Hackaday Prize 2015 Judging Plan

September 9, 2015

Hackaday Prize judging is coming. This is both exciting and nervous making.

I learned so much about different technologies and approaches last year. I felt so inadequate to the task of judging the amazing projects. I’m not a hacker. I am an industry engineer. They are different skillset with only a bit of overlap. I worried my scores would highlight my background, missing things the Hackaday community would find most interesting.

In the last year, I’ve participated more in the community (ok, only a little, I still have work to do). More importantly, I’ve thought more about judging and how to do it better. For the most part my new insights come from two TV shows: Chopped and Fool Us.

Chopped is a cooking competition, the competitors and judges are chefs. The judges can be quite harsh in their criticism though sometimes the judges don’t agree.  The contestants have to listen to the comments. The contestants I like always say “thank you” for the comments though some cry and others argue. I don’t want to be a judge that makes people seethe.

Chopped has been on a long time and the judging has developed over time. I like it when the judges take the perspective that their role is to protect the show’s $10,000 prize so it goes to the best contestant. I’m adopting that. My role is not to try to make sure the prizes go to the projects that most deserve them.

The other show, Fool Us, is a new magic show where magicians try to fool the legendary Penn and Teller. They’ve done all the magic tricks so people have to be pretty inventive to fool them. The prize is to be part of their show (no monetary prize); they aren’t protecting it at all. They are looking for wonder. I’m not sure I can make that a judging criterion for myself.

I really like how Penn is complimentary in the judging. He always says something really gracious. He finds the thing they did most right and points it out. He occasionally has growth suggestions but those are not given as “you did this wrong” but “you did great, you could do even better if…” I want to be that kind of judge.

Engineering is difficult. Competing is difficult. Doing all this in public is daunting. I’m sure everyone knows what they should have done, what they meant to do if only they had time. Most engineers are pretty good at picking ourselves and our projects apart. My goal will be to note the parts that surprise, educate, and inspire me.



Throwing Boards Over Walls

August 23, 2015

In response to comments made on Embedded.fm episode 114 (Wild While Loops), an electrical engineering listener emailed us:

We all know that ‘throw it over the wall’ sucks as a business pattern. But it’s sometimes really hard not to; I’ve recently been under pressure to order those new boards already. Or I’ve flat-out overlooked something. Or I misunderstood how much testing the last guy had done. Or whatever. It’s hard.

We know we shouldn’t just throw and run, but it’s hard. Do you have any thoughts on how to persuade my boss that stronger reviews, and getting the embedded software people in on them, are a good idea?

I recognize that “throwing over the wall” between hardware and software is somewhat inevitable, especially as HW and SW sometimes have different schedules. The difficulty comes in when there is also animosity: the EE says the problem is software, the SW says it is hardware; no one works on it because it is clearly not their bug (or works on it resentfully). I remember those days and am very glad I grew out of it.

But how to persuade your boss more reviews (and possibly earlier reviews) are worthwhile? If your boss is a promoted engineer, data might help. How many issues were found and by whom? (That person could be part of the reviews.) How many hours do the SW folks say were lost to HW difficulties (that includes schematics they didn’t understand)? How much will a board respin cost if a problem isn’t identified until a quarter of the way through the software schedule? (Even better: how much did the last respin cost in terms of money and time lost?)

You might also pitch better reviews as cross training: should you win the lottery and go on a bender, a cross trained embedded software person might be able to babysit your work for a couple weeks until you sober up or another EE is hired. (We used to say “get hit by a bus” until my EE actually did; now I try for more positive scenarios.)

I am quite thankful that HP believed in cross training. I know the EEs didn’t get a lot from my review of their schematics (“Can you rename this net because I don’t understand your vernacular?”) but I sure did. It made me more effective in my firmware job because I knew what their plan was. It allowed me to debug with an oscilloscope by myself because I understood the schematic before I had to use it (before I was deep into “there is a problem!!!” mindset). Plus, I could ask for the test points I needed instead of cursing the lack of available signals.

And, of course, it is hard. Not only is the work hard, the boards and code are personal expressions of our brains making criticism difficult to accept gracefully. And engineers often neglect to turn on their niceness modules. And schedules are brutal. There is no time for reviews and it is hard to expose ourselves to the angst.

But you do the best you can and try to do work you are proud of, sometimes fighting the right battles, other times tilting at windmills because part of you knows it is important even when others can’t see it.

Hey, look, a rousing speech to close on.


Apology for getting us into ESC

July 27, 2015

I wanted to write you a letter to apologize that the Embedded Systems Conference (Silicon Valley) was a disappointing experience. I feel responsible as I mentioned it several times because I thought it would be interesting and educational, possibly even fun.  I invited many to speak, attend, or even to show up for the free expo at event.

I expected these good things for you and me; I felt that we didn’t get them. I’m disappointed by the actuality for myself and guilty about the people I roped into going. I was a featured speaker and I’m sorry I was affiliated with them.

