SparkFun: Start Something

A celebration of our community, and the reason we're here

Favorited Favorite 1

It has been a short 90+ days since I’ve joined the SparkFun family, and every week is a reminder why this was the right move for me. The goal of these first few months was simple - to listen, learn and connect with the internal workings of SparkFun.

alt text

This (with the notable exception of Slender Man) is why I come to work every day.

The heart of any organization is the culture, and the minute I walked the halls of SparkFun, I knew this was different than anything I had experienced before – from the rock climbing wall in the gym, to the dog tribunal, the company beehive monitored by SparkFun IoT devices, the various eclectic workspaces, Yoga Wednesdays, our community bike program and food truck services for breakfast and lunch, just to name a few. The culture and acceptance of diversity are real, and the freedom to be creative with technology is in your face and boundless. Who wouldn’t want this gig?

In fact, boundless, in-your-face creativity is what sums up SparkFun for me. Before the social marketers gave this community the “maker movement” label, before large corporate sponsorships of everything “make” related, and before anyone really paid attention to this subculture community, there was Nate and SparkFun back in 2003, starting something.

alt text

What he started made technology available to anyone who wanted to tinker, and on top of that, he insisted on making it open source. This approach helped feed and grow a community far more interested in the creative possibilities of technology than the pure consumption of it.

This is how I explain SparkFun to friends and family, and while they get the general idea, you can still tell there’s not much of a connection to what this really means for those who don’t yet identify with what SparkFun represents. “What does it really mean to tinker? How can you be creative with technology if you’re not an engineer? Why does an open source approach and strong ‘maker’ community matter?” For anyone that doesn’t live in our daily world, these are fair questions. These are the same questions I considered during my interview process.

alt text

To help connect this world and community, I ask friends and family whether they’re familiar with the Homebrew Computer Club story – the early computer hobbyist group in Silicon Valley responsible for starting something in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Once the connection is made, I ask them to think of that group of electronic hobbyist, tinkerers and enthusiast and put them in today’s world – a world with countless sharing platforms for both software and hardware, and access to hardware purposely engineered to mess with. Then, eliminate the personal computer wall and think about e-textiles & wearables, IoT devices, mobility devices, computer vision, smart sensors, development kits, robotics, 3D printing, data sharing sites, etc. Next, take the number of folks that were part of the Homebrew Computer Club and multiply that into millions around the world. That is the core community SparkFun supports.

alt text

It’s usually around this point that they get wide-eyed, and the discussion turns to the future and what’s possible with this next generation of electronics enthusiasts. The future is what excites us at SparkFun, but the here and now of what our customers are doing, today, is what gets the chatter going in the hallways of our office. The highlight of my weekly catch up with staff is hearing about customers and their questions about the products we sell. I often have to stop someone and ask, “Wait, what? What are they doing with it? Space? Really?” I’m told that I’ll get used to the incredible (and sometimes incredibly crazy) projects our customers come up with, but it hasn’t happened yet.

alt text

Tinker is shorthand for the most overused word in tech – innovation. Our customers tinker, the majority of SparkFun tinkers and now, with me in this seat, Nate the engineer is back at it as well. It is who we are and who we will continue to be. I often get asked, “What’s our strategy moving forward? What’s our vision?” It’s simple: the core of who we have been for 13 years and counting. Make technology products that people want to be creative with, provide customers with the best information, and provide a support staff that gets our community - whether you’ve been with us for a decade or a day - excited to start something.


Comments 16 comments

  • I love this company. When my husband was first diagnosed with MS, he had a very rough go of it. One of his symptoms is numb fingers/hands/feet (extremities). He found working with electronics helped his fine motor skills. Of course, there are days that he does more taking things apart than putting anything together.

    Sparkfun found out this was going on and started sending him boxes of electronic parts. Miscellaneous items, some broken, some missing one or two pieces, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was they cared enough about his therapy to help. Now, my husband is doing pretty good (despite the disease, some days are not good, but overall, he could be so much worse, so we are grateful for the OK status). He has moved into computer repair, but still has his spark fun corner for when he can get back into creating.

