Moving up the stack, from hardware to IoT

This post talks about my past few years of work doing hardware consulting and realizing just how many clients are looking for help building IoT projects. I’d like to offer more services to that segment of customers, so I need to take on more skills. In the process, I joined a startup that enables people just like me.

Some of the content of this article was also discussed on my podcast The Amp Hour, on episode 569

When we last left off…

The last time I did a career post on my blog, I wrote about how I would be “Redirecting Beams”. That was really an announcement about how I was going to work for Hologram, a cellular MVNO. I was super excited about getting to work on hardware and interacting directly with developers. I was less enthused when Hologram stopped making embedded hardware.

While I still like and use the cellular service that Hologram provides, I politely declined to continue working with them. After stating I was happiest when I was doing hands-on electronics design, my then-girlfriend thought aloud “Hey, maybe you should try to do that all the time. Isn’t that what consultants do?”. I have been doing hardware consulting for industrial and commercial clients ever since via my company, Analog Life LLC. I have also married that wonderful woman, you don’t let that kind of insight go.

What a wonderful and unexpected gift that has been. Moving into hardware consulting felt similar to my experience early in my career: being overwhelmed with all the things I had to learn and then realizing the patterns and pitfalls of design. I was stronger than I remembered. I could do this. I got out of my head and started to enjoy the process. I continued to find work and clients that needed help getting things out into the world.

Down at the hardware level

I love building electronics. I was lucky enough to find clients with interesting problems where I got to design circuit boards on a regular basis. But I realized I needed a large slate of clients to keep me busy, not just one large client. Why?

I normally refer to hardware work as “choppy”. Unlike past jobs at large corporations, small consulting clients don’t need circuit boards built, tested, debugged, and redesigned over and over again. If I’m doing my work correctly, I am not needed after the beginning of the design cycle. Iteration happens after we wring out all of the bugs, including on the firmware and software.

Moving up to firmware

I like making money and billing hours…so why not try to take on more of the work? I decided to start “moving up the stack”, not just designing hardware, but also offering firmware design services to customers. To ensure I was offering a good product, I started hiring tutors, learning more of the firmware side of things, and offering to take on that part of consulting projects for my clients. Not every project was a good fit, if they had very specific or difficult firmware needs. But some of the firmware projects were simple implementations and I was able to use unbilled time and hired help for tough portions of the code in order to deliver at least a proof-of-concept.

If I really wanted to learn how to do all of the firmware work, I should take on the risk of being the end client. An added benefit is I could talk about every aspect of it on The Amp Hour or on the newly launched Contextual Electronics Podcast. This time lined up with the start of the COVID lockdowns, so I took the leap and started the Advanced BLE-CELL (ABC) board for Contextual Electronics.

I started with what I knew: the hardware. I recorded a video per day on a design that had been in my head, based on client requests. It would be a template for various industrial companies wanting to create low-cost, bespoke cellular projects. I would have not only a cellular modem (BG95), but also a low cost and popular Bluetooth SOC onboard (nRF52840).

6 months later, I had a slate of videos for people to watch of me going through the entire process from concept all the way through writing firmware to get the first blinking LED on board. But…what about connecting this thing to the internet?

Building products, not just boards

A quick aside: A couple of years back, a mechanical engineer sent me a DM about wanting to design a Bluetooth-based widget for his shop. He asked if I could teach him how to build one. I explained that I could teach him many aspects of electronics: how an LED worked, which components to choose, how to layout a circuit board that contained a Bluetooth module or SOC. Building an entire product was out of the scope for Contextual Electronics. He politely declined and moved on to build one with a development shop. As I thought about his request and the required skills, I realized I also required this training: it was out of the scope of things I would be capable of doing on my own. I always assumed I would be working on a team that would have a firmware engineer or that I could hire one for a consulting job.

Since I didn’t yet have the capabilities to build the entire system, I hired someone to help me build the ABC system. I wanted to move the project forward, so I decided to hire someone from Upwork. Not only to develop some of the firmware but to teach me in the process (that was part of the job listing).

I also wanted to learn about Real-Time Operating Systems (RTOS), so I included that in the job requirement. An RTOS would enable networking, more precisely controlled operations on microcontrollers, and simplify scheduling of tasks as more was asked of the device. Asking around, I kept hearing about the Zephyr Project, which was a cross-platform, open-source RTOS. I had another client who was also using Zephyr, so after some preliminary research, I chose that for the ABC board.

