Hey Gang! It’s Nick from the SparkX R&D group jumping in to celebrate SparkFun’s 20th anniversary! I’ve been fortunate enough to spend 12 years with this company (can you tell that 2011 was a big year for hiring?) so they asked me to reflect on that time and share some of thoughts with you. I was originally going to write something more free-form, but I’ve really enjoyed seeing my fellow ‘funions answers to the questionnaire, so I’m gonna stick to the format.
Tell us a bit about your background.
When I was hired here I was 22 years old, working in fast food, and attending a community college in Virginia. I did a lot of different odd jobs before working for SparkFun: I worked in a cabinet shop, I did car upholstery, I ran a market stall selling handmade instruments, I worked online as a “knowledge contractor” for ChaCha and kgb. I was a terrible student in High School, putting all of my attention toward art and theater as well as aviation (I logged 50+ hours in a Beechcraft Sundowner by graduation, falling narrowly short of getting my private license). I grew up playing with electronics and woodworking thanks to my dad, a Mechanical Engineer who is generally interested in making things. What got me hired at SparkFun was actually my writing background, I had written a fair amount of online copy and sold it through various content services so I had a portfolio to show my copywriting experience.
What’s your favorite project you’ve worked on at SparkFun?
This is such a difficult question to answer because my core job responsibility for several years was building projects, so I’ve built a lot of things in my tenure. There are a lot of projects that I’m proud of, but I think the most fun that I’ve had on a project is when Nate, Pearce, and I developed The Prototype. I got to introduce Nate (a connoisseur of sequential discovery puzzles) to the world of ARGs and Analog Horror and then help him write and execute our own game. That project had a little bit of everything: script-writing, new manufacturing processes, datasheet forgery, photo and video assets, and all kinds of clever little hardware hacks. It never made as big of a splash as I hoped, but it was a blast to work on and I’m pretty proud of the job we did considering none of us are game developers. I still own an incredibly suspicious url that’s so similar to “apnews.com” that your browser warns you when you visit it, that’s my little souvenir from the project.
A close second would be the development of the Spectacle product line, a project that ultimately suffered from a loss of personnel and an abbreviated time table, but still managed to demonstrate a new way to interact with electronics for people in other hobbies. It was the first product that I developed with SparkFun and I got to work on it with some of my favorite folks in the organization.
Kudos to Sarah for holding the cannon while I was holding the trigger
What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen a customer make with our products?
We have an incredibly creative, and broad, customer base. I’ve seen projects that run the gamut from staunch practicality to spectacular whimsy. I think the projects that always excited me the most were the electronic costumes every year at DragonCon. The overlap of electronics nerds and cosplay nerds really produces some great hacks, and it’s always nice to be reminded that sometimes just having fun and looking cool is enough of a reason to build something.
Also, I don’t know if this counts, but our Qwiic Button boards recently made an appearance in the Dark Pictures Anthology game The Devil in Me. That was a funny moment for me, personally, while I was watching my favorite streamers play the game.
Screenshot from Supermassive Games’ The Devil in Me. Who has time for soldering when you’re building a terrible “murder castle”?
What brought you to SparkFun?
I was a customer! I found SparkFun when I was hunting for a solution to drive a lot of Kopin 320M near-eye LCD displays that I had just purchased on ebay for a wearable computing project. I never did manage to do anything with those, I think I still have them somewhere… Anyway, I ended up buying some Arduino boards and other things from them and eventually became pretty vocal in the comments section of the blog. When a blog post went up about job openings, I didn’t hesitate to throw my name in the hat. I think I actually applied for an Engineering position initially before I was eventually considered for a job in the Inventory department, writing product descriptions and gathering support documents for the catalog. I had a single phone interview before moving across the country to join the team.
Who is SparkFun?
The answer to this question has changed a lot over the years. I think originally SparkFun was Nate. He hired a handful of friends and friends-of-friends to help him out but SparkFun was basically just him doing what he does. At some point, before my time, SparkFun became its own animal and it’s had a number of preoccupations over the years. At various points we’ve been an importer-distributor, a community hub, a champion for electronics education, an Open Source and Right to Repair advocate… we’ve worn a lot of hats. Today SparkFun is just one part in the complicated landscape of hardware designers, manufacturers, and distributors that makes up the now-mature hobby electronics market. Beyond that, it’s a service provider and a design partner with an uncommon breadth of experience. It’s also the livelihood of around a hundred of the most committed, friendly, and interesting people that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.
How has SparkFun evolved during the time you’ve been here?
