Open Source EVERYTHING!

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In this case, why not build a tractor from scratch? These guys have taken on the very admirable goal of building an opensource version of the most common of hardware (like real hardware, welders and cnc mills, etc) for the benefit of all of us. Opensource thrives on the fact that sharing knowledge isn’t zero sum. We all benefit much more from sharing than any one person loses by not keeping it to themselves. Upverter will always go out of our way to support the community in any way we can, be it homebrew cellphones, or tractors – so just let us know if we can help. And really, seriously, from all of us here – props. Way to fight the good fight.

The Pitch: Upverter in 30 Seconds

The Pitch: Upverter in 30 Seconds

  • Hi I’m Zak, Mike, Steve and we’re Upverter.
  • We make web-based software for designing electronics.
  • The existing tools were all designed before the web and isolate their users.
  • But because its on the web our software allows collaboration and sharing; designers can finally work together.
  • We are all electrical engineers and we’ve built the software we always wished we had.
  • There are 10’s of billions of dollars in our market.

Interns: How to Hire Porn Stars

Do we actually want to hire porn stars? No. Its a joke stolen from a recent hacker news posting. And despite being flamed a bit in the forum the author made some pretty good points about how funny the job titles we give hackers are. Avery has some thoughts on the interesting job titles and reason for them, and honestly I like his titles way better than the generic ones. And at the end of the day we don’t really want Rock Stars or Ninjas but something a lot more like Porn Stars (willing to work anywhere and probably keeps working at home, doesn’t show up drunk or invisible, etc).

The important part – that we are looking at doing some hiring soon, and looking into our longer term growth. Interns are very important to us, we all used to be co-op students at UWaterloo, we know co-ops rock, and we know the best way to get talent before it gets into the market is to get it as students. Adam wrote a great article about this and I’m stealing some of his ideas here, but the first big problem is no one knows who we are (see avery’s article). We are generic start-up X. And as Adam correctly points out, students, for two reasons, want to work for the Googles and the Facebooks of the world. They get all of the good talent for free, and its not in the students best interests at all. Adam proposed a YCombinator for interns, and I think its a great idea, but way outside the range of what we can do at Upverter right now. So while he is working to make it happen 😉 we have cooked up our own little hacks to try and solve our part of the problem. But first, the problems as we see them:

  • Students don’t get startups. We have been reading Joel and PG since we were teenagers (Steve might have started in the womb). We lived and breathed startup during our co-op terms. We know we would someday be in these shoes. Hell I even dropped out of high-school to start my first business. But other students don’t get it. there are probably tons of students that would thrive in startup culture but have no idea what it means to work for one.
  • Students are irrationally risky. Adam was bang on with this point. You are at the most flexible point in your life, why would you ever chose stability?!?! You could do anything. You could go anywhere, work anywhere. You have no obligations and no ties. Go work for Google when you get bad, or old, or slow, or married.
  • Students want resume juice & prestige. But they don’t know how to get it. They wrongly assume that for their next co-op or real job someone is gonna care that they worked at Facebook. What they don’t realize is that owning a project at a startup and keeping them alive is worth a million times as much to a hirer.
  • Startups are scary & job postings suck. Students don’t know how to pick a startup. They don’t know if a startup is going to disappear and leave them stranded. There are a lot of crappy jobs masquerading as startups, and they are hard to see. And the big boys have realized that fun titles and cool descriptions can hide the cubicle farm reality.

We are going to do 2 things to try and solve these problems. The first is really simple. We are going to convince CECS to allow us to start embedding youtube videos in our job postings. We think this would be magic. The vibrancy, energy and passion that would be conveyed by the three of us talking at a webcam from our ‘office’ cant be faked. You cant cover up a cube farm in a video. You can’t fake interesting. And students immediately get a sense of fit. We think this will do a pretty incredible job of tackling the scary startups & crappy postings problems. The second thing we are going to do is talk to students. And honestly this probably wont scale very well, but we think talking to them about what a startup is, what co-ops do in startups, and what we did in startups is a hell of a first step.