I hired a firmware engineer named Bilal to write firmware and show me the ropes of Zephyr. He wrote a driver for the cellular modem on the ABC board in Zephyr that we ended up contributing back to the project (pushing upstream). Bilal was a great teacher and we recorded some videos together about the process.

Moving up to the network (IoT) level

Looking at my consulting projects, I realized almost all of them involved adding connectivity to older projects or creating new projects that also have connectivity. What’s more, I had placed myself the same position some of my clients were in. I have a device, I have hired someone to build me hardware and firmware. What do we do with the data being generated from the device? I started looking for options for connecting things to the internet and handling network traffic.

Once again I would need to learn how to to “move up the stack”. It’s not enough to have firmware and hardware designed to communicate from the ABC board. If I wanted to take on more of this project and future IoT projects, I would have to learn how to write software on the receiving side (the internet). Bilal got the project to the point where it was sending MQTT messages (a messaging protocol) over cellular to a test server, but now what?

It was around this time that I got in touch with a friend who lived in the Bay Area. Jonathan had been working at companies like Particle, Google Nest, WeWork, and we chatted about his new startup idea. I mentioned my work with Bilal on Zephyr and he mentioned how his new company was working on a potential solution. I asked Jonathan to come on The Amp Hour in a few months’ time to talk about the startup. He was still in “stealth” mode, so instead, we chatted more generally about what makes IoT difficult. We were not short on topics. I complained about the hardware aspects and the opaqueness of what happens to data after it leaves the device. He mentioned the structural problems of being locked into cloud providers and developing vertically integrated solutions. Embedded devices like the ABC board require such specific architecture to all work together, and many of the choices that impact an IoT platform a year into development are made the day that a hardware engineer starts the schematic for a product. IoT is indeed difficult, and Jonathan laid out a plan for how to make it better. I agreed there’s a lot of room for improvement and went back to work on my shoddy implementation on the ABC board, since I was now trying to make things work on my own.

Switching to an exciting new product

The ABC board was put aside around this time for a very interesting, very new project: my daughter was a few months out from being born. I needed to prepare my consulting clients for me to take some time off. The timing worked out that a couple of my client projects were winding down anyway, so I was able to slide into a self-funded paternity leave alongside my wife.

As I emerged from the early parenting sleep-deprivation haze, I started thinking about the ABC board and restarting development. How was I going to get this board sending data to the internet? Where do I send that data? Who needs the data? How do I manage devices that I have created and deployed into the field? How do I package this up for future clients and sell the ABC board as a “starting point” for their cellular and Bluetooth designs? So many questions to answer.

Jonathan also got in touch and updated me on the progress of the company (Golioth) as he prepared to announce the availability to the world. I learned more about how it basically was designed to answer many of the questions I had. Golioth is built on top of Zephyr. It provides cloud infrastructure to connect to each of your devices. It has a “console” to manage these devices. It talks to MCUboot (an open-source bootloader) on the device to send updates over the air devices in the field. It has a built-in database function called LightDB so you can send and receive updates from the device.

It felt like Golioth was designed for me. It kind of was. Not me. But hardware engineers. Jonathan asked if I wanted to do some consulting around developer relations, helping support engineers understand the value of the platform and how to use it. So I have been doing that since June of 2021, making videos and onboarding new users to the platform. I enjoyed working with the team so much, I decided to join officially as of November 2021, so I can be part of the company long-term.

Moving up the stack, from hardware to the cloud

I have successfully been “moving up the stack” and doing hardware, firmware, and cloud, using Golioth. Towards the beginning of my consulting for Golioth, I also met a small software team looking to build an IoT product, so I recommended trying Golioth for fast prototyping and easy scaling later. I was able to create a proof of concept design using an off-the-shelf cellular modem, some external electronics, and some of the samples that Golioth offers. This prototype could:

  • Communicate over cellular networks
  • Had firmware on the microcontroller that controls/reads
    • Solenoids
    • LEDs
    • Reed switches
  • Had full access to push and pull data to the device from a web terminal (which could also be accessed via a REST API)
  • Had over-the-air firmware update capability

And all of that took 3 hours to build.

I’m not saying I have solved creating any random IoT device. But I am much more capable as a result of this new platform. Now that I’m working with Golioth, I’m going to build my muscles around building fast turn-around prototypes and securely connecting things to the internet. One of my good friends is joining the team and we’re going to work together to build interesting devices.

