds some motivation to fit them outside my standard working hours.
In the previous update, I mentioned that I’ve started evaluating EU funding proposals to make sure your tax money is spent well. I’m still doing that and so far I’ve been involved in five evaluations. Even though these evaluations don’t pay nearly as good as consulting, they are a very good business exercise. On top of this, ensuring that tax money is spent on quality projects that can really elevate companies makes me feel good!
Pandemic and Health
I’ve been lucky that the COVID-19 pandemic did not affect my projects and so I’ve maintained a steady stream of work since I started consulting. I also didn’t catch COVID, which was a plus! The way COVID did affect me, however, was that I was days away from burning out. This is because I took on too many projects than I could handle, and got bored out of my mind with all the social restrictions and locked gyms.
Then, once everything started opening up again, I continued overshooting:
- I kept the same number of projects (often worked on weekends)
- I started going to the gym
- I continued running
I got to a point where I wanted to make up all the time away from the gym and so I was going to the gym three times a week, and running in the days between. After about 2-3 weeks of this, my body seemed to have had enough and I lost all energy for about three weeks; I had issues with getting enough sleep and as a result, I was not really capable of doing any exercise.
As I’m writing this post, I think I’ve found a balance with going to the gym three times a week and running at the gym for a short period of time. The risk of burnout also seemed to have gone away with the realisations described in the next section.
Working with Clients
I’ve found that a switch to remote working for many offices due to the pandemic actually made me more ingrained within the teams I have worked with. Usually, the teams I work with are within the same building, but with everyone switching to remote working, we were all constrained to the same means of communications.
Another thought I have about remote work is that in one of my previous posts I’ve mentioned that it’s hard to work remotely with hardware. I still hold that opinion, but I’ve found that with experience, it’s less and less time consuming, as long as the team ‘on the ground’ can test my updates and provide me with feedback.
When I was writing my previous updates, around 90-95% of my projects were from Upwork. Sometime at the beginning of 2021, there was a big reversal, and nowadays more people reach out to me directly, than through Upwork. This works quite well most of the time, as I don’t have to pay 20% platform fees for short projects. What I miss though is the payment security. So far I’ve been sending out invoices after the consultations, even for new clients, but as some customers have been late with their payments, I’ll probably need to look into being paid upfront for the first few engagements. The risk is manageable for short-term consultations, but investing one month into the work, and then stressing out about the customer being late on payment is something I would not recommend.
When it comes to consulting projects in the past 1.5 years, I focused on the following:
- A modular mobile robot with Ross Robotics.
- An unmanned boat for automatic scanning bodies of water with Simple Unmanned < a nice dive into bathymetry (pun intended).
- An industrial robotics project that I won’t share any details on at this time.
- Multiple 1 hour-long consultations on SLAM, LiDARs, mobile robots.
- The EU evaluation projects I mentioned previously.
In my previous ‘2 Years In’ post, I mentioned the negative aspects of context switching, how I was trying to avoid it and how I would do it, at most, 2-3 times a day. In the past three months or so, I have taken it to yet another level and started booking ‘customer days’. This fully eliminates context switching, and if I’ve agreed with a customer to be available on Mondays, Wednesday and Thursdays, then they are assured I’ll be reachable. If I have any extra consultations, they come after-hours.
There is one more realisation I had about time this year: I can’t work more than six hours a day on tasks requiring a high level of focus. This will vary slightly depending on the task, but I’ve noticed that accepting this has resulted in the following for me:
- Feeling way better with my work-life balance.
- Taking less projects -> feeling less stressed (consultants who went through the conjunction of deliverables for 3 projects at the same time will know what I’m talking about).
- Producing higher quality results and thus being more cost efficient to clients.
Weekly Robotics, the newsletter that I’ve been maintaining since August 2018, is still my favourite project. Thinking of it, it’s crazy that I haven’t missed a single issue since I started this project. So far this year I’ve clocked 170 hours working on this project, and right now we are sitting at 2,700 e-mail subscribers.
The biggest introduction to the newsletter this year was the meetups. In the first season, we had 12 presenters on all kinds of topics related to our industry. We have restarted the series this fall and I’m really looking forward to keep on learning! If you would like to join any of our meetups, then you can either subscribe to the newsletter, or follow us on Eventbrite.
The only recurring funding I get for the newsletter is the Patreon, where we have 21 patrons. Occasionally, I post referral links to the Humble Books Bundle (just like this one) related to technology. If a reader decides to purchase the bundle, they can choose to give a portion of the price to the newsletter. So far, most of the sponsored posts were me bartering the space in the newsletter for discounts/media sponsorship/robotic hardware.
I don’t think the newsletter will ever come close to supplying as much profit as consulting does, given that I spend 3-6 hours a week on it, but I think the newsletter is a great investment for the following reasons:
- I have a good motivation to stay up-to-date on the industry.
- I love that I have a chance to discuss thoughts and ideas with industry experts on the WR Slack; having some sense of community around the project feels good.
- It helps a lot with discussions with potential clients, as it shows I’m consistent.
I’m not sure if anyone cares, but in September 2020, I moved to Prague, rented a workshop and proceeded to take things to the next level. City-wise, I love it! There are so many activities to choose from, nice parks and good beer, but I have to say, I miss the French mountains quite a bit.
I still have a long way to go with the workshop, but having so much space (45 square meters to be exact) for activities is great. I also discovered that I’m much more productive in the office than at home. Having a clear separation between work and home life seriously boosts my productivity. Another plus is that it’s much easier to keep the rooms clean without having so many tools lying around.
I plan to keep on the current track for the foreseeable future. I will definitely keep acting on my ROS2 FOMO, as I quite enjoy it so far - more news on that in about six months!
Even though I’ve learnt to say no to the robotics projects, I still can’t seem to say no to more exotic opportunities. This usually ends up as follows:
Of course I will be a technical reviewer for your robotics book.
You want me to develop a ROS course? Say no more!
I’m supposed to be an influencer to your brand on LinkedIn? Let’s do it!
Yes, I will join your Board of Directors (this hasn’t happened yet, but I have a strange feeling this will be my answer).
I think these are all the thoughts that I have to share this time. Thanks for reading and keep on roboting!