Chris Gammell's Analog Life

Analog electronics and everything else between 1 and 0

Category: Work (page 1 of 13)

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

Internet Denizenry

I’m rounding out a stint of travel to Serbia, Germany, the UK and am now back in the states. It has been a wonderful experience, even if I am ready for a bit of quiet at home for a while.

One thing that strikes me as I travel to these foreign destinations and meet new people and experience new things: work stays the same.

This is the effect of spending a large percentage of time in front of a screen. No matter what the surrounding environment, with a wifi connection, a laptop and possibly a VPN, I can access the exact same setup as anywhere else. No surprise to most people, why should work ever change for an internet worker?

It’s actually the effect of having that consistency of experience that intrigues me. Very few other professions (that aren’t primarily screen based) would have the same effect. A doctor in a different country would need to learn the local trends and traditions. A construction worker would need to figure out how the building codes are different. An accountant would need to learn the local tax rules. With the internet, it really starts to normalize.

This combines with the cultural homogenization I observed. I’m not saying that all of the places I visited are converging towards the suburban Ohio experience that I’m accustomed to (thank goodness). But there is a sneaking suspicion that advertisers are following me from country to country as they attempt to penetrate new markets. Life is not a series of advertisements (I hope) but the availability of comforts and fashion across the globe has me questioning daily experience in another country.

On a broader level, this starts to make me question the idea of location and citizenship at all. Hopefully I don’t sound ungrateful for the comforts a US passport and background affords me. But now that I start to experience similar daily experience in and out of work and an overall convergent culture and I start to wonder what differentiates one country over another. On the surface it seems like:

  • Currency
  • Power standards (plugs, voltages)
  • Language (though I benefit from the world moving towards an English standard)
  • Tax structures, bureaucratic struggles and the services the pay for, such as healthcare.

Yes, this is a drastic oversimplification. But calling out these things as some of the large differentiating points, I really wonder what a “internet” passport and citizenship would look like, some kind of new world order simplified across all the willing participants of the web. Not just a tax haven and a lack of regulation (looking at you SeaLand), but an actual society of people that are living and working online. A government run by hackers and makers, optimized for low overhead and allowing maximum flexibility between the various geographies of the world. It would probably be a mess, but allows for an interesting thought experiment. Where would move people choose to live in the real world? How would that further impact culture? What defines citizenship in the first place?

Ultimately, I am grateful for the opportunity to work from a variety of locations and bring my work with me. I continue to be an American and likely would choose that again if given the opportunity. Perhaps I’ll start working from more varied locations though.

 

On The Road Again

One large change in my transition from a desk-based engineer to a “product manager helping desk-based engineers” (and part time basement-based engineer) is the sharp increase in travel. I am writing this post from a hotel room, as I likely will others in the future.

Travel has been a blessing. I get to meet more people in person, make deeper connections with those I have met online and see parts of the world that are drastically different than my basement.

However, I am learning that I thrive in situations that are boring.

A large part of my success on projects like Contextual Electronics was a focus on routines; these were natural extensions of excess time while firmly planted in my house in the midwest. There wasn’t all that much to do on any given weeknight and any social activity takes planning because of the relative distance of my friends in the area. When I’m home, I stay on track with my daily habits. Travel throws a wrench in the works though.

One problem relates to my last post about co-workers. I often work by myself, and that’s when I get a lot of work done. But when I’m with co-workers on the road or at the office, I want to spend time with them! Friends…right next to me! This means dinners and social events and simply sitting down and chatting for extended periods. My rather packed habit schedule does not go for this though.

Ultimately, it comes down to balancing fun and social things with work. That’s the nature of work, right? If I want to continue improving myself, my course and my life, I need to sometimes pass up going out for a beer. I think in general, the coincidence of alcohol and social functions also needs to decrease on travel, but that is a topic for another post. The first thing I will be focusing on is striking a healthy balance between spending time face to face with people I don’t see very often (which is important) and getting work done for the future (which is also important).

Thanks to Moyan Brenn for the picture of the road.

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