h5. How did you get into electronics/ engineering and when did you start?
I grew up with the Commodore 64 and starting in middle school I started playing around with BASIC programming. Nothing fancy, just learning how the hardware and software worked. As a Boy Scout I learned a lot more while pursuing merit badges such as radio, electronics, and computers. Then in high school I was very lucky to spend two years as an intern at the US Naval Academy in their Weapons and Systems Engineering Department where I got to play with robots, rail guns, and a lot of other "toys" built to solve real-world problems. A lot of stuff was way over my head at the time but it fueled by interest in electronics and engineering.
h5. What challenges did you face in pursuing an engineering degree?
I was horrible at math during high school. When I took Pre-Calculus I barely made it out with a C. I think a lot of it was I had horrible studying skills and mathematics was too abstract. I was so uncomfortable at math that I spent my first year of college pursuing a non-technical degree though I still tinkered with computers. That changed though when I tool a introductory calculus course with a professor who made calculus and differential equations real to me. Explaining mathematics by relating it to electric circuits or spring-mass systems made it tangible and I succeeded. So I switched over to engineering. The lesson for folks just starting out is that engineering is hard and though you may have some setbacks, you can do it! It may sound cliche but perseverance is the key because in the real world failure is just part of the process.
h5. What are your favorite hardware tools that you use?
The oscilloscope and function generator are musts. A solid DMM also. Lately I have been tinkering with DIY tools like the Bus Pirate logic analyzer, open source tools have a fantastic future.
h5. What are your favorite software tools that you use?
A lot of times the job specifics or the hardware you're using dictates the software tools. Past interviews here have provided good recommendations. So with that said, I recommend for students just starting out to try simulation software such as TINA and Edison, great for learning introductory concepts. You don't have to start with a lot of expensive hardware and if you blow a virtual fuse, just reset.
h5. What tool or device would you like to have in your lab?
I would love to have a MakerBot. For two reasons, when it comes to mechanical aspects of design I am limited to using what is already out there in somewhat mass produced form. I could pay for support through a third-party but that doesn't serve my sized operation very well. A MakerBot eliminates that and limits me only to my imagination, personal manufacturing will be the successor to personal computing. Secondly, when I am teaching electronics and design concepts to kids, this is a very visual and very hands on demonstration of what tech can do and what the future is bringing. It would ignite their imagination like the Commodore 64 did for me a long time ago.
Windows, Mac, or Linux? iPhone or Android? Yes and yes! By exposing myself to a wide variety of OSs I learn to appreciate the good and bad of each. An important part of being a good engineer is about making good design tradeoffs. You can't have it all else it will cost a fortune or it will never ship. Exposing yourself to as many alternatives, in this case operating systems, let's us appreciate different ways of thinking about design. Now, not to be a total cop out, I use a Macbook for day-to-day needs and Windows/Linux pretty evenly split for development work. I am currently running Gingerbread on a Droid X2 but I could be tempted by the next generation of iPhone.
h5. What is the hardest/trickiest bug you have ever fixed?
I find the hardest bugs to fix are related to communications problems over RF links. While failing to get two microcontrollers to talk to each other, and after stimulating each circuit independently and watching the serial data dumps, I fairly quickly deduced the root cause was the RF link but was clueless how to fix it not having any formal RF education. I spent many a sleepless nights learning everything I could. In the end it came down to proper antenna design and filtering but it took forever to figure out the solution.
h5. What is on your bookshelf?
Right now on my nightstand are "Making Things Talk" by Tim Igoe. "Physical Computing" by Tom Igoe and Dan O'Sullivan. "Make: Electronics" by Charles Platt. I love learning about new tips and tools for doing fun practical electronics, especially when you are trying to teach basic concepts to kids. Also "Encyclopedia of Electronic Circuit" and "Hacking the Xbox" by Bunnie Huang. On my virtual bookshelf I have the 'Geek Dad Guide" series from Wired's Ken Demead. Also "iWoz", Walter Isaacson's biography on Steve Jobs, and Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography and "The Federalist Papers". Should also mention I love listening to podcasts from Leo Laporte's TWiT Network.
h5. Do you have any tricks up your sleeve?
The suggestions I would offer are to simulate designs before building a prototype, notate the outputs so you can verify when you physical built a prototype. Make designs as modular as possible so you can always test at the lowest level possible then assemble into larger and larger assemblies. Lastly have a network of people with related skills who can provide independent review. Many times when you are both the designer and tester, your assumptions will blind you to the real faults.
h5. What has been your favorite project?