We want to talk about what we look for when hiring and why the name Google will never matter as much as the work you do. We could talk about how none of us ever worked for a buzz name and what that means. About where innovation actually happens and why Google and Facebook buy so many startups. We also want to talk about risk, and give the students a vocabulary for talking to a startup; The questions to ask, and how to know if one is going to disappear or not. The goals of this talk would be pretty simple:

  • Explain what a startup is and why they are the innovators
  • Look realistically at the risk, and the reward
  • Give students a skill-set for evaluating startups
  • Dispel the resume juice myth

And realistically if we could pull off two of these we would be doing pretty well! So whats this look like? We think its us renting a lecture hall and inviting 7 of our most interesting startup friend and colleagues. Fill the hall with a hundred or so of the best and brightest engineering and CS students. Tell stories for about 10 minutes each, no more, and try and get these kids excited about startups. Tell stories that talk about how real and influential the work we do is. Tell stories about the day we killed the internet to Chicago or had a million page views, or changed the world. Tell stories about how the CEO gets the co-ops coffee, not the other way around. Tell a story about hiring and whats really important. A story about what Mom said when PG was on the cover of Forbes. Little, big, passion, excitement, real work, real change, 3 guys in a dorm room. Afterwards we all get pizza and beer together and we can mingle. But the takeaway, and this is where we win or lose, is what the students apply for the next day. Do they still click Google? or do they say “what the hell, why not try a startup”.

At the end of the day its a hack, and we dont really know what will happen, but with any luck we get some great co-op applications. That being said the motivation and the goal is to fix the fundamental problems with the culture around going to work for a startup. I’ll probably be writing more about this as the event gets closer. We think it will be happening May 18th at UWaterloo – but its not set in stone yet. And we are still looking for speakers, sponsors and thoughts, so email me (zak@upverter.com).

Bonus: I found a very cool resume while I was doing some research for the blog post. I’m not sure if CECS would ever allow co-ops to post a resume like this, but it would be monumental in fixing the opposite problem of getting a billion resumes for a co-op posting.

Update: Avery posted a response to some of my points, and I think its perfect. I took a pretty hard line in one direction with this post, and he has done a great job of pointing out where I’m over the edge. I only hope the dialog continues!

Exciting Feedback!

Exciting Feedback!

Today I want to share some terrific feedback we have received recently about the tools we are building. First off I need to say that its incredibly exciting getting emails that we know people sent because they want to help us make this whole eco-system friendlier and easier to enter. So thanks for that! And second, that its just super cool when these emails come from people that we think are incredibly smart, and passionate.And when they write about things that we have thought about or feel strongly about, or even considered solving – well thats just super, super cool.

And thirdly, I want to talk about talking about more. I’ve been thinking and I’ve come to the conclusion that there really isn’t any harm in talking more candidly about some of our long term goals, but more importantly in talking about some of the bigger problems in the OSHW ecosystem – even problems we can’t fix yet. And the plug here is that they are the same thing, we want to position ourselves such that the big problems in the eco-system and our long terms goals are the same things.

So here goes! The following is a (slightly revised) to-do list from one of our recent feedback emails and I wholeheartedly agree with its content. So over the next few weeks I am going to be writing about our thoughts on Manufacturing, Modularity, Over-Optimization and Packaging. You’ll notice these are all very real world physical problems. Problems that we haven’t talked much about yet, and problems we don’t yet have solutions for. But we have ideas, and piles of ambition!

A Hardware Workflow Wishlist

  1. Prototype: I want to buy a collection of pre-made hardware component boards each satisfying a function. Examples are power supplies, processors, FPGAs, and video boards. I don’t really care how many separate little boards it takes, as long as it’s easy to clip them together so I can start building software for it. And I really don’t want to solder anything!
  2. Design: In your tools, let me draw a picture of the exact modules I plugged together in #1  and tweak them into my “final” configuration. I want to export a netlist, bill of materials, and board layout, all automatically.  This should be enough to take the design to a contract manufacturer.
  3. Package: Let me order a standardized case that will be able to contain my new board (either made up of the prototype boards, or as a custom pcb). Automatically figure out external connectors and do the cut-outs for me.
  4. Manufacturing: Give me a “print” button so to speak that will talk to the manufacturers for me, and you take a cut of the revenues.  Trust me, I don’t mind giving up a bit of money in order to not have to deal with the manufacturing headaches.

    Bonus: 
    Also doing assembly and packaging. You could event put it into a fancy printed box with paper materials that I specify (and maybe a CD).

