What is a Maker?


Last week, I went to lunch with a business colleague. As we were talking, I mentioned that I was in the midst of writing a book targeting makers. “What’s a maker?” He asked. After pondering the question for a few seconds, I realized it was actually a really good question! What is a maker? I could say that it’s people who tinker with hardware platforms such as Arduino or Raspberry Pi, but that’s a rather narrow definition. What about the man who builds an aquaponics system? Is he a maker too? Or the girl who knits hats, is she a maker? Does her knit hat need to include electronics for inclusion in the realm of makers? Placing a definition on ‘maker’ is actually harder than it looks. However, if you subscribe to Make Magazine or ever visit a Makerfaire, you will learn pretty quick that the term “maker” is rather broad. A few years ago, I saw makers blowing glass, forging swords, and knitting blankets – hardly ‘tech savvy’ projects, but still makers. Of course, I saw countless tech projects such as Raspberry Pi clusters and IoT devices too as well as jewelry makers using circuit boards, artists drawing robots, and things made of Legos. So what is a maker? The best answer I can come up with is that a maker is someone who uses the tools and materials around him or her to make something useful or even just novel. It’s being part of a movement that empowers people to solve problems on their own. Makers are the people you want to be with when the world ends – because they’ll have the tools and knowledge to rebuild society. Makers are the people who caused the renaissance – great minds like Leonardo DeVinci. Makers are the jack-of-all-trades men and women who can program a micro controller, 3D print a case, and use it for the robot they cut, welded, and painted themselves. As a business, why should you care? What difference does it make to you? Makers are the people in your organization that will solve the problems to move your business to the next level. They are the men and women who poke something to see how it works and how they can improve it. They are the problem solvers you want on every team in your organization because they are the thinkers that will create the great things of tomorrow!


Rock Star

Recently, I read an article on LinkedIn questioning the notion that good developers are those who write code outside of business hours – not for their job, but for their own interests. The article suggested that you could be a great developer and go home and pursue other endeavors – that it was unfair to expect that your best developers are writing code at home. I could not disagree more. Sure, a person can be a competent developer and only write code during business hours. But I assure you that such a developer will never be considered a “rock star” programmer. Those who are the best in their field are always those with passion – and passion is not a 9-5 job. The article tried to compare programming to carpentry. It asked if we would expect a carpenter to be engaged in woodworking at home to to be considered competent. That seems silly to me. If I’m looking for someone to create a complex piece of wooden cabinetry with hand carvings, I can assure you I’m looking for an artisan with a passion for his work – one who has honed that skill through years of hard work outside his 9-5 job. I have a good friend who is a musician – a highly skilled performer who makes everyone he plays with sound better because of the mastery of his art. Music is his passion. He didn’t get that skill working 9-5 – it’s what he loves and it shows when you hear him perform. Listen to any business leader talk and what do they all talk about? Passion. It’s passion that brings forth the best in humanity. It’s a deep love of what we do that allows us to become a rock star in our field. In every corner of life, those with passion are the ones we remember – Steve Jobs, Mother Theresa, Grandi, Tom Brady – people passionate about their work. Want to be remembered by history and admired by your peers? Be passionate about what you do and remember that passion is not a 9-5 job.

