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"Chris Gammell's Analog Life" - 5 new articles

  1. The magic of books
  2. (KiCad) Information Wants To Be Free
  3. As big as…space
  4. Don’t Wait For Permission
  5. I’m in the knowledge business, not the hardware business
  6. Search Chris Gammell's Analog Life
  7. Prior Mailing Archive

The magic of books

What is it about books? They still hold a place of magic in our society and to me.

I have had a few opportunities to write a book or two now, at least the offer to begin writing one or talk about writing one. I have passed on all of them so far. Not because I don’t want to. I actually would quite enjoy it. However, talking to all the people I know who have written (technical) books have told me two things:

  1. It’s really really really hard
  2. It’s really worth it.

How am I supposed to process that? I suppose it’s much like asking someone whether their time in the military was worthwhile. They became a stronger person because of it and opportunities may have emerged because of their new credentials. But it probably wasn’t fun every single day and it wasn’t a quick process. I suppose when you really step back and look at it, the same is true for anything worth having.

Still.

The last time I met with someone to discuss a possible book, I couldn’t help laugh and think about the fact that it’s 2014 and “everything” is digital and we were talking about a book. A set of ideas captured statically and printed on paper not to be updated for a few months or whenever the information was needed to be updated. Hell, this blog gets updated more often than that sometimes (and that’s not saying much).

Still. Can’t say I haven’t thought about it a bunch. It got me to post again.

    


(KiCad) Information Wants To Be Free

This is a cross-post from the Contextual Electronics blog, as it affects readers here and there

TL; DR: I am releasing all of the KiCad videos that were part of Contextual Electronics to the public and have started a new site/forum to support them. See below for announcement video.

I officially finished the first two sessions (1A & 1B) of Contextual Electronics in early June. It was a great experience, especially for a first time course, especially one where there was money involved and I was the IT guy on the project. It wasn’t a super smooth build, but that kind of added to the project; we were all “in it together”. At the very least, I can very confidently say I don’t regret quitting my job to teach electronics; it has been rewarding and an eye opening experience.

The first part of the course (session 1A) was all about how to design a PCB for a particular application. We use an open source PCB CAD program called KiCad. The open source was important to me because it not only meant that members would be able to download and use the software free of charge, it also meant the final product–which is licensed as open source hardware–could also be replicated and improved upon without needing to buy a license for the software that designed the product.

I had been a fan of KiCad long before starting the course and the software has been in development long before that (since 1992!). But it has never really taken off either in the professional nor the hobbyist community, the latter being the more perplexing data point; the predominate piece of CAD software with electronics hobbyists is CadSoft EAGLE. I think it’s a good piece of software and have used it a bunch for previous designs, but also think KiCad has surpassed EAGLE in many ways.

Not only am I a fan of KiCad, I also see how fast it is moving. It is a dynamic software environment, with developers who are regularly working to make it better. In fact, CERN recently added resources to assist in the project and have been rolling out some exciting new features. They are helping to inject some advanced techniques into the package, which should help move it towards being a world-class piece of CAD software.

So between enjoying my own use of KiCad, educating others how to use it and still not seeing it take off, I decided that I am going to release all of the videos that were part of Contextual Electronics about KiCad onto YouTube. I hope that these will encourage people browsing YouTube for help with KiCad to take a deeper look and start using it for all of their projects. I will also add move videos as newer features become standardized and new stable builds are released.

The other thing I noticed that was missing was a place to discuss KiCad. There is a Yahoo group but I am not a big fan of Yahoo groups nor how they are run. So I decided to start up a new site with information on how to do the builds and a forum where people can discuss KiCad and the videos I posted. It is meant to be a resource for people getting started who want to build their own PCBs with KiCad.

So that’s all for the big announcements today. I will be over at the new KiCad.info forums, answering questions and supporting the site. I hope you will join me over there!

    

As big as…space

Last week on my electronics podcast, The Amp Hour, I did something uncharacteristic: I mentioned where I’m working, while I’m working there. Normally I don’t talk about my place of employment until after I have left, which has always served me well. There is no conflict of interest in talking about work that protected by non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).  This time is different though, because the nature of the company is different (and my role will be more public facing than my normal role as an engineer).