I’ve been going for years, even speaking for years: I thought I knew what I was getting us into. I knew it would be a little smaller but I didn’t expect such drastic changes to the format and organization. (And it was a lot smaller, not only a little smaller, than previous years.)

I know those of you who only went to the expo didn’t have to pay anything to attend but I’m well aware of the value of time. The expo hall was a waste of time to me. It wasn’t even really an expo with exhibitors but a demo hall with sponsors. It was tiny, lacking the expected big names (TI, Atmel, Microchip were all missing as were a hundred others who had been stalwarts of ESCs past). I can’t blame them, there were no booths, instead they had tiny one sided kiosks the size of bathroom stalls with narrow aisles in between.

There were no vendor classes, no space to chat without being jostled. The room was very loud and somewhat dim. It was a terrible place to have a conversation. I could get far more info from vendor websites than the displays that were smaller than science fair posters. Since I attend the expo for the conversations, the area was pointless for me. The few demos I saw were unintelligible. Walking around was difficult as a crowd of four tended to block traffic through the small aisles.

I tweeted, wrote, and said that one of my sessions would be on the expo floor as it was listed as being in the Fantastical Theater. However, it was over in the paid area (still free to attend but difficult to find, you had to go through the bar to get there). It turned out ok, I think you found us and I was glad to have been in that room. I went to a session on the expo floor (also inexplicably billed as being in the Fantastical Theater). Though the material was fine, the session occurred during the happy hour on the expo floor. The speaker was often unintelligible as people nearby networked, chatted, and clinked bottles. The speaker had more aplomb than I would have, even to continue his session.

If you paid to attend because I suggested it, I’m frustrated you didn’t get the experience I wanted and expected for you, the one you should have. I cannot imagine how they justified turning paying attendees away from sessions because their rooms were too small. There were only a few rooms for speakers so seating was a first-come, first-served, stand-at-the-back and sit-on-the-floor sort. While my speaker pass was all-access, supposedly one of my perks for speaking, I missed sessions rather than take someone else’s spot and still I feel awful that you missed out because of poor planning.

I had nothing to do with that and nothing to do with the strange layout that made it so you had to walk through the bar and restaurant four or five times a day. It was nice they had comfy seats there but inexplicable that talks, expo, restrooms, and lunch always seemed to require a hike through the bar.

Finally, if I had any part in you signing up to be a speaker, I am the most deeply sorry for that. The speaker room was tiny, poorly appointed. To get lunch, we had to hike (through the bar) to get an attendee lunch in the expo hall. There was a nice-ish buffet lunch outside the speaker room but it was for UBM management only. I resented that they provided so well for themselves so well when I felt speakers were so shoddily treated.

At every other ESC I’ve spoken at, speakers have received a good lunch and plenty of snacks in a large speaker room. With at least half a dozen tables, it was a fun place to hang out. This year, with such a small room (one table plus a ledge with chairs), it was not a place to hang out and chat (the centrally located bar was better for that).

Also, and I think this was new, the speaker room and the media room were the same room. As a speaker and as a media representative, I do not appreciate this. As a speaker, I want down time and to meet with other speakers. In my occasional role as media, I want quiet space to interview.  (Note: I did not do any media at this event as I felt promoting it in any further way was a waste.)

One reason to speak at the conference was to get exposure. However, speaker names not in the printed program (though there was space). Even on other posters, it was talk name and company only, not the speaker (there was an exception for Max the Magnificent from Embedded.com). I found that annoying: another instance of the conference organizers being unappreciative of the time, energy, and expense that the speakers put into their presentations (and many of us were not there in company-sponsored session so all of this came from our own pocket).

Another reason to speak (see image), is the Speaker Party (‘Invitation to our “Speakers Only” Party, where you’ll get to hobnob and network with some of industry’s top luminaries and your peers’). That was not actually part of the organizers’ plan at all.

Instead, after I asked the organizers twice in the weeks leading up to the event (getting contradictory answers), I complained on the morning of the last day. At 3pm, the organizers sent out a party invite for 3:30pm, while there were still talks going on and after many speakers had left. I opted not to attend this, having reached the end of my patience with the organizers and the conference.

I feel most embarrassed because I feel like I should have known before the conference. There was a lot of disorganization in the emails leading up to the event.  However, I did not know. This doesn’t excuse my promotion and involvement with such a pathetic, disorganized conference. I will try to do better in the future.



Intro to podcast 2

July 23, 2015

The podcast has changed some and I need a new intro to send to potential guests. 

Thanks for forwarding on this message to people who might be good candidates for being a guest on our podcast.

Embedded.fm is the weekly show for people who love building gadgets. Our guests include makers, entrepreneurs, educators, and normal, traditional engineers. We talk about the how, why, and what of engineering, usually devices.

