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Look at All the Kits We Give

The story behind the SparkFun kits.

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There was a time when my days' labors could be measured out in mountains of crimson boxes, a time when I went home every evening with my fingers as red as the setting sun. There was a time when I could make boxes like a machine and count resistors like...well, also like a machine, but a different machine (one that counts resistors). Yea, in my youth my heart was touched with fire - a fire called kitting - and merrily I charged down the shelves of SparkFun astride a scooter like a Gaul upon his chariot, plucking components like spears from the hearts of Roman invaders. For I was a kitter once, and somewhat younger.

Sure, many of you have probably looked at all the essential components and accessories in your SparkFun Inventor's Kit box and thought, "Dang, I'd hate to be the person who has put all this stuff into this thing." But the stuff must be put into the things, my friends, and thanks to the diligent labor of SparkFun's kitting crew, our kits are now assembled by the thousands to be shipped all over the world. I can honestly say that it filled me with great pride to gaze upon the stacks of red and black boxes, plastic baggies, and clam shells and be able to visualize the role I played in bringing a little geekish delight to the universe. Our current kitting/packaging team consists of ten people led by Mike Snow. They occupy their own area on the production floor, have their own inventory, computers, and have even developed their own subculture and dialect. Okay, maybe "dialect" is too strong a word, but I did hear they once referred to their co-workers upstairs as "carpet walkers." But I digress. What is now a flourishing sub-department of production was once but a single man with a pile of boxes under his desk.

It can be said that our kitting operations have taken off in leaps and bounds, even relative to a company that has been growing rapidly in all facets. As Matt explained in his previous post, kits became part of our operations back in 2007. Initially, when kits needed to be built, a technician would have to take a break from his or her soldering to throw together a few dozen kits here and there. By September 2009, as both the demand for and the selection of kits increased, SparkFun decided to hire its first full-time kitter, Kade Jensen. Kade was kitting's Abraham (or Leif Ericson, if you prefer Viking analogies). He's the man who really got the ball rolling; he was able to pump out 2,000 kits per month on his own. Kitting was extremely low-tech back then. Our main tools consisted of a little heat-sealer, scissors, and a pair of mechanic's gloves. There were only six to ten different products that needed to be kitted.

I started in December of 2009. When our manager, Abe, went over the printed instruction sheets with me he basically emphasized that "while this is the way we've been doing things, if you see a way to improve upon it, go for it." This simple statement immediately highlighted something about SparkFun that stood in stark contrast to most of the places I'd worked. Innovation and personal initiative are immediately encouraged to the benefit of all parties involved. SparkFun engineer Ryan Owens later put it really well: "Ideas are created equal." Our first big time-saving pieces of technology were examples of SparkFun at its most glorious. When we needed a way to spool 30 foot increments of conductive thread around a LilyPad Protoboard, Tim in Tech Support got an Arduino Diecimila and put together a neat little spooling machine that cleverly incorporated an old CDR container. When we needed to cut specific lengths of hook-up wire, Kade put some nails and marker marks onto a board and, voilà, another time-saver was born.

2010 was a huge year for kitting as it was for SparkFun as a whole. We grew to three or four full-time kitters and got our own little section in the new west wing of the production floor. Our product line-up exploded. By the time I left kitting in November, we had gone from ten to seventy-something different types of kits. We started putting together retail clamshell packaging and using heatshrink for the first time, and had to develop new assembly-line techniques to adapt to the changing demands and growing quantities. Working with a crew of people was generally a blast. The work was simple enough that we could converse while taking care of business at the same time. It was really good way to get to know co-workers and to share creative (and perhaps some not-so-creative) ideas. Moreover, it was a fantastic way to be introduced to the world of DIY electronics. Like many kitters, I came to SparkFun as an outsider with little no knowledge of electronics engineering. As Kade said, "We're a pack of strays." I was a recent graduate from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and was baffled by our bags and boxes of full little thingamajiggers that vaguely reminded me of stuff I saw inside that computer monitor I smashed as an act of "performance art" with some drunken Coast Guardsmen in my undergrad years. Kade, a fellow-poet, described it well: "You look at our products every day and eventually you're so confused by them you want to find out more." Mike Snow came to SparkFun with a background as a tattoo-artist. He was amazed to find the tremendous artistic potential of SparkFun's products. "I didn't realize the functional and the creative could be so much in tandem," he told me. "You can be creative and nerdy at the same time."

Kitting has become a "foot in the door" sort of position for many people here at SparkFun. In addition to the 10 current kitters/packagers, there are about 10 former kitters working elsewhere here. Kade is now a diagnostic technician. There are also former kitters working in Customer Service, Technical Support, Engineering, and as soldering technicians in Production. Many of us who have gotten our feet wet in kitting have enjoyed SparkFun's numerous opportunities to expand our creative interests into the mighty world of embedded electronics, whether it be through the "Lunch and Learn" classes hosted by our Education Department or simply by collaborating informally with our friends and colleagues here.

SparkFun's proud kitters - past and present.

Comments 36 comments

  • Go Kitting! Couldn't do it with out you!!!

  • FlippinJax / about 11 years ago / 3

    I had a blast at kitting during the Open House. My inventor's kit is being put to good use. It's incredible how many of those things you put together to meet demand.

  • Angrond / about 11 years ago / 2

    Wow, that's sounds like a fun activity.

    As a alternative for those who have done a 'holiday on a farm', maybe you could offer this as a 'kitting holiday at SparkFun'. I'd sign up...

    Am impressed by the level of QA and team spirit you achieve!

  • OldFar-SeeingArt / about 11 years ago / 2

    Sparkfun is an awesome place!