I still have a lot to learn, especially around Zephyr and the network side of things. But I’m excited to keep building lots of interesting hardware in the future. Check out the Golioth YouTube channel and blog to see what I have been building and talking about lately.


DC to RF…Starting Where? (CCCamp2019)

Analog Electronics Conferences

Improve your circuit toolbox – Simple designs that will save your next product

I had the honor of speaking at the 2018 Hackaday Superconference over the weekend. It is one of my favorite conferences of the year. The engineers and makers I met there are focused on using their creative energy to make the world a more interesting and better place. I posted a preview of this talk in my “Humble Indicator LED” post earlier this year. This later morphed into the talk shown below. It’s about circuit designs that I have found or used in my life to save products. Watch the talk here:

Corrections (of course):

  • 7:10: The LED schematic for the on/off indicator was copied without testing. A working version is here.
  • 23:30: In the course of being cheeky I call it an instrumentation amp (wrong), but later correctly call it a differential amplifier.

Many people have been asking for the slides, I have them here:

Download the pdf of these slides here

Looking to get in touch with me about these slides, my course, the podcast or hiring me to work on an electronics design? Check out the contact page.

I’ve turned off the comments for this post, as I’d love to discuss this over on the Contextual Electronics forum. Please stop by and let me know what you think!

Analog Electronics

The humble indicator LED

I proposed a talk to the Hackaday Superconference yesterday titled,  “Improve your circuit toolbox: Simple designs that will save your next product”.

While I don’t know if the talk will be accepted, I thought it could be a good discussion regardless and thought I could write out some thoughts here. I haven’t been writing much lately and wanted to stretch my muscles again, so why not?

The first circuit on that list will be an indicator LED.

Yep, that simple of a circuit. Allow me to share a diagram:

The power of the blink

All this circuit does is light up. When the user inserts batteries and enables the circuit via a physical switch, the power flows through the regulator and lights up D4 which is a red LED. That’s it.

The crazy thing about this circuit? The LED indicator was not implement until rev 3 of the design! Prior to implementing this I only knew the status of the board when I put a DMM across the power terminals.

Throughout the testing of the above project and in many other projects, I have shorted things out by accident. When there is a power indicator LED on board that starts to blink because I’m dragging down the power rail, it’s easier to stop doing what I’m doing. If that isn’t there, sometimes the only indicator is another part of the circuit communicating intermittently or the switching converter starting to whine.

The serial blink

Arduino users will know this one well, there are LEDs that are attached to the serial lines. When you’re programming the board or transmitting back via the serial console, the indication is obvious.

You need to be careful with your serial lines, ensuring your LEDs don’t pull too hard on the lines. Set your current with the proper sized resistors so you don’t mess up the edges of your serial lines. When in doubt, take them out.

Blink is optional

You don’t need to end up populating these parts when you go to production. Your low power product might not be able to spare the milliamps of current. You can either “turn down” the resistor brightness by using a higher value resistor or you can leave the LED out entirely when you’re certain you have a stable product.

Your eyes are test equipment

While these circuits are super simple, it effectively re-purposes your eyes as test equipment. There is a high amount of light sensitivity in the human eye and even small changes like brightness difference or flicker will showcase that “something is different” if not “something is wrong”.

LED indicators will help you troubleshoot your next product. Be sure to add them to any/all of the following:

  • Input power
  • Output power – After your custom regulation
  • Output power – After regulation happening on a chip or module
  • USB power (if separate from your input power)
  • Battery charging
  • Serial lines
  • Status LEDs
Life Work

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!

Life Podcast

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.


6.5 years later…

A post shared by Chris Gammell (@chrisgammell) on

Consulting Engineering Work

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


Intermission: Act 1 of 3

I turned 33 last week.

While I have no guarantees of making it to 99, I like the idea that this birthday could potentially mark the first third of my journey to living to 99. Who knows? I could live even longer…or I could die tomorrow. Either way, I like the idea of being a third of the way to a destination; the numbers tickle my brain. It also presents a good time to pause between the acts in the play of my life and make some announcements.

Before I do, I want to explain that I have no reason to explain myself. I still feel compelled to. I think it’s because this will act as a marker for future things, future announcements. Talking about the things that have happened will make it easier to talk about other things that will happen. “Ooo, cryptic, Chris. Just get on with it already!”