In short, it’s grown a lot. In 2011, when I came on board, there were already whispers that the party was over and we had “gone corporate.” This was absolutely news to me, because the people telling me this were pouring a beer at 3pm in the breakroom. In a way they were right, of course, SparkFun was becoming a bona fide workplace — however lenient. I’ve watched a handful of people come and go in 12 years. I’ve seen changes in strategy and changes in leadership. I was at the groundbreaking for our current office building. I’ve seen SparkFun’s operations mapped out in every medium from Post-It notes to whiteboards to interactive graphs. I’ve been in a lot of tense all-hands meetings. It hasn’t always been a fun time, it’s often been a weird time. There was a long-running — if somewhat aggrandizing — joke about who would write the eventual tell-all book. But over that time there are some things that never changed: SparkFun has always been committed to Open Source Hardware, freely providing the schematics, board layouts, and source code for everything we design. SparkFun has always been a safe place to be whoever you are. And finally, the tech support and customer service teams here have always been more invested in our customers’ success than I’ve seen almost anywhere else.
The whole SparkFun gang out in the snow at the groundbreaking for our current HQ
Do you remember your first day?
I remember bits and pieces of it. I had just arrived in Colorado the night before and woke up in a hotel a fair ways out of town. I drove into Boulder and straight to the office to meet with former ‘funion — and ‘New Product Friday’ host — Robert Cowan, who I would be working closely with for the next several years. I’m pretty sure former SparkFun Engineer Dia was working the front desk at the time, that was before she moved into the Engineering department! I remember meeting with HR and getting my employee handbook and then more or less immediately getting to work on the product description for a thermal printer. For the first two weeks I actually stayed at Rob’s house because my apartment wasn’t ready for move-in. This was extremely chill of him to do, but also extremely nerve-wracking for me. At some point during that time, I also acquired my first nickname: “Trailerboy,” because the flatbed trailer that I had dragged with me from Virginia was parked in the back of the office and was blown, overnight, across the parking lot and into the company van. It only got better from there.
Here I am being extremely young and at work in 2011
Favorite spot in the building?
In early 2020, I moved back to Virginia and went full-time remote with the company, so I don’t get back to the building that often. That said, I was there when it was built and I spent a lot of time there so there are still corners that I’m fond of. The atrium and front desk are probably my favorite spot visually, although I’m somewhat biased because I modeled the original concept sketch for the huge, shipping container reception desk which I designed with our Graphic Designer at the time, Pete Holm. I also have a soft spot for the studio, I spent a lot of time in that room shooting videos over the years and you can still see the LED SparkFun sign that I built in the background of our current videos. The rooftop patio is pretty great, we have an incredible view of the front range mountains. Finally, a weird pick, but I have a lot of great memories of running into folks in the west stairwell.
This reception desk is my baby
How would you describe SparkFun’s culture?
I’ve touched on this already but SparkFun’s culture is always in flux. It’s something that we’ve consciously cultivated over the years and I think we’ve been both more and less self-aware with regards to our “cool office” vibes as the greater cultural conversation changed around us. In general, I’d say SparkFun tends toward transparency, exploration, and inclusivity. Historically, it’s been a results-oriented place to work, where you could look however you want, dress however you want and more-or-less do whatever you want as long as your work got done. SparkFun HQ has been as much an employee hackerspace over the years as it is an office building, with people often staying late into the evening to work on personal projects or just chat about tech. There is precious little “privileged information,” within the building and any ‘funion who is interested can basically knock on Glenn’s door and ask him business questions. It’s a unique environment, and ultimately I think that it’s largely responsible for whatever success we’ve enjoyed these past two decades.
What is the best part of the work you do?
I get to work on a variety of projects, in a variety of scopes, over a variety of disciplines… for someone like me who really enjoys developing a “Swiss Army Knife” skillset, it’s hard to beat what I do for a living. I never earned a college degree so SparkFun has been my engineering degree, in a way. Over the past few years alone I’ve done front- and back-end web development, written mobile apps, designed dozens of circuits and laid out dozens of PCBs. I’ve spoken at conferences, explored ASIC development, designed plastic assemblies for injection molding, and even done some commercial product design and branding. All that being said, probably the best part of the work I do is knowing that it isn’t ever going to be buried under an NDA or attached to some patent or otherwise hoarded and gatekept. Basically everything that I develop in my professional life gets a chance to help other developers, engineers and inventors as soon as it’s finished and it’s always a joy to see one of my repos get forked.
Nick’s made a lot of awesome things all across the board during his time here, including some awesome blogs. Check some of them out here: