Redirecting Beams

For the audio fans out there: I discussed this topic on episode #358 of The Amp Hour

The past couple of years have been a mix of life events for me: I started my course full time, immediately jumped back into the work force (part time), traveled a bunchstarted new projects, sold my old stuff, moved to Chicago, I met my podcast co-host in person and started my life over. It’s been a wild ride. Though there have been ups and downs, I’m super grateful for the opportunities I’ve had and the people I’ve been able to work with.

And since I only seem to post on this blog when I have big news these days, I’ll cut right to the chase: I’m starting a new role as a “developer advocate” at Hologram in mid-September.

Hologram is a start-up based here in Chicago, focused on making  cellular data more accessible for internet-connected hardware projects. This takes the form of a SIM card that can be used with a wide range of cellular hardware. The business model is based around enabling projects to connect via cell towers and then charging for data and services. This is currently possible with other carriers, but not in a flexible way and definitely not in a friendly way for developers; this quickly becomes apparent for devs with a large number of devices and not much data needed per-device. The other neat thing is the ubiquitous nature of the SIM card. As an MVNO, Hologram works across a wide range of cell tower operators and in-between mobile carriers, meaning that devices using these SIM cards will work in a large range of the world.

My job will be talking to people building hardware or software and describing the benefits of using Hologram over something else. So…uh…how’d I do?

The past 3.5 years working at Supplyframe have been great. I have really enjoyed writing for the Supplyframe Hardware blog (something I helped create) and running the monthly hardware meetup called Hardware Developers Didactic Galactic (HDDG). One thing I’ve realized about myself is that I really do enjoy communicating information about electronics, even if I’m not the one with the expertise; this should have been apparent from my continued interest in running The Amp Hour (where Dave and I regularly interview people in the industry) and Contextual Electronics (where we have started a forum to get more community involvement and outside opinions).

Working as the “expert” has been increasingly rare as I moved away from daily electronics design. While I think I have become a better interviewer for the podcast, I think my ability to talk about everyday engineering challenges has faded. There is no replacing everyday anecdotes derived from the stress of creating electronic products. I’m looking forward to creating more hardware projects as part of Hologram, even if they are only example projects to help illustrate a point.

This will be the first time I’ll have co-workers and an office to go into in a long time (since 2014). I’m a bit more nervous about this, simply because it feels like I’ll be stepping backwards in terms of “freedom”. But one thing I’ve learned about remote work in the past few years has been the challenges of communication. Even with the near-infinite modes of communication available to us, nothing replaces face-to-face interaction.  I would find myself looking forward to trips out to the corporate headquarters at Supplyframe because of the high-bandwith transfer of information that is possible when you’re sitting around a conference room table. So joining a local company is a cautious step back towards what I think is important in my working life.

That brings up thoughts about other things that are important to me. In fact, many of these things were present at my former job and I want them to be present at any future employer, including Hologram:

  • Motivated, intelligent co-workers — This is an absolute must for me, but I realized over time that co-workers provide a feedback loop that allows me to create better work.
  • Connection with hardware people — Not necessarily just engineers, but I really enjoy connecting people that are excited about hardware. I started a meetup here in Chicago to do just that.
  • Hands on hardware design — This is something I was moving towards at Supplyframe and something that I get to do as part of my course. But I’m excited at the prospect of making hardware solutions for people looking to connect to the internet and solve problems.
  • Work that has impact — At Supplyframe I was communicating with engineers that were solving real world problems. At Hologram, I’m hoping to also work with people that are solving problems using cellular connectivity.
  • Learning opportunities — I am particularly excited about learning more about how cellular networks work “behind the scenes” and best practices for getting devices hooked up to the internet. This in addition to learning more about how to market to a new group of potential customers.

