Mitch Altman Discusses Bringing Youth into the PCB industry
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.
Matties: So, the facility in San Francisco, Noisebridge, this is where Jonathan, who's joined our team, was spending quite a bit of his time. How is that funded? I see that there is no cost other than some materials, but how is that project funded?
Altman: Noisebridge, like most hackerspaces in the world, is non-profit. Most of them in the United States are run primarily on donations and membership dues, and that's how Noisebridge makes most of its money. But Noisebridge is kind of unique in that we get almost all of our money primarily from lots of small donations from individuals. Our annual budget is about $70,000, and more than two-thirds of that is from small, individual donations and the other third is from membership dues, which is $40 to $80 a month. Any member can choose any amount within that range and every month just make that choice.
It works well for us. We make a little bit of money from selling T-shirts and a few things like that, but that's pretty little. Overall this works great. Everything at Noisebridge is free. If we have a class or a workshop that requires material sometimes there's a reasonable charge for the materials, but other than that everything is totally free. We don't want lack of money to be an impediment for people to come to Noisebridge and learn what they want to learn. You don’t need to be a member to do anything at Noisebridge.
Matties: That's a great model that you're putting together, and it goes right back to your roots of the desire of being a teacher because how we act is what we teach.
Altman: Yeah, totally. At Noisebridge, unlike at schools, no one is getting paid, so they're only doing it because they really love teaching, and everyone who goes there goes there because they went out of their way to be there, to learn what they wanted to learn. No one wakes up in the morning or afternoon or whenever they wake up and goes, "Ugh, I have to go the hackerspace."
Matties: It's exciting. They want to be there.
Altman: Yeah, unlike school, and school should be that way.
Matties: As far as what they're learning, you mentioned soldering. I checked out the your soldering classes online. Is Noisebridge focused primarily around electronics? Because I saw other categories, like machining and other areas of interest.
Altman: Noisebridge is really diverse. Most hackerspaces have more than one focus. Noisebridge is somewhat unique in that we have many, many focuses. So, electronics is one of the big ones, but we also have good fabrication tools. We've got laser cutters and vinyl cutters and a really nice machine shop, so people make pretty much anything out of plastic, metal or wood at Noisebridge. We also recently got a really nice welder. We have some, not just cheap but also somewhat high-resolution, expensive 3D printers so people can do a lot of rapid prototyping for projects that they do. We also have a lot of sewing and crafts of all sorts and visual arts as well as music.
And there are people who come together for software, learning Python and Ruby and C++ classes and workshops on these things. We have people who come together to teach each other various aspects of science like neurophysiology, neuroscience, and just this week we got a whole bunch of stuff donated from people at Noisebridge who are putting together a nice bio-hacking setup. So, there's things in lots of different realms at Noisebridge. Like all hackerspaces, we really have the tools that the community wants for learning what they want to learn.
Matties: Do you see any corporate interest in this sort of environment where they're coming in and wanting to sponsor and support this effort?
Altman: Noisebridge usually is somewhat reluctant to take corporate sponsorship, although we've done that from time to time. We only take donations if there's no strings attached. So if a corporation is just thinking that what we're doing is really cool and they want to give us something that they think will help the people at Noisebridge, and it'll help get their name around because the stuff they gave has their name on it, that's probably totally cool.
We've gotten very few larger grants at Noisebridge. Not because we're against them, just because people haven't gone out of their way to look for them. We got a large grant from Google with no strings attached and they didn't even require that we thank them. We got $15,000, which they accidentally gave us twice and they said, "Oh, just keep the second one." We use that as an equipment fund, so if anyone at Noisebridge thinks that a piece of equipment would be really cool to have, then they can raise half the amount of the money for that piece of equipment any way they like, and then the equipment fund pays for the other half.
We've gotten stuff from Hackaday. We've gotten stuff from hackster.io, too, which is a website that forms a community of people supporting each other in creating electronics projects for the public good. They've donated soldering equipment and a bunch of solder just because they thought what we were doing is cool and that helped some people become aware of hackster.io. We got stuff from Eagle, back before they were bought by Autodesk, and a few other smaller companies like that have given us stuff that fits in with what we do.
Matties: You have a lot of people coming together, putting their ideas together, creating new products, concepts, theories and a variety of things. Is there a path forward through your organization for them to carry their products to market or pursue, as we started this conversation, a career path?