My most memorable project was my capstone project in my senior year of college. Not because what we built was mind-blowing awesome (it was a rather crude home automation device) but because it was the first-time I was on a team that built a project from concept to working prototype and it integrated both hardware and software. It gave me the confidence to know that I could do practical engineering work.
h5. Do you have any note-worthy engineering experiences?
An experience I found very enlightening that is not shared by many EEs outside of power engineers, was pursuing my Professional Engineer (PE) license. I would encourage any college engineering student to at least take the Fundamentals of Engineering exam prior to graduation. If you pass you earn a credential as an Engineer-In-Training which may help in landing a first job. If not, you have an experience that many others don't. Preparing for the fundamental exam, and later the Practices and Principles exam for the PE license, are great opportunities to force yourself out of your comfort zone. Good engineers have some appreciation or experience of other engineering disciplines outside their own. If nothing else, learning a little about engineering ethics and economics is a good thing. If you are interested, I encourage folks to look up the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying at "ncees.org":http://ncees.org/.
h5. Do you have an experiential stories you would like to share?
Even though I am a low voltage guy, while stationed in Key West with the Navy I had a great opportunity to replace cross arms and lightening arrestors on power poles. It was absolutely fantastic working with the line crews, going into substations, testing motors and generators, going up in a bucket truck and learning about the high voltage world. I am not saying everyone needs to go out and jump in a bucket truck but take advantage of any opportunity to expand your knowledge and experience. Also, for an engineer it is very valuable to understand what electricians and technicians have to deal with in implementing or repair your design.
h5. Can you tell us about "Green Shoe Garage":http://greenshoegarage.com/ and some of the work you are doing there?
Well it is my side job (for now!). I would describe it as a custom design and production shop for customers looking for custom automation, environmental monitoring or physical computing solutions. I do one-of-a-kind work and go from concept, to design and build, test, and then install at the customer's location and provide training. I build most of my designs around microcontrollers due to their flexibility in handling changes on the fly. It's very different from designing a mass produced product since I work with customers that have very specific requirements at the start vice guessing at what people want to buy.
h5. I read that you are a technical advocate for digital rights, wanting to increase public awareness in technology, how do you do this?
Obviously my blog, Twitter, Google+ and other social media outlets are useful in connecting with other people who have like interests or sharing experiences with a wider audience. I have received many email from folks asking about a project I posted on my blog and whether or not it could be tweaked to meet their needs. However, to really make an impact in the world you have to make an impact in the life of a child. I volunteer to teach technology related merit badges to Scouts, hosting events such as Jamboree On The Air to get Scouts interested in ham radio, and helping out at local STEM programs. It doesn't take much effort to really make a positive impression. If everyone with a STEM background could volunteer just a few hours a month, what a difference we could make! As the father of a 1st grader STEM has become extremely important. Lastly, organizing petitions and educating our government leaders is increasingly important to ensure that individual rights (e.g. Fair Use) aren't trampled due to ignorance or to prop up antiquated business models.
h5. Will you tell us about your blog "geek cowboy":http://geekcowboy.net/?
It is not specifically about work, it is my soapbox and billboard. It is a combination of rants, ideas, product reviews, and sharing project designs. I have found it to be a invaluable tool for sharing experiences and attracting business.
h5. What direction do you see your business heading in the next few years?
I would love to be in a position to make it a full-time operation but that probably won't happen short-term having a young family I also see myself moving from doing only custom, one-of-a-kind designs to having a some small product line of electronic gadgets for certain niches such as home automation. Manufacturing presents its own unique challenges, especially since I will have devote time not just to electronics and software but also building mechanical systems, structural support, and casing.
h5. What changes or opportunities do you foresee in our industry?
I prefer to focus on the positive and I think there is a lot positive happening right now. I firmly believe in the Maker/DIY/hackerspace movement. Niche design shops are going to become more and more prevalent as the cost to design really complex solutions is driven down with cheaper and more powerful tools like Arduino and associated breakout boards or shields. These shops aren't going to design the iPhone killer but will find many lucrative opportunities in fulfilling niche markets (i.e. products for ham radio, geocaching, home theater/automation, etc.) Electronics will become increasingly like building with Legos which will be to the chagrin of some but is ultimately great for people who want to be entrepreneurs and own their own design business.
* Check me out on "Twitter":http://twitter.com/geekcowboy
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