    Bonus: 
    QA testing it, and shipping it out to my customers.
  5. Bundling: Handle aggregating pre-orders from random people on the Internet so we can all get a decent price, or find a way to do cheap one-of manufacturing.
  6. Optimize: At this point I’m either done, or I have a marketable product. You could help me transition to hiring people and optimizing my design, or you could scale your company and fill the voids here (like simulation, verification, and design-for-manufacturability).

What a great rundown eh? We have talked publicly a lot about #2 and have some pretty great solutions to it. In fact, I encourage you to head to our landing page and sign-up for the beta of our soon to be released circuit design tool. But over the coming weeks I’m going to give you some thoughts on the others in the list – we have some cool ideas to help fix some of these problems, and we have some great feedback on what other people think is broken. But there is also a discussion that should happen here – and I’d like to start it. As always I’d love any thoughts or feedback, email me: zak@upverter.com

Soldering Olympics

Back when I was working in Waterloo we would occasionally drop our scopes and soldering irons and head to the cafeteria for some much needed beer and cards. It was one of my favorite parts of working with those guys. There is nothing quite like shooting the shit with the boys over cards, drinking beer, and just hanging out. I loved it. Anyways, on more than a few of these nights we would get the (probably beer inspired) idea to host a Soldering Olympics. But we never did. Maybe because it was just the beer talking. Maybe because it really was a terrible idea. haha. But we never came through on it.And I’m both happy and jelous to announce that I have finally found someone else that did manage to pull it off – and its very cool (see the video above)!

I think should I ever get a chance to participate or host version 2 we should make just a couple changes… First, I always dreamed of a freestyle, artistic event, something thats more of a challenge than a time trial. Something like bridging solder between floating 402 resistors and pads, or soldering big parts over small footprints, or i dunno, something that looks just damn artistic under a microscope. Second, bigger irons! Don’t make me work with finger paint when I can use a brush! And third, for a time trial situation there needs to be more paste, or less through hole, or more microscopes, or something. I feel like there is a better test of speed, or that speed is the wrong metric… haha.

Anyways, I’m just glad someone bothered to actually go through with it. And it looks like it was a ton of fun. I encourage anyone and everyone interested in electronics to appreciate the beauty in good soldering and the fun in being able to build electronics. And to anyone hosting version 2 before I do – I want an invite!!

Holidays and Such

So, while we don’t get much of a holiday here at Upverter (startup = hacking 110% of the time) we do want to wish you all a happy one! We are furiously working on a couple of deadlines right now which is disrupting the blog a wee bit. So for this week that’s pretty much it! I just wanted to say Happy New Year, Merry Christmas, and stay tuned – 2011 is gonna be a big year for us.

Why is Our Community Important

Why is Our Community Important

At Upverter we want to make the world a better place. And we think we can do this by making electronics more accessible to hobbyists. The problem with hobbyist electronics is the tools suck and that makes the electronics part a lot scarier than it really is. Better tools = friendlier = more people hacking on hardware = better world!

So why the focus on community? Its a little self explanatory – but at some point hacking alone in your basement gets lonely and demotivating. How many more projects would you finish if you had a group of people cheering you on, and helping you solve the hard problems? Like most things, hardware is better in a community.

A while back I worked on a solar charger for my laptop, it was going to be more efficient and cheaper then what was on the market (and I got to play with solar cells!). The only problem was that I had not actually made a real circuit from start to finish before, and retrospectively, did not know many of the real world problems with putting together a piece of hardware.

Luckily I lived with one of the best hardware engineers that I know,

Zak

. He took one look at what I had and told me that transients would kill me. After much help from him (thanks Zak!), we eventually came up with a design that would not fry my components, or my laptop (and would maybe help power it too).

So what is the point of this story? Simple: after reading textbooks, looking up on-line, and even having a reasonable amount of education in the field, I needed help from someone with a different perspective and a lot more experience. Without him I would have been on my own in my basement banging my head against the wall, maybe solving the problem, maybe not.

Either way I would not have enjoyed the experience. So the reason that we need a community, and the reason we are building one, is so that you too can have a Zak, and we all won’t have to be alone in our basements. Upverter is going to help make more people into hobbyists, hackers and engineers, because we are going to make it really easy to help each other. After all its the people that make hardware special.