The audience consists mostly of hardware and software engineers. The show is in iTunes and Stitcher or you can get it directly from embedded.fm.

I’m interested in talking to people about their systems: how does it work? how did you develop it?  how did you fund it? what’s your favorite tool? did you set up a manufacturing line and where? how do you teach people to do this? what draws you to engineering?

Recording takes about 90 minutes, it isn’t live so mistakes can be removed, and you shouldn’t have to prep much since I want to talk to you about something you already know. I prefer to record in our home studio near San Jose and Campbell, California but we can do recording via the Internet (Skype).

While this is sort of advertising for for my book and our consulting company, we don’t really discuss them (except to say, yep, still there). I do this mostly because I like to talk to interesting people about their jobs…  and maybe to have a few more women’s voices talking about technology (but not necessarily about being women-in-tech). That isn’t to say it is only women guests, we are happy to talk to just about anyone who is enthusiastic about science, technology, engineering, and math.

Interested? Know someone who might be interested? Please send a message.

Thank you!



Women-in-tech activities

July 17, 2015

I go to the occasional women-in-tech things. I’ve been to Grace Hopper, once as attendee, once as a speaker/manager bringing her team. I read Systers for years but don’t currently, it is just too much sometimes.

Actually, that sums up my feelings about women-in-tech events pretty well: it is just too much sometimes.  And yet.

I like to attend women-in-tech things because it is nice to see women happy as engineers. Too many times, I hear the horror stories. But there are many people, many women, untouched (or only slightly touched) by the trolls, stalkers, and jerks of the internet. I like to be reminded that it isn’t always awful.

And I go because I get a little lonely in my job sometimes. I like to connect with people who might be in the same boat, maybe offer some advice to those more junior in their career, maybe receive some advice from those more senior.

I also go to find podcast guests. I’m not shy in trying to get a gender balanced podcast despite the lack of gender balance in embedded systems. That means I have to search a little more, work a little harder to get women guests. So I go to women-in-tech meetups hoping to find people.

Though, I’m fairly terrible (stressed) in crowds and I find that seems to be getting worse as I get older. I can pretend to be an extrovert for about 4.5 minutes (8 with alcohol). Then I get jittery and want to throw up. Reeeeallllly Jekyll and Hyde-y.

I went to an event this week. It was ok. There was no alcohol. And the demos (from the hosting company) were done by men (though they were nice, it just seemed like a missed opportunity to highlight some women’s achievements). At least the talks were done by interesting, engaging women… though they were a little long. As someone there for the networking (4.5 minutes of it anyway), I don’t want detailed technical presentations.

It got me thinking about what I’d want to do if I was putting on a women-in-tech event. So let me write these ideas down, maybe it will plant a seed for later.

1. There shall be alcohol. All networking events should have beer and wine.

2. Food will be primarily vegan. Because, crap, I’m tired of not being sure what is safe for my socially-nervous and vegetarian stomach to eat. Maybe steak strips or meatballs too, but everything else will be vegan. Sometimes at these things all I want is a little peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And there will be dessert but it will served later (halfway through), not set out with the food. Dessert doesn’t have to be all vegan.

3. There will be seating but not quite enough of it.

4. For a 3 hour event, there will be four to six 5-minute talks, three at T+30min hour, three at T+65min. The goal of the talks is to create discussion and getting people to talk to each other, not to give speakers platforms. The talks act as ice breakers, the speakers will know that.

5. Badges will have first names only. There will be small stickers for different interests. If it is hosted by a company, they will have small stickers so it is easy to pick out people who work there.

6. There will be different themes in different parts of the room. They will be clearly marked: “I’d love to meet you” (seating and food), “We’d love for you to join our conversation” (seating), “We’re happy in our conversation, give us a minute” (tables but no seating). People won’t have to declare themselves, just stand in the right place. Ok, this one is sort of dumb. Maybe scratch it out and put in a networking/mixer game thingy.

7. It will be a women in tech focused event but open to anyone who wants to support getting more women interested and retained in engineering, math, technology, and science. You do not have to identify as female to come.

8. There will be a few people who are asked specifically to act as hosts, who spend the evening meeting people then introducing them to each other.

9. We will make some horrible mistake against feminism (giving out lipstick, having men do demos, handing out hot pink rape whistles) so that everyone can be aghast at something.

Oh no! We’ve reach the cynicism level. Don’t go deeper, it gets very dark in there.

I’ve been to great meetups, both gendered and not specific. One GirlGeekDinner was fantastic, another one I was lost at. The OSHPark Bring a Hack Maker Fair after party is pretty amazing: Laen gets people there and mingling with each other. Some of that is because they are fascinating people and because we’re told to bring something which creates an icebreaker. But there is something else too.

I don’t know what that something else is. I suppose if I did, I’d bottle it and make millions.

Anyway, there are many women-in-tech things and something always goes oddly but I’m not ready to give up on them yet. Though I’m not ready to throw my own either.