Midwest, but more…west.

The biggest piece of news is that I moved from Cleveland to Chicago last week.


This is a rather big change for me. I spent more than 12 years in Cleveland and I was a big advocate for the area (I also was a “colonist”, as I tried to recruit others to move there). I went to school at CWRU, took a 2 year hiatus working in Austin TX and then headed back to Cleveland. That’s also about the time I started this blog. Jeez, 8+ years ago.

Cleveland has been in the press a lot lately: the Cavs winning the championship last season (meh), the Republican National Convention (the city didn’t burn down! woo!) and generally more economic development coming to the region, both in and out of manufacturing (yay!). I’ve always liked it in Cleveland. I liked it when I went to school there. I even liked it through the disastrous financial crisis of 2009. Mostly I liked it when I hung out with the people who understood and liked the city. Really the people were one of the few reasons to stick around, since I haven’t worked for a company based in Cleveland for two and a half years (unless you count mine). So I’m glad I am still going to get that midwest vibe with Chicago, even if it ends up being a little grittier or different.

Wait, why the move?

Yes, you’ve figured it out. This is not the only change that happened in my life. My move was motivated by a big change in my personal life, namely splitting up with my now-ex-wife.  That was a year-long process made official a few weeks ago as well. I’m obviously sad it didn’t work out, but I couldn’t have asked for a more civil and adult ending to a relationship. For that, I’m really grateful. We’re still friends and we talk often.

This also led to a whirlwind of other large life events that normally accompany such a split and a move:

  • Selling a house.
  • Selling my car and going car-free.
  • Getting a new apartment in the city (change of lifestyle).

Needless to say, I’ve been under some strain lately.


Yes, any time I mention that I have moved (especially to people in tech), I get the question, “Why didn’t you move to California??” While I understand where they are coming from, I get a little upset at the assumption that the only place to work on electronics/tech is California. No one asks Californian tech workers, “Why don’t you move to Shenzhen?? That’s where all the electronics are actually made!” I don’t plan to lay out all the reasons for choosing Chicago, but I will say it was a conscious choice and the right choice for me right now. I still travel out to California regularly but I’m interested in being a promoter for hardware outside the ecosystem of electronics out there.

Curtain Up, Act 2

While I’ve gone through a range of emotions in the past year, I can’t stress how excited I am for the future

Starting over again at 33 for my personal life is a little bit stressful, but I can’t be anything but grateful. All of the things that led me to where I am today, all of the people I’ve met and all of the things I’ve experienced; all of these things have enriched my life and made me the person I am.

As for Chicago, I’m really really excited to be living here. Travel is easy to the entire continental US (and major flights to Asia or Europe), there is a growing startup community (including a huge new hardware space) and the people seem to be a creative, down-to-earth crowd. I’m interested in meeting new people and bringing people together around hardware and I hope to be doing that in my new home.

If you’re stopping through Chicago at any point, let me know! I would love to meet up and show you around.


Thanks to the Vancouver City Archives for the Intermission image and Bert Kaufmann for the picture of Chicago.


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.



Language Barriers

Despite my love of words, I have never actually picked up another language. I have “studied” both French and Japanese in school for multiple years, but neither of those stuck past a few phrases and vague recognition. While the courses are often emphasized in education, actual long term proficiency (or really long term practice) is never a priority. Thus, American kids don’t normally speak two languages unless a second one is learned at home.

I’m currently in Germany and headed to Serbia soon. I have been in both of these countries once before and rather enjoy the sounds of both languages (obviously I glean a couple of “freebie” words in German, so I’m a bit more partial to that). For both languages/places, I feel super awkward about my linguistic cluelessness. Something I pride myself on is my proficiency of communicating with other humans (ie. explaining an engineering concept to a non-engineer); but in other languages, that skill is completely worthless. It’s like I’ve lost a portion of my brain. It’s like I’m helpless.

I have friends who have started picking up languages by daily practice with tools like Duolingo (a really great app in it’s own right); but the successful ones are those who are immersing themselves in some way. It seems that the key piece is not just grammar or vocabulary, but being ok with working on your skills. Perhaps the most key skill is dealing with the imminent awkwardness of learning a new tongue.

I’m not sure when I will have time to pick up a new language, but I might try to put myself into a situation where I don’t have a choice.

Thanks to Laura for the awkward photo