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ESC Chicago and Sensors Conference and Expo, Day 2


What a whirlwind day. I started at 7:30 am and I ended at 10:30 pm, my mind still reeling. I was talking Beagle Boards and Agile processes in the morning and discussing the media (with the media) and visiting hackerspaces in the evening. But the best part about it? I felt like there were a lot of people around me that cared about similar stuff to what I do.

I am lucky enough to work with some of these people as well. But the nerd population in Cleveland isn’t at the critical mass that occurs at conferences nor at hackerspaces. So yesterday was a great opportunity to converse on some of the topics I love with people who were interested to hear it (in person of course, I realize there are many great people who “listen” to me on this site…thanks!).

The theme I kept finding throughout the day (or perhaps was seeking), was figuring out where the communities are and why hardware engineers (or even embedded engineers) don’t seem to congregate in one place. This started in the morning talking to James Grenning, a consultant and coach on Agile methodologies; I got talking to him and found that many of the same issues I’ve seen in trying to find analog communities, he has also seen in the embedded community. “Where are they?” we ask. “Why doesn’t there seem to be as much involvement online from the electronics community?”. James specializes in bringing Agile to the embedded community; easy to find people to speak with about the Agile part, less so for the embedded folks.

Towards the end of the day, I had the opportunity to talk to the folks at Element 14, a new engineering community site. I had heard about them earlier in the day; they were on the conference floor giving away iPads and the usual conference swag.  How does a “community” site have the money to attend a conference though? I later found out that they are a subsidiary of Premier Farnell, one of the top 10 electronics components distributors and recent acquirers of the EAGLE CAD program. As of right now, I’m underwhelmed with the site itself (NI uses the same interface and it’s not all that friendly to the eye nor the user), but not necessarily the content. It seems to have some involvement right now, but not the levels that I really desire (I’m hard to please!); I do like that they have qualified “experts” on hand, but haven’t taken a good enough look at them yet to judge how “expert” they might be (assuming I could even tell something like that). I will keep an eye on Element 14 though, because of one of their innovative programs: linking manufacturers to customers. They offer beta services, as in finding and requesting feedback from users on a range of products. In terms of value a site can have for both the user and the sponsors, I believe this is a strong one.

Next I got to meet Karen Field, the head of the new EETimes community, EELife. While this site hasn’t been released yet, the article I saw on it looked like a fancy implementation of a location to share info with other engineers. In fact, it may have been a little too fancy–the release of the site was pushed out from its proposed date. Still, I’m hopeful that the site could actually bring people together. EETimes has a great following in print and online; if there’s one place that people might think to go to first, EETimes might have the name recognition to do it.

Here’s the thought that keeps irking me though: the corporate world isn’t great at “social”. It doesn’t help that engineers aren’t quite social creatures by nature. Sure, some companies use social media to their advantage, but a lot more are using it wrong.

I got a chance to talk to Jason Kridner about why this might be. Jason is one of the many passionate members behind the Beagle Board group, a high powered open-source hardware board based on the TI OMAP processor (though Jason explained that the Beagle Board is a separate entity in every way from TI). When I asked him why communities such as the Beagle Board developers come together, he stated it simply and succinctly: “They unite behind a common purpose”. In the case of the Beagle Board, it’s about having a high power processor on an open platform (possibly contrasted with a slightly simpler Arduino board using an AVR processor, also on an open platform). And the community shows; there are many open projects you can pull down from the GIT tree and start immediately on your Beagle Board. The ones that excite me most are the DIYdrone types of projects.

At the meet and greet later in the evening, I started talking with some conference attendees that also happened to be members of the local hackerspace. They invited me to attend one of their weekly meetings at their location. The Pumping Station 1 (PS1) hackerspace/makerspace has been around for about 2 years now and is one of the only in Chicago as of now (more are forming). It was great seeing this area of shared tools, DIY projects and a general atmosphere of collaboration, for no reason more than these people wanted to make stuff in their spare time. And one of the things I found most interesting is that many of the projects going on at the space were embedded projects! The desire to have things talk wireless almost demands that you start to delve into low level code and be able to get your device talking to another device. So while I came to learn about the broad range of sensors and embedded devices this week, I ended up finding the lower-end (in terms of system complexity) but used for unique and intricate implementations (they had built their own MakerBot to CNC parts right there in the lab…amazing!).

So what was the conclusion to my small quest for finding community among the different factions of the electronics industry? There isn’t one general location or place to gather. And possibly for good reason. It’s more like a democratic republic in that way, where members get to vote with their feet. Say a platform really starts to bog down and no one is developing on it anymore. People aren’t tied to it because the “community” is locked in; instead they just pick up and move platforms. “Don’t like the PIC anymore? Switch to an OMAP! OMAP too expensive? Switch to an AVR!” So perhaps the real need is instead an active listing of where to find all these different communities, in whatever form they take; message boards, blogs, video tutorials, anything and everything–as long as the list stays current, it will be valuable. In fact it would be much more valuable than trying to pull in every single person into one platform.

I didn’t come to these two conferences for this purpose. I could have looked for it at home while browsing the web (I’ve done that before too). But in the midst of walking among many smart people and many products made by other smart people I’ve collected hints. Where to look and who to talk to in order to find the most people interested in technology, in whatever form or level of complexity it may take.

By Chris Gammell

Chris Gammell is an engineer who talks more than most other engineers. He also writes, makes videos and a couple podcasts. While analog electronics happen to be his primary interests, he also dablles in FPGAs and system level design.

3 replies on “ESC Chicago and Sensors Conference and Expo, Day 2”

I attended the ESC in San Jose last month, and I have been thinking about similar things. I sent you an email, please check your junk folder.

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