    I am very grateful to you guys for your support in a crucial time of his diagnosis! You made an impact on our family that can never be repaid. God bless you all.

  • I WANT TO WORK HERE WHAT MAJOR DO I NEED

    • Depends on what you want to do, and while very helpful majors and degrees are not required for most positions. Feel free to check out out job postings if you want to apply.

  • Hello Glenn, NorthernPike here…><> Don’t normally comment on things but you struck a nerve. My WR signal went HIGH and the address bus has been decoded to pull your EN active. So here’s the data.

    I’m 59 years old. We, those in our Homebrew club, didn’t tinker. Sorry, tinker toys were part of our childhood and the word tinker had way too much association with them. What we did is hack. That’s right. We hacked at the hardware. We hacked at the software. We hacked and hacked and hacked until it worked. That’s hacking.

    Now, I have Heathkits I built in high school, 1970’s, that I still use today. I have an IBM Model 5150 PC with a serial number 352 that I don’t use today. I have Arduino’s, RPi’s, Protons, Electrons, Simblee’s and yes even a Mojo FPGA. I am doing today what I did in the 70’s and 80’s. I connected a Z80 based IMSAII S100 computer to production machines. Unheard of at the time. I have all the LEDs, sensors, actuators, etc.

    I know this embedded world like the back of my hand. I build very cool projects in my workshop with all this latest and greatest technology yet I am unemployed. No body will hire me. I have over 40 years in this realm yet I sit home and MAKE. I should be at least transferring my knowledge to the next generation, but I can’t. Not allowed. No teaching certificate. Stupid eh?

    To stop beating around the bush, how can I get active outside the home in this new growing field of physical (modular) computing at the embedded level. It’s been five years since I worked. Imagine that. Worked all my life with micros and now, nothing. Oh well. Sorry for the rant.

    Your article is spot on. Thanks eh! NorthernPike

    • NorthernPike,

      I can certainly sympathize with you. I’m about 3 years older than you are, and I spent about 23 years in the semiconductor industry. I made a change “to the art” that resulted in reducing the cost (by a few cents) to manufacture more than half the CPUs for about a decade. (I didn’t get any of that – I didn’t even get my name on a patent because of a bozo patent attorney who couldn’t see the value in it.)

      The state is LOUDLY whining about not being able to find teachers for science & math classes, yet they insist that teachers qualify for a “certificate” that requires at least a year of “studying” (being able to parrot back) a bunch of male bovine manure.

      For me, I’m not really that interested in the money (though I wouldn’t turn it down), it’s about transferring my hard-won knowledge to the kids.

      BTW, I have no problem with “them” insisting on a background check. I’ve passed that (though I’d have to go through it again, as my card expired a couple of years ago). I had come across a program pairing up adult volunteer “mentors” with kids aging out of the foster program to help them with “life skills” (like budgeting, how to shop for groceries, how to apply for a job). I’d gone through their training, and got my “background check”, and the next step was to pair me up with my first kid, when the governor, in her infinite wisdumb, decided that she could save the state the roughly $50,000 per year it cost the state to run the program and cancel it – never mind that without the program, many of the kids would end up in prison. (Just keeping ONE kid out of prison would pay for the entire program.) That governor was so far sighted she might be able to tell whether her eyelids were open…

      Anyway, thanks for letting me rant a bit, too…

      • Member #134773 - we need more folks like you that have a desire to teach the next generation. The world will be better for it.

      • Nice remarks Mr. Member. It’s like one teacher said, “All children are naturally born scientists constantly exploring the world around them. It’s when they get to be 9, 10,11 years old that we loose them and their scientific curiosity to other facets of our socialistic culture like gangs and/or drugs and/or games and/or TV.

        If I could find one kid who wants to know about electronics, I’d tell him anything he wants to know as well as show him and get his hands on it, in it, through it, over it and watch him thrive with successes. A very wise man once told me long ago that “Just because you can’t do it, doesn’t mean you can’t do it.”. And he was right.

