Nate the Engineer

It's time to get back to building crazy stuff.

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Do one thing well.

I relentlessly tell this to coworkers and students. One plan, one focus, one feature. SparkFun makes electronics more accessible to everyone – it’s what we do well. As a CEO, I love to give advice. As a CEO, I should learn to follow it. I am and will always be an engineer. I’d rather spend countless hours talking about my projects than talking about my company. I love building projects. I love to write. Over the past 12 years, the time for writing and projects has been diminishing.

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Here I am, doing CEO things.

Day to day life at SparkFun is wonderfully crazy. During a recent workday I took a call from a detective looking for customer information in regards to a crime committed using our parts (“Please refer to our Law Enforcement page, come back with a subpoena and we’re happy to help”), I was delivered a skinny FedEx envelope (they don’t send legal nastygrams any other way), I got to meet an amazing 15-year old girl building a device out of SparkFun parts to battle diabetes – oh, and the basement of our new building sprung a small leak due to the rain. This job is a roller coaster.

Presented with what I should be doing (laying the groundwork for the next three years) and what I love doing (building electronics for the local kid’s museum), I have to push myself to do what’s required. And when I squeeze in a few hours on a weekend to design something, it’s never enough to get it properly finished.

So therein lies the rub – it’s time to relinquish the reins of SparkFun to someone who adores setting strategy, daydreams about tomorrow without distraction and enjoys herding cats (a.k.a, managing people). It’s time to get back to building cool stuff and doing something silly with it.

Normally when you hear about a CEO “stepping down,” it’s a bad thing. However, this is not the sign of SparkFun’s demise – far from it, actually. SparkFun is healthy, happy, and rocking right along. Our customers continue to inspire us each and every day to build awesome gear, and we’re churning out new products, tutorials and content every day. I simply know that SparkFun – and you – deserve someone at the helm whose heart is 100% committed to being a CEO.

Media outlets love to cover tantalizing details of the fall of a CEO, hence the public’s often confused view that a departing CEO is a signal of something dire. You know this guy, right?

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From Salon.com

After 16 years Jon Stewart announced he’s stepping down from the Daily Show and has selected Trevor Noah as his replacement. While countless fans are dismayed, I relate. This shi…stuff is hard and I’d rather be soldering.

Remember, Jon Stewart was not the original host. Craig Kilborn set the stage, Jon Stewart made it his own as I’m sure Trevor Noah will. It’s foolish and arrogant of me to believe in a world of 7 billion people that I am the best person to run a company. I cannot begin to explain how excited I am to get back to building stuff.

In the meantime, I’ve been told not to get senioritis and rightly so. SparkFun has a tremendous number of awesome projects and internal programs progressing nicely. Keeping the day-to-day flywheel going is much needed. We’ll still be writing, building, and creating the products that you’ve come to expect from SparkFun. At the same time, I’ve got the long process of finding the right person, onboarding them, and eventually stepping down. Someday, perhaps in a year, maybe more, maybe less, I’ll have moved from CEO to NtE (Nate the Engineer). You’ll know it when you see it. Once you do one thing well, whether it’s being the CEO or being an engineer, everything just gets better.

Hero's Quest the Sierra Game

Growing up I spent countless hours playing So you want to be a hero?

Do you think you can run SparkFun? Do you know someone crazy enough? For the right person it will be a fun challenge. Bob Executives may find it hard at SparkFun. Those who do not respect the world view of others need not apply.

There are a lot of pieces and parts to line up, but over the next few weeks we’ll post the role of CEO at SparkFun on our jobs page. While a standard job posting may seem odd for such a large role, I want to leave open the potential for discovering amazing candidates. If you or someone you know is the right fit, please consider applying.

TL;DR – SparkFun is thriving, but I’m returning to my engineering roots.


Comments 32 comments

  • Interestingly enough, at the 2015 AVC, I saw you have your photo taken with some excited participants and also saw you talking, but more importantly LISTENING to a younger child as she told you something (I wasn’t close enough to hear). You listened intently and were honestly interested in what she had to say. It appeared no different than if you were listening to an important vendor rep.

    Find a new CEO who also understands the importance of what you did there, and Sparkfun will continue to do just fine.

    • Wow, thank you FSJ! My wife agrees. I will do my best to find a CEO that takes the time to listen as well.

    • You nailed it on the head FSJ! The passion for projects and being a member of the greater human community has to come from a position of happiness.

      Look forward to seeing some totally nerded out projects. Cheers Nate (_)?

  • I nominate Roberts beard

    • My beard’s policy would be to trim the budget and continue with a thick luxuriant selection of products.

  • Just give it to the winner of the next caption contest.

  • It’s a sad/glad day to see you step down Nate. You’ve grown the company over the years, and it’ll be an interesting transition to who you all hire for the position. With that aside, welcome back to the engineering fold! I can’t wait to see what tutorials and projects you work on.

  • When my wife and I were chatting with you after the tour; I wanted to ask if you got to do any ‘fun’ projects anymore but I thought the question might have been to forward. When my kids were young it was evident that they did not care how successful I was, they only sensed if I was happy (fulfilled) and if I was available to them. This caused me to rethink and reshape my career. The outcome for me and my family (and a bunch of budding nerds in the neighborhood) was better than I could have ever imagined. I hope that this change will be ultimately fulfilling for you and will usher in a new level of success for Sparkfun. Congratulations!

