Knit your own head tracker

As we all know, Knitwear is an anagram of IT wanker. But a friend of mine, of the former rather than the latter persuasion, has made it her mission to master industrial knitting. The appeal of this seems to be that it is equal parts art, programming, production engineering, and swearing at machinery that contains tiny moving parts which require regular maintenance. This is all eerily familiar. I am about to showcase two of her masterworks.

The first is a head tracker. It’s 20:1 scale (about 5 inches wide, and four metres long) and is based on Supperware’s flex-rigid printed circuit board.

See how far you can zoom in to the home-made mosaic image. Banana for scale.

It’s a scarf!

It’s a banner for the support group we put together to keep the product in production!

It’s a perfect centrepiece for a very specific seasonal feast!

If you want a head tracker scarf, we’ll sell them. Really! (If you want one that isn’t a scarf, go to our other site.)

The second thing that needs a special mention, although it gets one in a soon-to-be-published ADC21 talk for which I wore it with pride, is T-shirt with a pocket. The pocket encapsulates my golden rule about starting a hardware business, and subverts an omnipresent brand in the process.

We mean it.

Here at Supperware Ltd, we embrace the hypocrisy of embedding a warning not to manufacture objects into a manufactured object. It’s our thing. Our daily exercise — mine, yours, and all healthy people — is to shrug and contemplate the absurdity of the human condition.

ADC 2021 Lightning Talk : Isn’t it nice to be back?

I don’t flinch from controversy. The subject of today’s talk is: Isn’t it nice to be back?

I’ve tried to distil something from the last couple of years. Not the easiest time to run a conference, and definitely not the best time to start an electronics company based in England.

There must be, I think, a way to examine our shared adventures over the last two years that ends ADC on a high. Some kind of three-act structure that mixes two pertinent themes, and leaves us with a positive feeling about where we’re heading.

Yeah. I haven’t worked harder for five minutes of material in my life. 

Act I

We have every reason to be happy to work in audio. This is self-evident. The world will continue to be short of engineers long after it no longer matters to us. If we weren’t happy, we’d be sitting in a different office. Generally, most places that need our brains outside audio offer more money, nicer weather, and fewer of those customers with grand delusions and landmine detonators on their foreheads.

What, then, keeps us happy? Near the top of the tree is our resemblance to the entertainment industry that feeds us. We are driven by the same dreams. We and music-makers are united by a long apprenticeship, a deep love of the art, and a lifelong pursuit of self-set and ever-changing ideals. This in spite of the fact that we know how music is produced, and by whom.

Yesterday’s professional rivals are today’s stablemates, and will be tomorrow’s rivals again. The sense of community and shared destiny at these events is intoxicating. And, I must say, exhausting: who knew that social fitness was a thing? Or that I could get so out of shape in less than two years?

But our community is big enough that rivalries are real. It is good ethical practice to encrypt your firmware so that others aren’t led into temptation. It is folly to leave a valuable trademark unattended if you’ve ever used it. You must in all endeavours clap your hands and pretend to believe in money, or you won’t be taken seriously. We still must keep our own tribes defended, for some Music Tribes are led by bastards.

The unresolving forces of cooperation and competition are the most effective engine of creation that we have. In my experience, the best agent to bring these forces together is not venture capital. Nor is it any form of political system. It’s probably conferences like these, that force our little gangs to appreciate one another.

That and alcohol.

My most satisfying moments in engineering and commerce can be traced back to happenstance: the side-channel conversations we go to conferences to create. Sometimes they can send one weeping back to the drawing board. But some colleagues once formed a temporary alliance with a competitors to make our platforms compatible, which threw us a lifeline and reflected well on them. In another job, we fixed a messy problem by giving the community some work for free, and it wasn’t bad to start with, so they improved it for us. We ended up owning a de facto standard.

Not meeting in person has dulled these channels: we’ve been left entrenched in slo-mo since 2019 because the online world isn’t set up so much to build bridges as to dig moats, and control who gets in.

Act 2

I found a problem with my talk yesterday, ‘How to make hardware without losing your shirt.’ In its title is an implication that we can make watertight assumptions about what we’ll achieve before we set out to do something.

We have no idea how successful any mission will be. We can’t control or mitigate as much as we think. There are catastrophes we cannot predict every few years that create accidental winners and losers, and these won’t get easier as the planet gets hotter.

But it gets worse. Not only can we not control a complex world; we can barely measure it. Learning any lessons, let alone the right ones, involves turning an amorphous sea of inputs into an engaging story we can understand. The success or failure we feel, learn from and talk about doesn’t come from data, but whatever story we let the data tell us.

And how could that possibly misfire?

Act 3.