That last point is important and was tied into my decision to move jobs to this new opportunity. I have been trend-watching on The Amp Hour and as an EE over the past few years. There will always be subject matter experts with deep knowledge around a very focused topic (think “analog design”), but this has inherent risks. Companies that require this depth of knowledge continue to disrespect it; they outsource work to job shops or take advantage of the fact that there are fewer options for these kinds of employees. I think for opportunities as an employee or an entrepreneur, it’s necessary to have a hand in all parts of the process. As a result, I want to focus on more and more of the product design cycle, including sourcing/logistics, firmware and software. I recently wrote about the concept of a “solo engineer“; and while I am interested in working in-person with coworkers on a daily basis again, I truly believe the engineer of the future is capable of achieving a full product design using online services and persistence in their product vision. From an electronics standpoint, chip companies continue to consolidate and offer bespoke chip solutions for very targeted application. I think the solo engineer of the future will be tasked with finding and connecting a potential solution as fast as possible. Optimization is less important than proving out the design. This fast design cycle pace is unlikely to slow anytime soon. Not only is this a skill I’d like to work on (fast iteration), I think there are pieces missing in my ability to get a device operational as fast as possible (the software/platform piece). I’m excited to learn alongside all of you.

Again, I want to reinforce just how grateful I am for everyone I’ve met and interacted with over the past few years. It has been a really wonderful journey and I can’t imagine having done it without all the advice and friendship I’ve gained along the way. I hope to return that favor to others in the coming years; if you have a project you want help getting online, let me know!

A bundle of glass on the seafloor

I’m writing from a plane to Australia, coming off a couple days of holiday in Queenstown, New Zealand. Something was tickling my brain that inspired me to start writing

By the end of my 5 days, I wasn’t exactly yawning at the mountains and beautiful scenery. But I also wasn’t snapping pictures of it non-stop like I did at the beginning of my trip. This is felt like the “hedonic treadmill“. Humans are very good at acclimating to the things in life, including the good things. I stopped to think about another way this acclimatization has impacted me:

The internet has impacted my life more than I ever give it credit for

We all pay it lip service when it’s brought up, but how often do you stop and think about it? Really, how often do you think about how much the internet has changed your life? Perhaps more than I do. But I know I’m used to it. I’m human, I’ve adapted. In fact, I’ve adapted so much I still get upset when I have less-than-stellar wifi (see Louis CK’s bit about wifi on planes). We adapt because it’s always there. The internet and constant connectivity has become such a big part of my life, it has become easy to ignore. So as I fly through the air in a magical metal tube writing on my supercomputer and listen to unlimited music over wifi…I thought I’d take the opportunity to pause and call out my opportunity.

First, let’s talk history: About 8 years ago, I joined a then-small site on the internet called reddit. I had been blogging for a couple years prior to that. A year and a half after joining reddit, I responded to a thread asking whether there are any electronics audio podcasts. There weren’t, so I made my attempt at doing a podcast by myself. It was…not great. But in doing so, a fellow nerd heard my attempt and suggested we try recording one together. After me and Dave recorded 3 episodes, Mike Harrison (from Mike’s Electric stuff) gave our show a name: The Amp Hour.

In the years since, Dave’s following on YouTube has risen to an astounding 400K+ subscribers. I was still working at industrial electronics companies in Cleveland while he started making a living out of it. I took a hint from this move and started my own venture nearly 4 years ago, starting to build an online course about electronics. That directly led to me quitting my engineering job to try my course full time. Shortly thereafter I ended up joining another company. That opportunity has since allowed me to travel the world and write about electronics and meet a wide range of electronics hobbyists and professionals.

All of this was made possible by a bundle of glass on the seafloor.

OK, yes it wasn’t just the intercontinental fiber optic internet lines. There are a lot of other things like laser diodes and networking equipment and the rest of the infrastructure of the internet. But regardless of how much stuff is involved, it really amazes me how much those data pipes have enabled in my life. It amplifies when I think about the events that have transpired as a result of my involvement with The Amp Hour.  Dave and I talk weekly (sometimes along with guests) and connect at near perfect audio quality and minimal lag. How would have we even come close to doing something like this years ago? Writing letters or emails back and forth, maybe? Or satellite links to somehow connect video broadcasts? Sending audio files via tape or wav files? A sometimes-working connection via ham radio when the ionospheric conditions were just right? The truth of the matter is, Dave and I would have never met and our lives would have taken different paths. I wouldn’t be a podcaster, I wouldn’t have the opportunities I have had. I would be living a different life. It’s crazy how much these small decisions have led to my current scenario.