    Just today, I received a shipment in a plain brown cardboard box. It was wonderful. Why? Because inside the box were two more boxes - yes, you know what kind of boxes - RED boxes! With no mailing or shipping labels. Two more for my collection.

    What will I do with them, you ask? Why, I'll keep the skulls of my enemies in them! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!!! Yes, yessss, my precious!

  • sultanblender / about 11 years ago / 2

    Wow, that one guy really likes blue cammo neckerchiefs and... swim goggles?

  • jan / about 11 years ago / 1

    Those red benches look nice. Are they ESD safe, and can you share where you got them?

    Also, nice shirt in that second-to-last picture!

    • Jan

  • aimee / about 11 years ago / 1


  • customer207 / about 11 years ago / 1

    Is anyone at SF willing to give us some examples of typical salaries for different positions? Just curious to see how it stacks up against other manufacturers.

    • We are paid in Beer, and Ping Pong! Oh and this years Christmas bonus is the Neo-Geo machine.

      • Yvan256 / about 11 years ago * / 1

        Neo-Geo? You mean an actual arcade MVS cabinet? Which <a href="http://www.hardmvs.com/xml/usa/usCabs.htm">model of cabinet</a> and which games do you guys have?

        • trevor / about 11 years ago * / 1

          I can't find it written on the cabinet anywhere, but judging from appearances only and comparing to the list you linked to, I'd say that it's a MVS-4-25 (ver. 2).

          You're welcome to take a tour here sometime and check out the games!

    • qzjake / about 11 years ago / 4
      • I am Not Sparkfun staff, and not typing in an official capacity; that said, I'm thinking if you have to ask, you are not the right person for the job. Sparkfun seems to be a fun loving group, that I bet people go in on their day off to hang out on occasion ;)
      • L1011 / about 11 years ago / 2

        If you think pay and salary is not important, you must have more money than you know what to do with! Do what you love for a hobby, do what you can to make the most money for a living. I made the mistake of becoming a commercial pilot for the love of it. I have left the industry because the pay is not there. It does not matter how much you love something or think how fun it is, the bottom line will eventually catch up to you!

        • Dia / about 11 years ago / 7

          Strongly disagree. Sparkfun does pay me about on par with other jobs I've had in the past, but right now, if you offered to double my salary to go back to ANY of that stuff, I'd laugh in your face. A job that pays your bills and enriches your life is better than a job that makes you rich and crushes your soul.

          Also, if I left here, my dog would think she got fired.

        • Erik-Sparkfun / about 11 years ago / 7

          I'm not sure I can agree with this at all. I made more money at my old job than at SparkFun, but it happened quite a bit that I worked 80 hours in a week due to tight deadlines. That just doesn't happen in the same way here. I value sanity and being around a great group of people who have awesome ideas way more than money - which is one of the main reasons I don't see myself leaving anytime soon despite some very good job offers from other companies.

          For the record, I do have family and mortgage to deal with financially. But to me actually getting to spend time with my family far outweighs a six-figure salary.

          • Thimplum / about 10 years ago / 1

            Hold on... Here, it says that the average salary at SFE is between $71k and $83k/year. Is this not accurate, or did you just have a REALLY high paying job before? When I saw the comments about low salary, I was thinking maybe $50k/year...

          • Majik Sheff / about 11 years ago / 1

            That's the exact environment that keeps me at my current job. (That and kick-ass medical insurance). The time I'm not at work pays large dividends in family harmony and by extension, my sanity. Even if it means we have to be extremely careful with money, I think it's worth it.

            My boss understands that and I'm grateful for it.

        • Miskatonic / about 11 years ago / 6

          This has not been my experience. I am making less than in my previous job,but would not return because of money. If you are not happy doing something, money seems to be a poor motivation.I am speaking personally,I tell people this isn't a job, it's a lifestyle. I feel really lucky to be at SparkFun.

          • Mitch5 / about 11 years ago / 2

            You're thinking about it backward. LACK of money is the ultimate motivator.

            "Money is never a problem unless you don't have any" ;-)

        • FOB / about 11 years ago / 3

          I think that the real issue is being able to make your financial bottom line. As long as your job is able to provide you with that, you have a little more leeway with choosing a job you like versus choosing a job you don't like. If SparkFun halved my salary, I wouldn't be able to work here, regardless of how much I like bringing my dog. But, since I can pay the mortgage and feed myself, I DEFINITELY choose SFE and all its wonderful perks over something that might give me a little more financial stability but made me regret getting out of bed every morning. Depends on your values though, to a certain extent. :)

        • Disagree. personalViewpoint !=Agree. agreement = 0.

          I mean, a job at SF would have to pay more than one at a sweatshop, but it's fine if the pay isn't in the 6-figs as long as you love what you're doing and everyone else does, too (and is friendly). You don't have to have a lot of money to live a nice life; I mean, you can always, uhhh, build an earthship outta garbage and mud bricks(?).

        • engrstephens / about 11 years ago / 1

          I think this video illustrates 2 very good points.. 1 money is important. 2 money isn't a motivator..


          It makes a great point that money needs to be taken care of, so people aren't worried about it. Beyond that, its all about doing reward work!

        • Under certain circumstances I can agree with this.

    • I would work there for only $1,000 (or even down to $700) a month if I wasn't on the other side of the country and 11 y.o. ];D

      • Thimplum / about 10 years ago / 1

        Wait a minute... I've never seen an email service that doesn't require you to be 13 or older! And, you need an email account to get a Sparkfun account! Just kidding :D I've had an email account since I was 5...

    • qzjake / about 11 years ago / 1

      It would be nice to be able to delete my comments ;)

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