Last year I worked at a hardware company where our primary product was robotics and not software. This is an experience I don’t think most software developers get to have. Most of us are stuck writing esoteric applications communicating with a server or a cloud where you’re not programming something you can touch and feel.
When I was in school I never got to take any shop classes because they scheduled them opposite the college prep classes. My grandfather was a builder and I remember growing up wandering around building sites watching people pouring concrete. Even with that experience, I still had a mental block that working with hardware or power tools was something for other people.
I don’t think that working with your hands has to be divorced from working with your head. I think if you physically touch and see the things you are working with, it helps you think about what you are actually doing.
When I was going to school for audio engineering they made us write signal flow documents for how the sound travels from the microphone to the recording device. I found it incredibly frustrating because I just wanted to go and play with the sound board and I didn’t think it mattered about how things worked under the hood.
That experience really helped me a lot with programming. When I write a program I think through the signal flow of my code. I think about the sequence of events that happens when things are triggered. I don’t know if other people do this too. I know that I have trouble dealing with code where people ask me about something that happens in the middle of the signal flow. To me, it’s almost a narrative thing where a story happens between when the user interacts with the app, or it launches, or whatever the triggering event is and the events that happen afterwards.
I really want to do more with hardware. I find just working with software to be very existential. I feel like I am not doing anything. But I also know that I don’t have the requisite skills to do the things I want to do.
I have enough skills to have a good career as an iOS developer, but it isn’t just about money for me. I want to work on things I find emotionally fulfilling. People keep telling me that jobs are supposed to be soulless and boring, otherwise people would do things for free. I don’t think that’s the case. I think there are a lot of unexplored avenues with iOS that require specialized skills. I think that working with Bluetooth and micro controller devices has a lot of potential, but that requires knowing stuff besides Swift.
How I Learned Programming
I have been incredibly disorganized about trying to learn electronics. I bought a bunch of electronics kits partially to learn soldering. I have a good handle on soldering, but I didn’t do the stuff I intended by figuring out the signal flow of the projects I was working on.
I bought the Make: Electronics book, but I didn’t work through the projects while I read it. I was reading it in the bath tub and before bed, like I was reading my programming books.
I burned myself out reading technical books where you’re supposed to work through a project or look at code while you are working through it.
I know, but keep consciously forgetting, that code, like anything, is a skill. When I learned programming, I sat down between 60 and 80 hours a week working through the Big Nerd Ranch iOS book over and over again.
My teacher Eric Knapp told us that programming is like playing the piano. You need to practice a lot. The first time I typed a project in the book, it would make no sense. It would just be something that worked like magic. The second time I typed it, things wouldn’t be much different. By the third time, I would start to make mental connections about how the project worked. I was starting to form a signal flow document mentally about how an object I created in one place would pull information from another object and result in an output. By the fourth time I understood how the whole program would work.
One thing I had to get over was the idea that somehow doing a tutorial wasn’t really programming. I thought if I didn’t create the code in my head then I wasn’t really learning.
That isn’t the case at all.
It’s like practicing scales on the piano. If you do something over and over again and you do it a lot, your brain starts to make mental connections that it wouldn’t if you didn’t work with something a lot.
It’s like how if you play through Mario Brothers for the first time, you probably die in the first world. If you watch someone who’s been playing since 1987, you think they’re a genius because they know where the short cuts are and where they keep dying. They didn’t start out that way. Either they found them by playing it a lot or someone clued them into where the short cuts were.
How I Want to Learn Electronics
One thing I keep hearing from people is that you need a project to really learn something. I would agree to that to some extent. When I was trying to learn GLSL I didn’t make any progress until I found a project I wanted to do. I found a filter I wanted to write and it gave me enough focus to go in and write the code and add it to the framework.
However, I was only able to do that because I had enough of a base of knowledge about basic programming in order to do that. If I tried to jump in and write that shader before I wrote “Hello, World!” then I would have been hosed.
I think there are two levels of learning a new skill. There is the grunt work of learning the basics, like terminology and “signal flow”. You have to have a good grasp of these things before you can move on to doing your passion project.
I was trying to jump into my passion project without putting in the grunt work I put into learning programming. I have to work through a bunch of basic electronics projects like making an LED light up before I can design an analog synthesizer or a beacon to find my dog when she runs away.
I want to start the Make: Electronics book over again, but I want to do it properly. I have an electronics workshop in my basement, but like everything else in my life, it’s super disorganized.
I bought the component packs for that book. I want to organize my space and learn electronics the same way I learned programming. I want to set aside a decent amount of time and actually touch components and build things. I am not going to skip over the grunt work and “scales” of electronics because if you don’t build a good foundation of knowledge, you won’t get anywhere.
What I am Not Going to Do
I am going to stop trying to read programming and electronics books for fun. I felt guilty for the last few years doing anything that was not related to programming. I burned myself out and created a lot of frustration trying to force myself to learn in a way that was unnatural.
At RWDevCon, James Dempsey talked about the importance going away from keyboard. If I am not in front of my computer actively working on a programming project, I am not going to read a programming book or tutorial. I want to be fully away from the computer.
There is a Buddhist concept of ”Be Here Now”. Don’t worry about the past because you can’t change it and don’t worry about the future because it hasn’t happened yet. The only thing that is important is the moment that is happening right now. If you’re off the clock, be fully off the clock. Disengage. Don’t check Twitter and email. Don’t read programming books. Don’t feel guilty about not working.
I am hoping to document my progress on the blog. I am not going to be inventing the wheel here. I am doing my scales and working through my programming tutorials over and over again. It’s going to be some basic stuff and figuring out how everything works together. I want to get back to how I worked in my audio engineering classes by understanding my signal flow. You can’t build a castle on a swamp, and you can’t generate great innovations without a strong technical foundation.