Altman: We don't have anything formalized like that. But Noisebridge, like many hackerspaces, is used as a co-working space because it's free. The disadvantage might be someone turns on a bandsaw and makes a bunch of noise, which can be distracting. There's also lots of cool people there who are really interesting to get into conversations with, which can be distracting. But, yeah, lots of people do their startup at Noisebridge and make a living from it, and people definitely encourage each other. If someone finds a project they really love and other people are excited about it, people definitely encourage them to consider the possibility of making a living doing those things. There are a lot of people within the community who are good at various aspects of entrepreneurship, so people help each other in that way.
Occasionally, there are classes and workshops about bringing a product to market or becoming better at running a small business. We also have people give classes on how to interview well if you want to take what you're doing and help other companies do that to get a job as an employee. I am good at helping people and I mentor people through a hardware accelerator program called HAX, which is mostly in Shenzhen, China, but also in San Francisco. So, there are people who go from Noisebridge and other hackerspaces into the HAX program. I also help people go to China. I have a trip every year called the Hacker Trip to China, where we visit hackerspaces and manufacturers and schools and universities and tourist things in China for anyone who's interested. I started that to show people who are into manufacturing their project what resources are available there. China is still a great place for that, yet more and more, there are more resources in Europe and the United States for doing that so you don't have to ship things halfway around the planet.
Matties: Shenzhen is a great place to take students and people who are interested to see manufacturing in China, that's for sure.
Altman: Yeah, there's a lot of resources available not only in Shenzhen but all over China; there are more and more resources available everywhere in the world including hackerspaces, many of which are now doing small-scale manufacturing on their own.
Matties: We see 3D printing and companies like Nano Dimension, I don't know if you're familiar with them, but they're 3D printing multilayer circuit boards. They start with an empty space and build a substrate and the board all together as one component. That's really changing rapid prototyping in the printed circuit space.
Altman: That’s got a long way to go, but the potential is pretty cool. At Noisebridge, about once a year, we’ve been having a workshop where people go through the whole process, from coming up with an idea to making a circuit board and how to mill it out, because that's the quickest way we have available at Noisebridge, and then making a circuit work. But also show how to send your project to a place like Seed Studio in Shenzhen, or the manufacturer I have in Shanghai that manufactures things for DIY people who want a small run of their product and want to sell it. We usually cover Eagle and KiCAD, as they’re the two that are popular. Although, now people have a lot of distaste for Eagle after they started with their monthly subscription model.
Matties: I'm really interested in what you guys are doing. I think it's great and I'm sure your story is one that inspires many others. The interesting part, back to that survey, is that a lot of the people there don't even realize that there's a career path for circuit board design and manufacturing. And, as you say, sometimes what you love you don't equate with something that can really translate to a job or a career. Is there any connection that could be made to help further open up that prism, if you will, for people to realize that?
Altman: That's one of the things that hackerspaces are good at: showing that just by seeing so many people who make a living doing what they really love doing, that it's not only an option, but it's way worth going for. Again, nothing has been very formal in doing that until now. Probably it would be worthwhile to have classes, workshops, whatever, in encouraging people explicitly to do that. But just being in that environment people see by example that it's way worthwhile doing that, so more and more people have.
Matties: There are a lot of electronics industry associations, like SMTA or IPC, that have a lot of workshops and opportunities for people to learn more, and local trade shows that would be of interest. Some, like the microwave show in San Francisco last year, bring in tons of kids through the STEM program, from elementary school to high school. They introduce them and they partner them with an engineer, who gives them a tour of the trade show. They have their own keynotes. I think Joey Hudy was one of the speakers in years past.
Altman: Yeah, I know Joey well.
Matties: It was great to see these kids be so inspired by Joey, and just by being at the events. They had to go through the entire registration process and so on. It can be life-changing, and we don't even realize how impactful that can be on youth.
Altman: Oh, it's super important. That's a big part of what helped me survive and thrive—having those kind of opportunities—which was much rarer when I was a kid. But at Noisebridge, we have many groups of kids of various ages, from primary school up through university and grad school, come in for field trips and sometimes week-long programs, and that changes people's lives. And we tend to call it STEAM rather than STEM. Because the A is a catchall for the creativity, without which it's all meaningless and joyless, and it is an incredibly joyful process to be learning in this way.
Matties: Yeah, I think STEAM is really gaining steam. Mitch, I really appreciate you taking time today to talk with me. I know your schedule is incredibly busy. Thank you for the work that you're doing, like with Jonathan, who went through your program. I met him because we just started talking about the circuit design he was doing and spending a lot of time at Noisebridge. Lo and behold, it was a career path and now he's working for us and doing a great job.
Altman: It sounds like he loves it, too.
Matties: Thank you.
Learn more about Noisebridge.