  • Great Job Nate! You just gave me good emotions and thoughts about a CEO. :) Have fun, good sir!

  • Nate, so glad we got to meet you yesterday. Our time here is truely limited, and you bravely remind all of us to make sure we continue to experience life fully, vulnerably, and on our terms. I am nonetheless a bit shocked 👾

  • I’m still waiting for the CEO job posting! Don’t you dare give it to a recruiting company, if anything I’d let the public scrutinize the eventual final 3, on a blog post.

  • Woooo! Sounds like fun Nate. Congrats on making a tough call and being happy. I smell the burnt rubber of electric bikes….

  • Only good things can come from this transition. You have given Sparkfun it’s own soul, and I don’t see it ever changing from being the awesome company that it is today. I wish you nothing but the best in stepping back to your roots, where this crazy ride all started.

  • I’m not buying it. The CEO does not step down when their company is Stellar.

    • I disagree. Also, don’t forget the CEO is stepping down as CEO, but is still owner of the company and still plans on working here. Nate isn’t jumping ship, just acknowledging his limitations as CEO. I applaud Nate for going back to what he loves to do and not letting the status quo dictate who makes the hard decisions. Having a CEO who wants to be a CEO and a Nate who likes what he does can only be a good thing.

    • I know Rich (our CFO) has talked about sharing numbers before on our blog and maybe we still will. We’re obviously very open with the things we do, but I’m not sure just how open we can be with something like that. I have the numbers, but until Nate or Rich decide to share them, all I can really say is that Nate’s right about SparkFun doing well.

  • Congrats Nate! I’m excited to see any one of your ideas engineered with the time that they deserve.

  • You’re making a mistake Nate. Based on the description of your problem you have a delegation problem as a CEO. Take a business leadership course or something. Hire an assistant that you can just say “Deal with that leak in the basement”. A good CEO needs to know the business of the company 100%. Onboarding another at a company like SparkFun will take YEARS! Then you have to deal with the resentment of the staff if you hire someone in from the outside; they will not trust them, and they will harbor resentment against them. Worse yet if the person is younger than them.

    • I think most of us at SparkFun just want Nate to be happy doing what he wants to do. Like he described in the blog post, as a CEO, he can’t spend a vast majority of his work hours actually working on projects rather than worrying about everything else at SparkFun. In a way, Nate’s also doing exactly what you’re saying - he’s delegating all CEO tasks to somebody else while remaining the owner of SparkFun. ;)

      I also highly doubt anybody here cares about the age/gender/ethnicity/sexuality of the person hired - heck, I’ve never had a problem with Nate being younger than me (alright, almost true - I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if I had decided to do something productive rather than spend all those hours in my early 20s playing Civilization). As long as they fit in culturally and are able to fulfill whatever’s required of a CEO at SparkFun, both internally and externally, I’ll be happy.

  • Glad to hear it, the grass is definitely greener on the other side! CEO is only the CEO, will you maintain ownership?

    • Yep! We’ve got an awesome group of people here that I enjoy working with. The plan is to stay owner but grow SparkFun sustainably for many years to come.

  • I’d like to nominate someone. I bet she’d love it.

  • I would nominate Pete but after meeting him at Small Sat last year I think I know how he would respond. Besides he would have even a bigger conflict of CEO VS Engineer than Nate. I hope you find one that keeps your values. One last question are you still going to be a majority holder?

    • Good question - I have said for a long time that if I ever sold SparkFun I would relax for a few weeks, then get board and start designing stuff. Then maybe I’d put it online for sale. Then maybe I’d need to buy some parts, then hire a few people, and I’d find myself trying to start SparkFunner. I plan to stay at SparkFun as majority shareholder for a good long time.

      • Best typo ever. Nate the Engineer - he doesn’t get bored, he gets board. :)

      • That removed all worry I had about the future of the company. I mean if the new CEO said no more dogs. I know the shareholder would be like about that…. I mean what would New Product Fridays be with out the occasional fury four legged friend.

    • Ha! Honorable mention, thanks. But really, we’re looking for someone that wants to do the job. I’ve watched Nate do this a lot of years, and I don’t envy the guy. He’s had to exhibit some biblical strength of character on more than a few occasions, and that’s a tough act to follow.

      In the end, you gotta ask yourself what is going to make you happy. Sitting in that chair won’t make me happy, or probably anyone else. But Robert’s beard… I’m just mulling it over…

  • Nate,

    I think building SparkFun has been your greatest project, and that we’ve all benefited a LOT from your doing that! Thanks!

    Had it been a dozen years ago, I might have been tempted to apply for the position, but I, too, am getting too old for this sort of thing. I don’t have anyone in mind off hand (at least who’s available) that I would suggest, but I can sure think of a lot of folks I’d say a loud “NO!” to (though they might make a lot more money, they’d not serve the community the way you have). As long as you find someone who’s focus is (and will be) on the needs of the customers, you should do fine.

  • Better this than thinking you can do it all and half assing things. It’s not often you see ceo posted except for in movies where you want some schmuck to come in and take a fall for something coming down the pike. It’s not that is it?

    • Better this than thinking you can do it all and half assing things.

      That’s my new TLDR for the post.

      We’ve got a lot of things coming down the pike. SparkFun is doing pretty stellar at the moment and I’m making sure SparkFun is it’s as good as possible for the next CEO. Hot potatoes are a bad thing for everyone involved.

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