Where I’m Heading

My last salaried job ended with a layoff in 2005 – since then I have been taking design contracts when and where I can find them. While the work is engrossing it is episodic and unpredictable. “Crowdfunding” – e.g., Kickstarter – has begun to provide some of the funding for clients, but it is hardly a rich vein of sustenance.

An increasing fraction of the jobs derive from the “Open Hardware Movement”, which is a subset of the “Maker” phenomenon. While I’m happy to see this occurring, it does tend to narrow the limits of the technology – I seem to be running across projects the same microprocessor as used in the popular Arduino products, and wonder if I am in danger of finding myself designing the same circuit over and over, placing it into a slightly different printed circuit outline and with slightly different connections and peripherals.

If that seems to be happening I will have to develop a method of turning those design and layout processes over to younger, less experienced engineers while retaining an overview. I don’t want to spend my remaining years doing the same thing repetitively.

On the other hand, it has occurred to me that this may viewed as an opportunity for others to gain experience in design and for me to move into a role of teacher and mentor. Since there seems to be a growing volume of business doing similar things, it might be possible to organize a situation similar to an artist’s or artisan’s workshop (see atelier) where apprentices work under the supervision of a master (in the sense of “teacher” rather than “supervisor”) and advance their skills in the process.

This is the way that skills were propagated throughout history until it was taken over by colleges and universities – primarily because scientific disciplines became involved and industry desired standardization through degrees. Still, a university education doesn’t fully equip someone for work in industry – that takes a period of engagement with the technology in the actual industrial environment. In my case I refer to the four years I spent in the Ampex Special Products Division prior to graduation as my “graduate education”.

In 2009 I was asked to participate in improving the design of “Super Happy Dev House“, a hacker play-party that had evolved over the previous few years from a raucous house party at a hacker house. I brought some of the Homebrew Club’s process concepts to the discussion and the results were the “lightning talks” that have become a staple of those events. Later the founders of Dev House got the idea to create an ongoing version – the Hacker Dojo. I was invited into the planning process and was eventually given the honorific title “sensei”, which I bear proudly.

The Dojo is a going concern, under its own nonprofit corporation, and expanding into new buildings as a way to solve city zoning problems (don’t try to hold regular parties in industrial buildings – there are legal requirements that limit such things). I attempted to organize a development project for an access-control system, but it faltered as a volunteer project – I maintain that volunteers are worth all the money they’re paid. The phrase “herding cats” comes to mind in this case.

I am considering spending a great deal more of my time at the Dojo, holding “office hours” as if I were a professor, making myself accessible on a casual basis. Perhaps this might form the matrix upon which I could organize the kind of artisan workshop situation where I could function as a teacher. It would have to involve a more regular basis for the relationship than volunteering, and I know enough to pay close attention to a sustainable economics – this might prove a point of friction with the Dojo.

Here are some ideas I’ve had regarding the kinds of things I’d like to work on:

Logic Learning Tools – SMLD


Open Skunk Works