Finding Tech Jobs & Candidates

Scrolling through LinkedIn, I see people talking about how they can’t find jobs. Talking to companies, I hear how they can’t find qualified candidates. This seems to be the story all across the nation regarding IT positions. How can this be? Why are businesses unable to find candidates while there are candidates out there looking for jobs? As a software engineer and small business owner, I often look at job boards to see what companies are looking for, what trends are hot (based on something more than just twitter hype), and what direction the market is headed. Over the years, a few things have become apparent to me. First, software companies are constantly looking for employees that meet an absurd number of qualifications. Their requirements start to look like the checklist for a set of collectable cards. Is it really necessary for the candidate to be an expert in 15 different technologies? It’s particularly difficult now because of the sheer volume of technologies available for use. Languages, web servers, front-end toolkits, build environments, continuous integration environments, libraries, project management methodologies, and the list goes on. And under each of those categories, dozens of choices – C, C#, C++, Java, Scala, Python, PHP, etc. Eventually, job posts end up with so many requirements that you are literally looking for a needle in a haystack during your candidate search. Employers: Do you really need an expert in all those different technologies? I doubt it – you need a solid programmer who can learn the technology stack you have in place. The second thing I’ve observed over the years is that few developers actually have a drive to learn new technologies. How is it we still have programmers and other tech professionals that don’t know Linux? How can you be a software engineer and not have some knowledge of JavaScript? How many shops are using toolkits and frameworks that died years ago? Delphi is still out there, but would anybody actually chose to start a new project with this antiquated technology? Too many developers are stuck in their world – “I am a Java programmer, I use Eclipse on Windows, and I know Maven”. On both sides of the equation – companies and job candidates – there exists a real lack of desire to put in any meaningful effort. Companies could invest in their new employees and teach them the frameworks they need them to know. Just imagine the long-term benefit of showing employees that you care enough about them professionally to invest in them! Programmers could invest in themselves and learn new skills throughout their career instead of being content to use long-dead tech. Of course, neither side wants to invest any effort. So, companies end up without qualified candidates and programmers never go outside their comfort zone to learn new skills.


Management and Leadership

In the late 90’s, I attended the Army’s Primary Leadership Development Course, which was a requirement for promotion to Sergeant. This 4 week course included classes on leading physical fitness training, marching troops, compass and map reading (including a required night land navigation course), and other tasks necessary for leading soldiers in battle. Throughout the courses on leadership, the distinction between a leader and a manager was made clear.  Of course, outside the military, I think most people would say they are synonyms. In the Army, leadership is defined as direct management of troops while management is indirect. What does this mean? It means that a leader directly interacts with his or her subordinates and a manager does not. A leader eats lunch with his team, a manager does not. A leader knows what’s going on in the lives of his team, a manager does not care. I don’t want to infer that management is in some way bad. We need managers – people in positions behind the scenes that move the wheels of an organization. But even more so, we need leaders. We need people who others aspire to be like, a person who inspires his team to great things, an individual that encourages others to be more than they currently are or even think they can become. For a leader, an individual will work extra hours, come in on Saturday, and end up being happy about it! In my entire career as a software engineer, I have found few people that meet these ideals. I’ve seen many managers, but few actual leaders. Indeed, in the software world we see titles like “Director”, or “Scrum Master” – neither one shows any sense of leadership. The title “Scrum Master” would never be chosen by a real leader because it suggests an incredible amount of superiority over the team. Leaders are part of what’s going on. They are doing what they tell others to do. They are protecting the members of their team. They are encouraging their team to do more. They are not above the action, they are an integral part of the action! Aren’t those the people you want to work for? The people you hope to be like? If you want employees to take your business to the next level, employees who are committed to your organization, empower them by ensuring the leaders you pick know how to lead – not just manage – those in their care.

Retro Tech

In this age of tech, people marvel at artificial intelligence, robotics, smart watches, and the new iPhone. These things are all exciting, but some technologies of yesteryear are exciting in a whole different way. For example, it seems that record players are making a comeback. I would have never thought that! I remember when CDs came out – and who would ever want to go back to anything before that? Now, my daughter has a record player and I am absolutely spellbound by it. The thought of a ridiculously small trail of bumps on a piece of plastic that make sound is incredibly fascinating! What makes it more interesting to me, as a tech hacker, is that I can understand how it works. I could maybe even make my own with a servo and a few micro-controllers or maybe a Raspberry Pi. Much like gear heads who love classic cars because they can understand the hardware, the technology behind the record player is understandable to the average person. My favorite retro tech is probably the Nintendo. Not the Wii or the Switch – but the original Nintendo. I like the new Mario and Zelda games as much as any gamer can, but the original NES will always be my favorite. The simpler games that could be accomplished in an evening and didn’t require cheat sites and strategy guides sure were fun! Another interesting piece of yesterday is the Tandy 102 computer. A small laptop with an LCD screen and 4 AA batteries, it’s a piece of tech I still grab to tinker with sometimes. In fact, I’m getting ready to setup interface between the RS-232 port to an Arduino controller. Sure, the Tandy 102 only has 29K of “drive space”, but the built-in serial port and modem program makes it great for tinkering with hardware.  I originally bought it to interface to a ham radio with a radio modem. I could take the handheld radio and the Tandy 102 up on top of the mountain and read a ham radio BBS or communicate with other hams in text modes. On of my current projects is building a replica Altair 8800 from a kit. Not the most practical, but I’m looking forward to tinkering with a replica of an older computer and gaining a better understanding of older computer architecture and software.  When you’re looking at tech gadgets, don’t forget all those gems from the past! Some are still useful, some can provide educational opportunities, and most of them are just fun to experiment with!