I’ve been working with Supply Frame part time, in addition to my work on Contextual Electronics. It has been great working with a team dedicated to making the supply chain (the complex system of vendors and distributors) a bit easier to navigate. As it so happens, Supply Frame also purchased a popular blog site a while back that I have always been a fan of, Hackaday. That site highlights fun projects from around the web and is a great way to keep up on recent innovations in personal projects.

So why all this explaining and build-up? Well I’ve also been asked to help out on a project as part of Hackaday. In fact, it falls in line with my past experience of running the 555 contest back in 2011.

Hackaday is sending the grand prize winner of a new design contest to space. Whoa.

When they first told me about this idea, I figured they must be joking. How the hell would this be possible? Well, it turns out there are more and more commercial space flight options opening up. These days with enough money (and yeah, it’s a lot of money), you can buy a ticket to ride. So that’s how we’re doing it.

The contest itself is really exciting as well. The goal is for people to build “open, connected hardware”. In my experience (with the 555 contest), you need a constraint to base the contest around; openness as a constraint is particularly interesting. Not only does it encourage people to design something cool (like an open source Nest Thermostat or similar), but it also then allows that hard work to be built upon later. I’m a huge fan of open source hardware and up until this point, the way most people are rewarded for their openness has been a community building up around their project (a prize unto itself); now they can also win a trip to space (or other prizes).

I put in a couple emails to friends and acquaintances and we’re going to have a killer judges panel as well; they’re all as interested in sending open hardware experts to space as we are. Bunnie, Limor, Dave Jones, Elecia, Jack Ganssle, Ian of Dangerous Proto, Joe Grand, Sprite_tm. We’re also announcing the final winner in Germany at the huge tradeshow Electronica.

Anyway, I’m super pumped and I hope you are too. I feel very lucky to be involved with such a fun project and hope lots of people will be interested in submitting an entry.

    


Don’t Wait For Permission

I have corresponded with a international student for a few years now. I honestly can’t even remember how we met online and it doesn’t matter. He showed interest in my work and we started talking and have continued as he has graduated from US university and found a job locally. Recently he asked me:

I don’t like my current job. How can I get a job at Google?

I asked him why he wanted to move to Google. High pay? Exciting work? Big challenges? A recognizable name on a resume? All of these things can be had at other companies, many that are easier to get to than Google. Without having someone on the inside of Google that knows his work, I told him that he will be forced to go through the same process that every other interviewee does when applying to jobs posted online…and that’s a lot of competition. Not that competition is bad, just that there are so many better ways to find interesting, rewarding, high paid work.

So here’s the advice I give him and to all of you and any other recent graduates or young people looking for work:

I recommend you pick an open source project you think that Google would work on (or any other target company you’d like to work with). Maybe it’s a robot. Or a new API. Or a delivery service for soggy cereal milk (really?!?).

Next, start working on that project. If you can’t find an existing project, start your own (I started the BenchBudEE as part of Contextual Electronics because I didn’t see anything else in the marketplace). If you can’t do it alone, find some others that might be interested in the same topic. Find discussion boards or subreddits around the topic to find like minded people (hopefully with complementary skill sets)

Finally, spend all of your waking moments not at your job or school working on this project. You won’t be paid at all and likely never will be for this project. Work really really hard on it. At the end, you’ll either have one of two things

  1. A job offer from Google (or whichever company you were targeting)
  2. A great project and great experience.

If you don’t want to do the hard work when you’re not already working for Google, they likely won’t want to hire you in the first place.

Don’t wait for a company to give you permission to do interesting work. Go out there and find it and do it. The world is a playground!

    

I’m in the knowledge business, not the hardware business

I’m paying way too much to get PCBs made.

How do I know this? I’ve done it before. I know how many boards I’m making (quite a few!). I know the costs. I know the tradeoffs. And not only that, I’ve gotten quotes from China. I’ve seen how little I can pay (15-20% of what I will end up paying per board).

