We are very excited to announce that we are starting a new blog series! Meet the Engineer is a succession of profiles and interviews from passionate people in the fields of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Our first interviewee is electrical engineer Chris Gammell, co-host of the popular podcast Amp Hour (along with Dave Jones from the EEVblog in Sydney Australia) and founder of Contextual Electronics.
I reached out to Chris via email a couple of weeks ago, and ended up having the opportunity to set up a video chat and conduct an interview. I did have some set questions, but I was primarily interested in taking the opportunity to engage with him in a discussion. Unless one has a friend in the industry, it can be fairly rare to get to talk to someone about themselves and their personal journey in engineering.
Me: What brought you to this field?
Chris Gammell: I had sort of an interesting start actually, because unlike most electrical engineers I did not start as a hobbyist. I suppose it began when I was in high school trying to figure out what to do with my life. I had always liked physics and the sciences, and I decided electronics was the way to go. Started in college, really wanted to get into designing cell phones. After graduating in 2006 I worked for Samsung for two years as a manufacturing engineer, working on Flash memory. Then I got sick of it, and decided that I wanted to get back into electronics. As it would happen, a buddy of mine called and said he had a job for me in Cleveland. So I headed up there, and started relearning all the electronics information I had forgotten from school. I also started blogging around this time, to document the journey back in. The company in Cleveland (Keithley) was great though, excellent mentors and were very generous with their time. I suppose that is when I really got into it, so around age 23/24.
Me: What would you say is your favorite part about working in this kind of a field?
Chris Gammell: Probably the potential to have a big impact. I don’t think I necessarily have quite yet, but some of the ABB stuff that I worked on is now in power plants, so I guess just having that actual impact is important to me. The ability to do interesting things with tiny resources. And I like how it is still challenging, even ten years in it’s not getting any easier.
Me: There is a common stereotype that a lot of people get into this field for the money. Would you say that the financial security influenced your decision to get into it in any significant way?
Chris Gammell: Money doesn’t hurt, but its not as high as people might think. If you want to make a ton of money go into finance, not electronics… electronics will spit you out
Me: If you could have it your way how would electronics and electronics education look in ten years?
Chris Gammell: I’m big on practical, having hands-on project based curriculum, you can teach a lot by presenting someone with challenge and having a guide there to help them when they ask. Show them the knowledge and allow them to learn it themselves. Its much more realistic.
For electronics, it’s a weird time right now. I think there is a lot of consolidation on what chip companies are doing, who’s offering services. Lots of opportunity. But the crazy thing is all of the opportunity out there for solo people. People can design and build stuff without big company grants or support.
One thing that needs to happen is continuing the support network around solo individuals and smaller companies. And then overcoming the real challenges, such as with so many lone engineers, how do you build something big? How do you find and support people to make the next CERN supercollider?
And how do you get the big projects done when people are one their own trying to make a living?
As far as the education side, I would say it needs to be more focused on the practical. You can buy a textbook, and I still have and use them as reference materials, but academics are so math-focused. Schools focus on making more professors…but unfortunately, there aren’t many jobs for them these days.
Theory is very important, but practical is too often pushed to the wayside. People may say, “The tools don’t matter,” but they do. The practical cements the theoretical, without it it’s not worth it. This applies to more than just electronics.
Me: Do you think it might be additionally challenging for the individual and smaller company solo collaboration to occur due to the occasionally introverted personalities of people in the technical fields?
Chris Gammell: Looking at engineering over time, the stereotype has always been the engineer is the quiet kid over there in corner. But I always encourage people to be more social. I think everyone could benefit from being more communicative. Honing the ability to write, talk on camera, explain a project to others. Showing projects is how engineers communicate, and those who do it the best are able to share, reap benefits, and draw people in. Asking people what’s their projects is a great way to open this communication, and help build those strong networks so that you can find people to help you do different pieces, and find manufacturers.
Me: Do you have a current project you want to be asked about?
Chris Gammell: For me, I always love getting asked about Contextual Electronics, the current project within Contextual Electronics (tele-presence robot), my views on education, AMP Hour (get to showcase people doing cool things).
Me: Can you describe Contextual Electronics?
Chris Gammell: Contextual Electronics is an online electronics apprenticeship I started and run. Its about making sure that people signing up understand content and are building the projects, in the hope that when course is done they go off and build their own stuff.
Me: Was there a specific moment when you decided to quit your job and focus on Contextual Electronics?
Chris Gammell: I think it was built up over time, I designed the course while still at my old job, I would get home from work at 6, then dinner, then 8-2 worked on the course.
Me: Well, thank you so much for your incredible input and for taking the time to do this interview! Is there anything else you want to say before we wrap it up?
Chris Gammell: I would just emphasize the point that people should avoid letting lack of education or resources stop them from pursuing their interests. Get out there, get online, get to a local meetup and overall just get involved in this field!
If you want to find out more about Chris’s current endeavors, please check out his website and his blog!