        I came back to my boss two days later and told him what I needed to have, what I needed to know and how much I needed to spend to do the job I thought I couldn’t do. He gave me the $25,000 and 3 months. I did it in 2 months. Worked great. I impressed myself and THAT’S what our children need to be able to do.

        Good to know others feel like I do. Take care, NorthernPike ….><>

        • Usually I don’t reply to comments either, but I too think this deserves some ranting.

          I’m in my mid-teens, and I really like electronics and machining. Don’t know if I could call it making, engineering, or just general tomfoolery, but I really enjoy building stuff.

          Thankfully, I’ve got a mentor in my life who is absolutely thrilled to take the time to teach me how to do literally anything, and is incredibly patient with my questions. I’ve known him for about the last three years, and in that time I’ve gone from 555 PWM motor controllers and a cordless drill to making GPS disciplined oscillators and working with a combo mill/lathe. That wouldn’t have been possible without his help, understanding, and tolerance of my ignorance :)

          That said, just know there are young people out there who want to learn, and do so with a passion. They’re incredibly grateful for your time, and are curious about the world, just like you. A teaching license is not needed for you to help them, and state politics aside, I wish there was an easier way for people who want to teach to connect with people who want to learn.

          Also epic thanks to SFE for their excellent guides, parts, and documentation. Many a long night was spent binge-watching Pete’s fantastic videos whilst frantically scribbling notes.

          Sorry that we commandeered the comment section into this mess!

          • Member #761829 - thank you for showing we are reaching the younger generation. The world you are growing up in is truly boundless - take full advantage. Just imagine the world that NorthernPike, #134773 and I grew up in with no sharing platforms let alone the internet.

            All the best!

          • Mr. #761829, your a sight for sore ears. :))

            I commend you on your achievements. Combo mill/lathe eh? Now that’s cool. But one thing I want to say. Nobody is born with any knowledge of anything. Please, don’t confuse ignorance with experience. If you’ve never had the chance, how can you be expected to know. Also, I believe your mentor appreciates the ability to educate others which only you can provide. Why teach somebody something they already know or don’t want to know. Make’s no sense. He’s giving you experience with something you like to do. You are one lucky person.

            Make a great project, NorthernPike …><>

          • NorthernPike, /#134773, /#761829, No worries about commandeering the comments section. We love to see conversations like this happening here.

            Sounds like all of you have been lucky enough to get a solid education in electronics, whether through schooling, mentoring or job experience. We have a lot of folks here at SparkFun from different educational backgrounds and types of experience and it’s one of the things that most of us like about working here.

            NorthernPike & /#134773, It’s great that you’re anxious to pass on the stuff that you’ve learned, I know it can be hard to find a gig. Teaching classes at Makerspaces or Hackerspaces can be fun, I’ve done that before. I also wouldn’t overlook the importance of hanging out in online forums and answering questions for people, either. Also, if you can’t find a nearby makerspace or hackerspace to teach your classes but you think you could put on a workshop with the right resources we might be able to help.

            /#761829, Pete’s videos are my favorites too. As someone who’s learning and hacking on this stuff as a teenager, do you think there’s something SparkFun could be doing to make our guides and stuff more understandable or more accessible? I’m glad you like what we do have, hope you keep making stuff!

            • Hello Mr. NPoole, I’m honored by your reply. The videos you have are great. In fact, I look forward to all of Sparkfun’s clips. My initial comment up above that started all this was prompted by my love for SparkFun besides it’s content. I simply wanted to give you guys a Hip Hip Hooray, but that seems to have gotten lost amongst the topic of education.

              Yes, your right, I came to Chicago two weeks out of High School to go to DeVry Institute. I’m a Yooper and had Gichi-Gami in my backyard and Hiawatha in my front yard. In those days your parents would give you a brand new Samsonite suitcase for a graduation gift. You were just expected to move on. So I did. At 17 years old, to Chicago, on my own.

              Graduated DeVry and immediately went to work at a Bell Lab and learned Micros. I remember paying $56.52 every month for five years to pay off my school loan but I did. You see, I knew that once you get your foot in the door of a high tech company, your opportunities back then were endless.