But that’s not the whole story of course (one sentence statements of my idiocy are left for my Twitter account, this is much more long form). No, this is actually a combination of factors, mistakes and conscious decisions that brings me to this point.

So first, the reveal: I will be using OSHpark to manufacture boards for Contextual Electronics. Here’s why:

  1. I know James (Laen) and trust him — I have met and had beers with Laen. I’ve bought boards from OSHpark before and had (small) issues quickly resolved. I worked with him for the boards I sent to the Open Hardware Summit. I can gChat with him from time to time. These things go a long way in business, in my book.
  2. I believe in OSHpark — You probably have been seeing more and more purple boards pop up due to the awesome $5/sq in service for a 2 layer board with soldermask and silkscreen. I can’t imagine how that would have changed my learning process when I started making PCBs and I get to hear how positively this has impacted people in the process of learning. Added bonus: Made in the US of A, baby!
  3. I got a bulk rate — I was a bit fast and loose with the amount of material I designed into the BenchBudEE. I wanted to have a lot of large mechanical features, I wanted to teach using a 4 layer board and I wanted to be able to plug other boards into the Arduino headers (like a display on top) while still being able to access the auxiliary circuits. All of this added up to 15 sq in of PCB material. Using the $10/sq inch service from OSHpark, that would have been $150 for 3 boards. I am paying less due to the number of CE members getting boards. If you contact them, you might be able to negotiate a discount for bulk orders as well.
  4. It includes logistics — That is a shipped price. Now, before you tell me how easy it is to put PCBs into an envelope and slap a stamp on them, allow me to tell you: I don’t care. I’m not in the logistical business. Many many people are better at this than I am and I don’t want to get into it. In fact, I’m paying a premium in order to avoid it. Aside from getting set up and thinking about shipping and international issues (customs, transit times, etc), I’m also handing of some of the PCB manufacturing worries (working directly with the fab). As the title implies, I’m in the knowledge business now. I will ship and build hardware for myself, of course…but then I’ll teach others how to do the same for themselves. It’s also much more likely that CE members will be doing low quantity manufacturing and need to learn more about that at first than the high volume stuff that would end up consuming my time.
  5. It saves me head space — I’m a chronic worrier. I know myself and I know I will stress over perfecting the logistics. Instead, I should spend that time developing more class content for members, including the upcoming Session 1B of Contextual Electronics. Plus, working with people who are good at what they do (like Laen) helps me sleep better at night.

BenchBudEE V1.0

Will I definitely use an outside company to ship boards forever? No, it’s possible that I change my mind in the future and decide to pull this kind of service in house. I have seen my podcast co-host do the same with his shipping, as he works on fulfilling his Kickstarter campaign. This has been an interesting lesson and I’ve talked with Dave quite a bit about his struggles and how it’s paying off. He’s building a foundation for many future hardware campaigns (probably crowdfunded).

Note the differences though: Kickstarter campaigns ship everything at once, in batches (in a best-case scenario). I plan to continue developing and teaching new courses on a regular basis (in batches). However, if I want to allow people to sign up for past courses asynchronously (whenever they want), I may want to continue to offload shipping single units to individuals. Having a service like OSHpark or another fulfillment house do this on a per-person basis (even if at higher cost), could make lots of sense for me so I don’t have to keep inventory. Technically this could already happen as the OSHpark service would allow a student to order boards and all work we do for Contextual Electronics will be licensed as Open Source Hardware. However, negotiating longer term contracts and having distributors (or fulfillment houses) keep them on-hand will completely remove this from my list of tasks.

From a business perspective, I am still making a very healthy margin, as I am selling a “knowledge product” (yak). However, if there were price increases due to changes in business conditions, this could be passed along to members as a “cost of doing the course”. Obviously I will work to reduce that burden on them and the trend points to the cost of PCBs continuing to fall.

It kind of sounds weird, doesn’t it? A hardware guy complaining about making and shipping hardware? But in a world of tight timelines, constrained resources (see also: my time) and my desire to continue developing new stuff, this seems to make sense for me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

    



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