I’ll be meeting Dave in person in a couple hours. I’m looking forward to it. I have been joking on the show that we might just get into a fistfight since we enjoy bickering about topics on-air. The truth is I really respect Dave and have been grateful to get to know him over these past 6.5 years. We give each other feedback on business decisions and discuss things happening in our lives. I’m sure it’ll be weird to see finally see each other in person, but I’ll shake his hand as an old friend.

The internet doesn’t just enable random connections (which this started as), but it enables people to find like-minded people. Even on this trip and the few meetups I have done so far, I hear the same things when I bring people interested in electronics: “I didn’t think there were others interested in the same stuff I am”.  I have always told people this is the best thing about events like “Bring-a-hack” after Maker Faire and the meetups I do in SF, LA and Chicago. Electronics people aren’t known for being particularly social, but it feels good when you find your peer group (or “tribe”). Feeling like we belong is an important part of being human and the internet allows us to find groups we connect with, even when the groups are super niche.

So three cheers to the internet and the shoulders of giants it was built upon! The bounty of the internet continues to bring nerds together from near and far (with more meetups being announced shortly). I look forward to connecting to many more people in the years to come.

Update:

6.5 years later…

A post shared by Chris Gammell (@chrisgammell) on

Pro Bono Engineering

Today I’m announcing a new project: Pro bono engineering. I will be offering a couple hours per week to those in need in an attempt to make a positive impact.

The concept of pro bono is nothing new. It is a common practice in law and medicine. Sometimes as a method for writing off hours at a tax break (though that is on shaky ground with the IRS) and sometimes as a public service; the American Bar Association recommends donating time to those in need to maintain good standing with the law community. And while engineering doesn’t really have a centralized organization for licensure (yes, the National Society of Professional Engineers acts as this for some fields), it is still an important thing to think about. Really it’s about helping people who are not able to afford services. Other precedents exist for this as well, like Engineers Without Borders (EWB), but I am not aware of this existing for electronics/tech projects.

I would love to tell you that I’m doing this solely out of the goodness of my heart, but that’s not how idea started. It primarily started because some of my skills are less sharp than they had been in the past. I have been working on a lot of things in the last 3 years, but I’ve been learning mostly outside of the field of engineering: marketing, product management, business administration. All of these things are necessary, especially for running a small business. But the core skills that I talk about and am proud of are my engineering skills. Much like my strife over selling my drums, moving away from engineering is as much an identity crisis as anything else. I am the first person to talk about the power of “learning by doing” (see also Contextual Electronics), so this is my form of that.

That’s not to say I’m not excited by the prospect of social good and helping people move their projects forwards. As you’ll see in the criteria I lay out below, the project goals will also help me decide which project to prioritize. Really instead of “social good”, I’ll try and focus on “impact”. If I can help a software engineer move a project forward for a device that helps a lot of people (even if it’s a commercial project), I’ll favor that.

But enough about the motivations, as this is really an experiment. I’ll only know it is working once I have tried it out! Let’s take a look at some of the restrictions and guidelines for projects I’m looking to work on:

  • This will be no more than 5 hours per week of my time.
  • You will need to pay for parts. Even when a friend mechanic works on a car for “free”, you’re often paying for the parts.
  • I will be working in KiCad. This is my eCAD of choice. If there is mechanical or other work, I’ll help out how I can (have been learning Fusion 360).
  • I will be talking and writing about all projects I help with. If you have a “secret” project, you probably should be hiring someone to help you out.
  • There are restrictions on what I’ll agree to work on, including life-critical and dangerous projects. Really I am the only person who decides what I’ll be working on.
  • Projects with existing documentation (even background info counts) will be given priority as that helps to assess the project. There is a place on the form below to add info about where to find the documentation.

So the last thing is that I am taking the “applications” for this via Google Forms. You can access the form directly here and I will attempt to embed the form below.

I am hopeful I will be able to help a lot of people and find great new people to work with. If you have thoughts or questions, please leave them in the comments below.

Thank you Antonella Beccaria for the picture of helping hands