Free Speech

This time last month, the internet was buzzing with Net Neutrality. Nobody wanted commercial interests injected into the internet, because the internet should allow people to be able to access what they want without impediment. The strange thing is, the internet has never been a particularly neutral place.  Today, for instance, a video was released showing a Twitter engineer talking about what they do to block or “shadow ban” pro-Trump accounts or people who support the 2nd Amendment. Last fall, Facebook was similarly called out for how they curated their news feed as well as their trending news section. And today, the Pew Research indicated that the US media bias is the worst in the world. Of course, Twitter, Facebook, and the US media are all corporations that have a right to do those things. The problem is – it’s not even remotely neutral in any way. Neither Twitter nor Facebook are neutral organizations willing to allow free speech on their platform – both are politically biased, and have used their platforms to further their political agenda. So, the net never was neutral. If you want a neutral internet, fight the companies that create the bias. Hint: it’s not Verizon and Comcast.

Hacker Boxes

Every month, I eagerly await a package to arrive. It’s a small package, and it’s contents are always a surprise. What is it? It’s my HackerBox! HackerBoxes is a monthly service that sends you a box with some sort of tech project inside. Previous projects have included Raspberry Pi systems, Arduino micro controllers, GPS, circuits to connect to the cell network and so much more. This month, the project was to build and program an EKG device. An hour of soldering later, and I could measure all sorts of bodily signals. Through my monthly subscription, I have not only been exposed to new technologies (such as the amazing Micro:bit) but also been able to tinker with hardware at a lower level than I typically do – opportunities to tinker with circuits and hardware as well as the code that makes them work. It’s a great service, and one I would encourage all tech nerds to receive. While I may not make hardware for a living, the exposure to all the technologies I receive from HackerBoxes is well worth the price I pay.


Five Technologies for 2018

It’s a new year, and new years mean new challenges. And how can those challenges be faced? By staying up-to-date with technologies and ensuring you have the skills to turn those challenges into opportunities. But there are so many technologies out there, which ones do you learn? I have selected 5 technologies that I think everyone should learn in 2018. These are not necessarily new technologies. In fact, most of technologies listed have been around for awhile and I believe developers can no longer afford to ignore them.

For the last decade, virtual machines have been used to startup new servers. This work great, but is very wasteful of resources. Not only that, it’s very time consuming to both setup and configure. Docker is much simpler and less resource intensive. Want an Apache server, or a MySQL database? Start a Docker instance with that service. Need to experiment with nginx for a new project? Spawn a Docker server to tinker with your new technology. With thousands of images for a sorts of services, it’s likely that you can find what you need. I run my Jenkins and Artifactory services using Docker – it took minutes to setup and has been running for a year or more. There is simply no faster way to setup servers than using Docker.

The JavaScript world is in constant flux. Technologies come and go, and it’s hard to keep track of them all. As such, many are reluctant to dive too deep into JavaScript technologies for fear of their pending obsolescence when a new framework come out. However, if you look at job openings for web architectures, you will see over and over the desire for Angular developers. And there’s good reason for that – Angular is a great framework. The best thing about Angular, in my opinion, is how easily it is to write reusable components. In a world where businesses solve the same problems over and over, reusability saves time and money. Outside of the web world, Angular is also used by the Ionic framework for creating cross-platform mobile applications. Thus, if you know Angular you can not only develop cutting-edge web applications, but you can easily move into the realm of Android and iOS development.

