Chris Gammell's Analog Life

Analog electronics and everything else between 1 and 0

Category: Consulting

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

First Day Rejection

Well, it’s my first day out on my own and I have already had a rejection. Whee!

In reality, it was a contract job that I bid on without too much expectation of getting the work. I definitely was not counting on this work as part of my survival in my new jump to self employment. Mostly it was an interesting problem that I would have enjoyed working on and I would have been able to work with some good people; this is my main disappointment with not getting the work.

However, I did get feedback on my proposal, which is great. A lot of times, people will just blow you off and you later get the, “Oh, we went with someone else” a few months down the road. The feedback was positive, that the proposal was well enough done, which was reassuring because I haven’t submitted many in the past. The reality of the situation was that they decided to go with a completely different architecture for the project, which I had no chance of doing well. As such, their decision to not go with me was a good one.

I suppose the biggest disappointment after “not getting the work” was that I failed to convince them to see my solution as the best solution (really the point of any proposal). I knew this would be an uphill battle from the beginning as the project manager seemed to favor the other way of architecting the solution. But how do you change someone’s mind when they have been envisioning a particular type of solution from the beginning? This isn’t isolated to this situation, I have experienced a preconceived notion by managers in the past.

I could complain about a manager making a decision in a vacuum, but the truth is, I don’t know if this decision was made in a vacuum. In fact, it could be that the solution that was asked for is in fact the best way to go forward. If I really wanted (or needed) the work, I suppose I could tailor a solution to the manager’s preconceived notion, quickly iterate on it and show how it ultimately will fail as a final solution and then be ready to propose the alternate (better) solution. Is this realistic as a contractor? No. I think from the outset if you plan on failure, you’re going to hurt your reputation. Plus, as I mentioned above, I have no way of actually creating the (preconceived) solution, so this wouldn’t have even been an option for me. I think the only real way for me to win this (long term) would be to develop this solution on my own for fun/educational purposes and then be at the ready to offer it up later as a possible solution, assuming the preconceived method does ultimately fail. In reality, I have other things to get done, so I’ll just wait and see if they call and I’ll start on the work then.

So yeah, first day out of the gate and I’ve already had a rejection! It feels good to get it out of my system…I’m sure no more will happen in the future…right? RIGHT? Riiiiiiiiiiiight.

So Chris, Where Have You Been?

Well,  a lot of places.

But not around here too much. And when I’ve been here, it hasn’t been the most in-depth writing I’ve ever done (except my unusually thought out post comparing engineers to a fictional character, check that out if you haven’t, not many people noticed it). I can’t say I will be writing again full time in the near future, but maybe in the future after that. So here’s a quick rundown of where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing if you don’t already know:

The Amp Hour

Reading through a few posts or sidebars on this site and you may have noticed The Amp Hour, my weekly radio show with Dave Jones of EEVblog. It’s been going really well so far I think. We just finished episode 23 and have about 1000 regular listeners. It’s been really interesting getting my thoughts out in a different manner than writing and I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that I’m now spoiled by getting my thoughts out “Off The Cuff”. However, there is still a place for planned out articles and this is the place I intend to put those thoughts.

Consulting

Earlier this year, I started a company, Analog Life, LLC. I began consulting for projects outside of my day job (in a non-related industry, with full approval of my day job, of course). I hadn’t really mentioned it on here before, but since it’s already linked in multiple places and listed on my LinkedIn profile, I figure I can explain myself.  This has been the biggest consumer of my time lately outside of work and has been a wonderful learning experience. From the business side of things, to the work I am doing, to the juggling of tasks outside of regular work, all have been new experiences for me.

Pondering My Future

In the remaining hours of my days before collapsing into bed at night, I have been thinking about long term plans and how it might affect the path I am on currently. First and foremost are my personal relationships. If you’re working 14 hour days (effectively) and don’t think your relationships will suffer…well, you’re probably working with the other person. And even then, the relationship can be strained. So I’ve been talking over and considering how working more will cause tradeoffs in my personal life. Am I willing to give up time with my family in order to pursue work that might advance my career? Is the work I’m doing actually advancing my career or just making me money? If it’s the latter, is the money justification enough for not spending time with them?

In talking with others in my field about this subject, other questions have bubbled to the surface, some even relating to consulting. Why am I consulting and what is the eventual goal? Will I need more education to continue in a technical role in engineering? Is consulting enough of a real world education in order to not require an MS in engineering?

Onward

There is really one question that drives all other conversations: What do I want to do (when I grow up)?

I like the idea of being my own boss and owning a business and even selling some sort of product someday (aside from design services), but right now I have neither enough experience with it to say if I like it nor any idea what kind of product I might sell someday. The latter isn’t too much of a concern, but not knowing if I desire that lifestyle could influence my present day decisions.  Here’s the highest level decisions I see myself having to make in the near future:

  • If I plan on being in a technical role at someone else’s company (i.e. employed by a corporation that is not mine) for an extended period, I should go get a Master’s of Science Degree.
  • If I plan on moving into a management role at someone else’s company, I should go target an MBA or a Master’s of Engineering degree (somewhat like a combo MS and MBA).
  • If I plan on consulting for a while longer, I should continue to build relationships and seek out new clients for more work (an ongoing struggle from what I hear from my consulting friends).
  • If I plan on trying to start my own company with a viable product, I should get on my way trying and failing (believe me, I don’t expect to succeed at that at first if I do it, but I understand the value of failing in electronics). I should also begin learning to pitch to investors, as I realize this is the most critical skill of starting a business.
  • If I plan on being a technology media personality, I need to work at it more. It would involve trying to make revenue through blogs, videos, sponsorship, advertising, etc. If this is the case, I had better post more often than once a month, eh?
  • I could not worry about this for a few years, keep my head down, keep learning and hope I’m rewarded for my efforts through my day job. While this is part of any of the plans above, I don’t really feel like this is a “plan” (though I’m sure some would advise me to do just that).

I love hearing peoples’ advice and stories about their own careers, but I’m very realistic: no path is the same and what is good for someone else is not necessarily good for me. That doesn’t mean I won’t listen though, because in talking to a just a few people, I have learned SO much. So I guess for anyone else out there wondering the same things as I’m wondering, my advice would be talk to people. Weird advice from an engineer, I know, but I’m not your standard engineer, am I?

So go forth! And chattify! Or chat in the comments. Yes, I prefer that actually. Thanks for reading.