              Today, with your modules, I can hook things up and they work. No interface circuit design, no driver coding, no Interrupt Service Routine’s to hack at. Everything just works as it should. It’s so cool. However, think about it. I need my meters, tools, drill press, table saw, 3D printer, computer, parts, wire, irons and other things to build a project not to mention money. What I’m saying is that a classroom just doesn’t cut it. Projects take time and effort. I thought maybe one way to teach is to be like a piano teacher but instead of coming to my place to learn piano, you learn electronics. But if I get paid, will Illinois politicians come after me for not being certified? I don’t know and I simply won’t take the chance.

              I did a lot of Cub Scout badge learning by having show and tell when my two boys were in scouting. But now they’re a Mechanical Engineer and an Aerospace Engineer. They understand my need to feed information since they were the recipient of so much of it themselves.

              Also, a Makerspace is a “way cool” thing to do and the closest to me is the fabulous Pumping Station One. But they are too far away. I looked at how to start one and the effort is tremendous. But then my one son said his library has a makerspace. My research show’s more and more libraries are creating spaces for makers and thought I might try that avenue. That’s where I’m wondering if you may be able to help me buy first suggesting ways to approach the necessary people. How to convince them to go along. I was always able to impress the boss with technology that worked and never had to baffle him with bullshit. If you know what I mean. In any case. Any advice would be helpful I’m sure.

              Take care Mr. NPoole and /#134773, /#761829. I greatly appreciate your remarks.

              NorthernPike …><>

              • You don’t need a teaching certificate to teach! I’m an engineer in Northwest Indiana (about an hour from Pumping Station One), with no formal experience teaching, and I teach embedded programming and electronics at a MakerSpace in my local library. Other volunteers have no formal electronics/coding experience at all. Basically one day I decided to email a librarian and ask if they would welcome a volunteer, and they said yes. That was about 9 months ago. Today, we’re forming a partnership with a school, and pretty soon I expect to be volunteering there too :)

                All it takes is one email to start something :)

              • I am glad that my blog struck a nerve! As Nick mentioned, we love to see these conversations like this happen here.

                It’s clear we all have a passion for technology. What motivates me is seeing this kind of desire from our community to show what is possible with technology, vs. the pure consumption of it.

                NorthernPike - thank you for sharing your story and your kind words about SparkFun. I’ll need to rethink the word tinker in my next blog post!

                • Hello Glenn S, Pretty cool thread eh? Just a quick FYI for ya.

                  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hacker_culture

                  Didn’t mean anything by my tinker toy remark. Heck, from them I moved on to Lincoln Logs then Erector sets then lawn mowers and snowmobiles and on and on…. I was always raising my level of tinkering. But as far as “hacking”, the link above spells it out pretty well. And I have been using the term “cracking” for quite some time. I was sort of surprised and glad to see it mentioned. Take care….

            • NPoole, GlennS, NorthernPike, /#134773 goodness I didn’t know the conversations was going to get this big, oh my!

              As far as potential methods of improvement for Sparkfun’s guides, I can offer none with respect to the way in which they’re written, which is absolutely fantastic. As Horowitz and Hill said, they’re not cookbooks, and they’re not textbooks, they’re a balance of the two.

              However, I would like to see some guides that venture a little farther away from digital electronics, perhaps some guides on Op Amps, amplifier classes (A, B, C, D…). I realize the hype curve in “maker” electronics seems to have its vertex at Arduino and surrounding hardware, but I find a good analog foundation a little hard to acquire. Not that the information isn’t out there or is too difficult to teach/learn, but it needs to be taught alongside microcontrollers. The AD663 is just as cool a part as the ESP8266.

              Although I neglected to mention this earlier, the community involvement by Sparkfun is definitely noted. I’ve been to the last couple of Denver/NoCo Mini Maker Faires, and your booth is my first stop after getting through the door. My apologies for not doing my part in the badge hacking a couple years ago by the way, codebender’s chrome plugin didn’t play nice with my setup :P

              That said, keep up the great work all!

Related Posts

Recent Posts

Tags


All Tags