‘Tis the Season to do Hardware

‘Tis the Season to do Hardware

Back in the day (ie. before I quit my job to start Upverter) I worked at what was once a software/hardware start-up in Waterloo, Ontario (they’re still there – just too big to still be a start-up). A lot of people, especially those in Waterloo, like to sell how smart and vibrant the tech center is there. And I think that’s great, you gotta sell what you love; and you gotta love where you live. But it really is a pretty tiny industry by comparison to Boston, or the Bay area. That being said, they sure do niche hardware pretty well, RIM being the best example I guess, despite how mainstream their devices became.

So, I worked for one of these hardware companies and we built some pretty seriously kick-ass network devices. These boxes, on all accounts, pushed the limits of speed, traffic, wattage, and weight. We were doing 10GB/s multiplied-by maybe 50 links throughout the device, with 16X11 cores and 16x11GB of RAM. We had a couple tons of AC running full tilt in the winter just to keep the building bearable, there was the time we punched a hole in the dumpster tossing a couple junkers out (they’re like 120lbs each!), and we fit it all in 4RU and 2K watts. Like I said: bad-ass.

Anyway, you don’t just get lucky when you try and build a box like that. The signal integrity, power-distribution and green-gremlin-voodoo-black-magic shit that goes into one of those devices actually doing what its supposed to is, well, overwhelming. But that’s the price you pay for being on the bleeding edge – the alternative was probably 16 odd 1RU PCs and a fuck-ton load of networking equipment = gross. But where am I going with this? Well its getting on to Christmas. We have about a meter and a half of snow outside the Upverter office windows, the stores are rockin’ jingle bells and somewhere, at some small hardware startup, there is a hacker furiously working away on making some piece of hardware work the way its supposed to, just minutes before the shipping deadline, which happened to be last Tuesday. I cant really explain it (year end? tis’ the season to buy hardware? I dunno), but for a lot of us hardware guys, Christmas = shipping deadlines = all-nighters = eggnog, spiced rum and soldering irons.

And not to rag on the startup companies – because really, you gotta do whatever it takes. But I want to give my nod to those hackers. Having been one of them, I know how hard it is to stay focused, to hack despite the million better things to do, and probably biggest of all, to hack despite being away from your family at just the wrong time of year. Its hard, and it sucks, so kudos to you guys – and like they say where I come from: good on ya. I hope you’re working at the right kind of startup, that they get it, and that they are taking good care of you. And if they aren’t, I say just make a stand that you won’t solder without the proper supply of eggnog and rum – they might not get it, but it’ll be easier to handle drunk… haha.

Perhaps my favorite personal story of a Christmas shipping crisis (and I’m gonna do my best to obfuscate it a little, as I’m probably not allowed to talk about it) was one year when right before our December 12th shipments we not only ran out of everything we needed to ship, but we found an epicly bad power bug (ie. shit blows up randomly during normal operation, but just outside of our window of test. and worst of all, caused by the design). We ended up shipping, I think on the 24th, but it was pretty down to the wire. I think there is a picture of me in a Santa hat loading boxes on to a truck, or kissing them goodbye or something – it was a pretty big deal. In the end we were able to order replacement parts, setup a half dozen soldering stations running 24/7 and hack 500 or so boards through in a few days, in time to assemble, test, triage and ship. probably the worst part was the few days between the 12th and the material delivery where there was zero to do. Just sitting around waiting for the tidal-wave to hit. And when it did, it hit HARD! Thankfully the guys I was working for at the time were pretty great about making sure we were tended to and happy, which made it all the more bare-able! and in the end we won. Which I guess, gives me another story to tell!

Invite me out for beers sometime and I’ll tell you all the gory details, but for here and now – have a good holiday. And I hope you’re not huddled over a soldering iron, but if you are: good on you, good luck, and get home soon if you can!

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