Mitch Altman Discusses Bringing Youth into the PCB industry


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Publisher Barry Matties is joined by Mitch Altman, creator of TV-B-Gone, a device that can turn off TVs in public, and co-founder of Noisebridge, an educational hackerspace based in San Francisco. In this interview, they discuss the importance of bringing youth into the PCB industry and how Noisebridge has inspired people of all ages to get started creating their own electronics. I-Connect007’s Jonathan Zinski has been through the Noisebridge program, and helped facilitate this interview.

Barry Matties: Mitch, thanks for assisting us with the survey. Jonathan was kind enough to introduce us to you and you made that happen. Our findings were really interesting. We cover circuit board design, fabrication and assembly on a global level. One of the issues that the industry is facing is finding talent for all levels, from circuit design to the actual manufacturing. So when Jonathan was telling me more about what you're doing at Noisebridge, it really caught my attention as an opportunity for learning more. Indeed, the survey did indicate that some of those people on your list are quite interested in exploring careers in this field, and they hadn't really considered it. So, thank you for that.

Mitch Altman: Yeah, it's interesting. People in our culture in general believe that a job should be painful and that's why we get paid. And if they're doing something they enjoy, they don't even consider that it's a way they can make a living.

Matties: That's a great point. I've read a little bit about what you've done. It sounds like you've had an interesting career journey for yourself, from your TV-B-Gone to your consulting and now into the Maker and Noisebridge space.

Altman: Yeah. It's definitely been a fun and interesting rollercoaster.

Matties: Will you provide a little background for our readers about your own career in electronics?

Altman: Even as a little kid, I knew I didn't want a job. That sounded depressing to me, and I was really depressed as it was. So I went the academic route and eventually they made me graduate. To stay in school I had to go to grad school, which was different than undergrad because you had to really focus on a particular aspect of a given field. When that started getting in the way of what I really wanted to learn, because that wasn't really my approach to things, I went into teaching. I totally loved teaching and that's the one thing I really learned in grad school while being a teaching assistant.

I taught for about four-and-a-half years at university level, and it was fantastic. But I kind of burned out at teaching, partly because of all the administrative overhead. Also, I was teaching for many of the right reasons, and some of the wrong reasons as well. I was still very depressed and was trying to use teaching to bolster my self-esteem, and that's not really a good reason to teach. So I was not really taking care of myself in the process.

From there I went to consulting, still loving teaching, and much of my consulting work involved teaching people in small companies and doing microcontroller projects, usually for small companies that needed help. After about 15 years doing projects for other people, I really saw how poorly run most of these small start-up companies were. I wanted to try my hand with friends to do our own things because if I could work for companies that ran themselves into the ground, I figured I could run my own companies into the ground just as easily. And it turned out I was OK at doing these kind of things.

I also wanted to put my heart and soul into a project or projects that I was super excited and passionate about. So I quit consulting in Silicon Valley to explore what I really love doing and somehow find a way to do it and make enough of what I needed to continue. I had no idea what that would be or how I would do it, but I started working on and playing with projects that I'd been thinking about a long time. The one project that really got on a roll was TV-B-Gone. A remote control that turns TVs off in public places.

I grew up spending way too much of my childhood watching television all day and all night; it had, and still has, way too much power over me. I could get rid of it from my apartment, which I did long ago in 1980. But when they started popping up all over in public places I couldn't do anything about them. But I did figure out a way to turn them all off, and I did. It turned out that a lot of people really loved that idea, and I had no clue so many people wanted to turn TVs off, but I'm glad they do. I've sold half a million of these things as a result of seeing that as an opportunity, and it's how I've made a living for the last 13 years.

Doing that has gotten me invited to do interviews and give talks in media and at conferences all over the world, and that got me in touch with the hacker community, which I'd never really considered before. That was in 2006, when I went to my first hacker conference, which are these amazing events where thousands of way diverse cool people enthusiastically share their way diverse cool projects with others and wanting to learn from other people doing the same, and it's a super-high. It's amazing to be surrounded by so many people who really love what they do. And then the conference ends.

Then I had to wait until the next conference. But at my third conference there was a talk about how to start your own hackerspace, and that sounded fantastic because then it doesn't so much have to end. There could be this going on all day and all night in a cool community space in my hometown. So I started Noisebridge with a bunch of other people in San Francisco; it's been thriving since 2007 and it just keeps getting cooler. Back in 2007, there were a handful of other people in the U.S. starting other hackerspaces, and we were all helping each other.

We didn't know it but we were really setting the ground for the hackerspace movement, all these people creating their own unique community spaces all helping each other. There were maybe two or three dozen back then, and now there's thousands in the world, and we still all help each other, and it's really cool.

For years now I’ve been going from hackerspace to hackerspace, teaching people how to solder and how to make things with electronics and the more I do that the more I get invited to do that. Often conferences have a budget, like one I went to in Amsterdam a week ago, Hack in the Box, and they can pay for me to come and do this. And while I'm in Europe I can go to places that have no budget and do it for free, and it's just tons of fun.

So I do that, and of course, the more I do that the more I get invited and give talks, and the more I do that, the more I get invited by conferences with budgets. So here I am not only making a living from TV-B-Gone, but also giving talks and encouraging other people to explore and do what they love doing. So, it's been an interesting path and I don't know where it leads from here, but I'm looking forward to whatever it is because, whatever it is, I'm going to keep exploring and doing what I love doing.

Matties: The important thing is you're doing what you love to do and it sounds like you've found happiness in your life.

Altman: Yeah. Going from a depressed blob of a kid to someone who loves living my life.

Matties: That’s fantastic. Everybody should be so lucky.

Altman: I really am lucky. It required having supportive people at the right time in my life. It wouldn't have happened otherwise. So much of life is circumstance, but it's also about being self-reflective and doing the work one needs to do with oneself, and as well as seeing the world full of resources that we can make use of and being open to people supporting us.

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