Why do we collaborate?

Is there more to the collaborative process than just getting a project done?

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Don’t all of your collaborations look like this? So productive! Photo source here.

The collaborative process has something of a special place in the heart of the DIY/open source community. That should come as no surprise to anyone, as the whole point of what we do is to make cool stuff and share it far and wide. And when I say “it,” I mean everything: schematics, gerbers, bill of materials, footprints, code, how you made the footprints, construction techniques, reasoning behind trace widths and component packages, layout philosophy, what you ordered on the pizza that one night… And then what starts out as a solo project can creep in scale and participation to cross international borders. That’s pretty cool, and as far as causes to which you could attach yourself in this lifetime, you could do worse than designing electronic hardware and code that anyone can glom onto for nothing.

Recently, Toni Klopfenstein and I did a “Hack Chat” with Sophi Kravitz and Stephen Tranovich, the topic of which was “How to Start a Collaborative Hardware Project,” specifically within the context of nonprofessional endeavors. Our hosts were gracious, the other participants were cool, and it was a fun time all around. But since then, I’ve found myself with more questions — less about the collaborative process and more about just how we relate to one another in the first place.

All cards on the table, I don’t do a lot of collaborative projects when I’m doing my personal stuff (remember, this is all in the context of nonprofessional projects). Not because I don’t like working with people, but for a bunch of other reasons. The things that attract me tend to be maybe smaller in scale and don’t require others; I want to learn something about what I’m working with and don’t want to pass that off to someone else that might already have the expertise; projects tend to be more about the experience and less about the end product; and timelines for completion just aren’t that important compared with the experience gained.

Then there’s also the personal stuff, and they’re largely the same reasons that keep me from wanting roommates ever again, or from wanting to be in a band. There’s always that one person, right? Either they don’t contribute or they do so poorly or sporadically, or there’s a struggle for creative control, etc. Without a clear pecking order there’s likely to be conflict at some point, and without a clear return for a person’s participation, it’s less likely anyone’s going to adhere to a pecking order (obviously I’m generalizing here; there will always be exceptions).

Granted, these are just my own jaded observations, and again, in a professional setting you just do what’s necessary for a given project scope, and frequent collaboration in some form is just a piece of the equation. But for a working parent, personal time is too valuable to spend arguing with anyone, so I tend to avoid things that harsh my mellow.

But then there’s this: I get the impression that the act of collaboration is itself more desirable, or is seemingly held in higher regard, than any given project. As in, first we want to collaborate, and then we’ll fill in the project title later. This seems really odd to me; I’m forced to ask why anyone would do this voluntarily. It implies that there’s a greater drive for community than the reason for the community’s existence. If so, go human evolution! But let’s be real; it’s probably not that.

The best reason I can come up with for a nonprofessional collaboration (of any sort) is community service, and that’s totally legit. But they can’t all be that. Why else might I submit myself to that environment in my hard-won personal time? Why would you? Professional development? Networking? Something to add to your resume? Learn a new skill? Socializing?

Wait a minute. Is this a new way for nerds to meet other nerds? Is that what everyone is up to?! Maybe not, but the social attachments that collaboration could potentially engender can’t be escaping everyone. How big of a role does that actually play?

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<3 Photo source here.

Maybe I’m blowing that out of proportion. Maybe, rather, it’s that most other people’s projects are just bigger than mine and/or they’re doing them for other motives. Maybe everyone’s just got a bigger vision than I do, or everybody’s just really into the “hive mentality.” Maybe everybody’s way more altruistic than I am — I really hope it’s that one, as I don’t think the bar there is particularly high. But there have to be reasons — probably (hopefully) really good ones that I’m either not seeing or not giving enough credit.

OK, interwebz, be honest: Why do you do collaborative projects in your off time?

Comments 14 comments

  • It’s introvert vs. extravert. Extraverts love to get together and get energy from all the other people. Introverts don’t understand that, and prefer to be alone so they can focus. Extraverts don’t understand why you want to be alone…because things are so much better with a crowd!

    • Pete-O / last month / 1

      I’m not convinced that it’s quite that simple, but I’m sure a person’s degree of “extravertedness” come into play. I take it you fall on the introvert side of the fence?

  • I really like your website and all you do) I won’t start my projects without you)

  • I’ve got a couple of comments on this: First, with 35+ years as an Engineer, you almost NEVER get to professionally work on a project alone. I was very fortunate to attend one of the few Engineering schools in the 70s that allowed students to work together (“collaborate”) on class work. Most of the schools at the time demanded that each student do each project individually, and not learn the skills of working together. This, at the time, was one of the biggest stumbling blocks for “fresh-out” Engineers.

    Second, the main reason I don’t “collaborate” on “hobby” projects is that I simply don’t know anyone who is interested in the sorts of projects that I am interested in doing. (A sidelight here is that I do get a lot of “socialization” from my activities in Mensa, and some more from being in a couple of Ham Radio organizations.)