This one is a bit more speculation the the other technologies on my list. However, since it’s supported by Android, I expect to see it grow in popularity this year with the possibility of overtaking Java in popularity for native Android development at some point in the future. The Android Developer page for Kotlin lists a variety of reasons to switch to Kotlin – including safer code, concise data classes and lambda expressions, default and named arguments (something very popular in a variety of other languages), as well as being fully interoperable with Java. Numerous JVM languages, such as Groovy and Scala, have failed to gain wide-spread usage, but Google’s support for Kotlin code in Android may just change the game.

Linux is anything but new. In fact, it’s been around for decades now. However, it’s sad to see how many people in the tech world are still uncomfortable with the Linux command line. With all the technologies available today that use Linux, it’s time to learn it now! What are those technologies? Docker, Raspberry Pi, AWS, Google Cloud, and Android, all use Linux. Mac OSX has, in large part, become amazingly popular with Linux-savy developers because it uses BSD (A Linux variant) under the hood. Countless other technologies run on Linux or simply run better on Linux. For example, setting up a LAMP stack, running Python, or setting up Node is a breeze in Linux – but can be far more painful on Windows. Connectivity tools such as SSH and SCP run natively too – making deployment and configuration of servers and services easier. If you’re not familiar with Linux, you’re probably working too hard to get your solutions working on Windows.

.NET Core
After just enumerating the benefits of Linux, it may be odd to see a Windows technology on the list. However, The .NET Core framework runs on non-windows machines – and that’s exactly why it’s great! Microsoft’s Entity Framework and their MVC implementation both make for greatly streamlined web development. Running it on a Linux server is icing on the cake. I expect to see growth in .NET Core this year as developers exploit the simplicity of .NET development with the control and deployment power of Linux and Docker servers.

Google Alerts

One of Google’s most under-utilitized tools is Google Alerts (google.com/alerts). This service allows you to receive emails with new results for particular search strings. While this may not seem useful, it is an excellent tool for being notified of information that may appear on the net about you or your business. With the rise of identity theft and the harm that can come from negative posts about you or your business online, it’s imperative to know what information is being posted out there about you. In Google Alerts, you simply enter the searches you want, and Google will notify you of new results. I encourage anyone who wants to keep an eye on their online-footprint to setup searches for all possible variants of their name and let Google do the rest!

Cheap Computers

Yesterday, I started up my spare laptop to load an Android Studio project. The laptop I normally use for this project was at the office, and I was sitting at home. I had to upgrade the version of Android Studio first, and then load the project. But, after over an hour, I still had not written a single line of code. On my Mac, I could have upgraded and had the project open and running in under ten minutes – but my old Windows computer is so slow it’s painful.

Consider the company you work for or the projects you work on. What is the cost of using slow hardware to your organization? What about to your productivity on your projects?

Many people look to buy a cheap computer for work and, indeed, a large number of companies do the same. Why spend too much on computers? Here’s why – when you buy a $500 machine instead of a $1,000 machine, you saved $500. However, during the lifetime of that computer – say two years – you will be less productive than on a more powerful computer that doesn’t have you waiting to work. Do the math and you quickly see that the $500 you saved in cheap hardware is dwarfed by the losses to productivity. If a faster computer allows you to work just a marginal 5% faster, that would mean that – during the course of 2 years – you would accomplish an additional 208 hours of work. (40 hours / week * 52 weeks / year * 2 years * 5%) Even at minimum wage, that comes out to over $1,500 dollars of additional work. Some may argue that the work they do doesn’t require a fast computer. That’s fine, buy cheap computers for those tasks. But for me, as a software engineer, the computer is often a limiting factor to my performance. And, I suspect many other fields are the same.

The power of the machines you purchase for your employees has a direct impact on their productivity. You may think you’re saving money with bargain computers, but long-term you’re losing far more in productivity.