    Just for reference, I’m “mid-Baby-Boomer” generation.

    • I happened to think of an incident of “missed opportunity” from a few years ago: At a meeting of one of the aforementioned Ham Radio organizations, a gentleman gave a presentation about a project he was working on. It involved both hardware and software, though he was basically a software guy. He was doing the hardware “prototype level”, though it was pretty obvious that there would be interest in having many copies of it. I commented that it sounded to me that a printed circuit board would be a good idea. A look of pure panic came over him (“deer in the headllights” sort of thing). If he’d have asked if I’d be willing to help on this, I would have said “sure, let’s talk after the meeting”. I know that at least a third of the folks in the room have designed PCBs for various projects, and I expect others would have been willing to help him as well. I, for one, would have gladly given hime guidance in it, and likely would have been willing to take on the whole PCB thing myself, and, at least for one or two, would have been able to “fund” it.

      In recent days, I’ve been texting with an artist friend who lives about 750 miles away about one of his ideas for an “art installation”. He’d originally just envisioned using neon lights, but knowing my background in electronics, he started asking about LEDs. I instantly thought of “NeoPixel” or “DotStar” strips, and something along the lines of a Raspberry Pi to control it. I’m not at all sure that this “collaboration” is going to go anywhere due to living in different cities, but it is at least interesting to think about. (BTW, I know him through Mensa.)

      • W.R.T. the ham project, I’ve found the best way to approach that situation is to be the one that goes up after the talk and offers to participate, offers to help with things that are within your own wheel house. It won’t always work, because some people just don’t want to start a group project, and that’s cool. Heck it’s a hobby, so if it isn’t fun, stop. It’s OK if they don’t want to collaborate.

        I’ve found the Homebrew Robotics community to be all about collaboration – in part, it’s because robots require such span, ME+EE+SW+HRI, that basically nobody has all four within their comfort zone. So the meetups are a great place to make a connection with your complex-conjugate personality.

  • I don’t do collaborative projects for the same reasons as you, Pete: I don’t have a ton of time to devote to it, and I never work on anything interesting enough to warrant it. (Though one could argue, in a way, that I’m doing a sort of phantom, one-way collaboration. I’m not pushing any boundaries with my hobby, so I heavily rely on guides and instructions from the people who have gone before me. The difference between that and true collaboration is they already did their part and just posted it on the internet for me to read some time later. We are collaborating across time!)

    All that being said, I think I understand why people like collaborating, and it’s mostly what you’ve already alluded to. I’ll use my wife as an example. She’s always trying to start “clubs” or events for her hobbies, which are otherwise doable solo: book club, sewing club, meal prep class, culture nights, food competitions, etc. The reasons she wants these collaborations, for the most part, are entirely unrelated to the hobby itself. The book club allows her to explore new ideas on the same subject; the sewing club allows her to learn techniques from those more advanced than her; the meal prep class lets her teach others; culture nights (aka foreign-culture-themed dinner parties) let her divide the work and the research; and food competitions are basically just an excuse to socialize with friends and have some fun in the process.

    As an introvert, I would almost always rather do something by myself. But to my extroverted wife, always having to do her hobbies locked away in a room on her own would be torture!

  • Why do you do collaborative projects in your off time?

    I don’t, for pretty much the reasons that you mentioned above. Additionally, when I’m actually deep into building something, it’s a spiritual experience. I feel more in touch with the Creator when I’m creating than I ever have in any church (must be that “made in Her image” thing) and that never happens except when I’m working alone.

    [Edit - Satirical social commentary gone wrong removed to prevent further inadvertent offense. Sorry everyone]

    • Can I take a selfie with you after I post this?

    • Pete-O / last month / 1

      I can totally grok what you’re talking about in your first part. But the bit about the popularity of collaboration, your points evoke many… feelings in me:

      1) I must respectfully disagree that this has anything to do with being a millennial. Single, maybe. Millennial, nope.

      2) Your points are suspiciously consistent with each other and sufficiently off topic as to suggest that you’ve got something else going on here. Again respectfully, please don’t make with the negative waves on our blog, and I hope you find some peace.

      • I have plenty of peace, thank you, and I don’t understand the comment about something else going on here. On the other hand, I apologize for the negative waves and have edited my previous post to remove the negative waves.

        I also think you guys are a class act in letting me be the one to decide to do the edit.

        • Admittedly, I’m NOT a “millenial” (I could be a millenial’s grandparent, if I had any children), but having seen the original post, I found it a bit amusing rather than offensive. I thought it described fairly accurately how many of the young folks appear to older folks. I’m sure that many millenials can describe my generation in terms that they would find amusing but many would find offensive. But I certainly agree that all the folks at SF are a “class act”, even though all of us share the human foilbles.

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