Did I lose money making head trackers? Of course I did: I launched in February 2020 with no sales or distribution channels. The world shut down before I could establish any, and we’re halfway through a two-year hiatus where I can’t physically manufacture any more.

Is it a failure? Well, the correct answer is that it’s my product and my company, and it’s a huge success, so shut up.

The story I’ll tell myself about my product for the next year is that it’s been rather like writing a textbook. Now, those who need to know and care about my work at least know about it. They can benefit from it, and tell me where it’s not right.

Will it turn into anything more? I hope so: no idea.

God, what a cop-out! Imagine being this Panglossian fool, sitting pompously on this stage going, ‘Oh, look at me! Everything resolves to a qualified success! Every voyage is a golden adventure into the unknown! What a wonderful profession; aren’t we so lucky?’

… Achievement has several opposites, and I’ve shared a meeting room with most of them. One opposite of achievement is squinting into a crystal ball.

Predictions can’t be falsified and don’t last, but principles can and do. This year’s first is never to gamble so much that you can’t give the wheel another spin. The second is to take risks in the first place. Embrace imposter syndrome, because it means you’re in a place where you might be challenged, rewarded, and appreciated.

Luck is partly skill, and most of the rest is rotten. Failure is most likely not to be your fault, because the counterexample is Roland and he isn’t here tonight.

And if your luck doesn’t improve, you’ll just get up again. No matter how badly things sometimes go in the recesses of our industry, keep at it, because the data tells me that you’re bloody loving it.

ADC 2020 Lightning Talk : No man is an island. Except the Isle of Man.

When Sartre resolved that ‘Hell is other people’ he was probably trying to get Remo to connect to his microphone. This year’s running theme is definitely ‘imperfect replacements for human contact’. On the other hand, 2020 has highlighted our reliance on other people like nothing else could.

So this year, I’ve set my tone to consolation. Even while certain governments in Europe turn up the despotism, and we in the UK stupidly try to saw the Channel Tunnel in half, I’m not sufficiently angry to do narcissism for a third time.

My mission this year was to launch a hardware product, and my very own very flaky company. I won’t advertise it now: I’ve got a talk on Thursday evening and you’ll be there if you’re interested. Talk about it twice, and I’ll just jinx it.

Last year, I found myself explaining to a man in his eighties that I’d decided to start my own business. He fixed me with a glare. ‘You’ve just had your fortieth birthday, haven’t you?’ 

That he read me so transparently is worrying because I’d hate this talk to bore an octogenarian. On the other hand, this industry needs constant competition and experimentation, without which nothing can evolve. If the output of a thousand midlife crises bumping against a handful of spoilt rich kids can keep us all together, bring it on.

Designing, producing and selling electronics for a profit in a creative industry is deliciously hard. It’s in the category of things that are only just possible to do on your own, like circumnavigating the globe or reaching a human being at YouTube.

So I’m going to talk today about going it alone … Or not.

Many years ago, a commercial director at Focusrite explained that any business needs to optimise three different functions: sales, operations, and management. The message was if you looked after only two of those, you didn’t figuratively have a company, and would soon literally not have one. Managing the tension between sales, operations, and management, whilst looking after business as usual, is what keeps a decent company in a perpetual state of productive conflict. You have to argue to establish what’s most important, preferably with other people.

The thing is — and I’m about to blame the world for my own problems here — the way we are conditioned in early life impedes our ability to put a team together. As soon as you reach an unspecified age of adulthood, your future depends on unlearning most of your childhood conditioning as quickly as you can.

Don’t talk to strangers! becomes, ‘Work the room, build connections, maximise your luck.’

Copying is cheating! becomes … and I’d like to thank Maurice Ravel for the best advice I’ve read about making art … ‘Copy. And if, in copying, you remain yourself, it is because you have something to say.’ (Ravel died in 1937; Uli Behringer was born in 1961.)

Don’t talk back! becomes, ‘Consider, dear colleague, that your argument may benefit from reconciliation with the latest facts.’

Most of us emerge blinking from the same forest of infant conditioning so at least it’s somewhat fair. And adolescence, as long as you do it right, offers a gradual escape.

But as one-person companies, we have two problems with living in our own heads. The first is that our own expertise is lumpy. My Engineering Director is great, but I’d fire my Marketing Director if I could plug in a better one. So I have to ask an appropriate friend to second-guess.

Another former colleague of mine, with his own new company, is a natural at that stuff. His opening gambit was to mock up a make-believe product, collect pre-orders from Facebook, and wade waist-deep into a morass of emotion that would cause my jaw to clench. Which is smart: he is using the fact that he can’t build the physical product himself to his advantage.

But I built a prototype first, because that’s how I articulate myself, and from there my conversation with the market has been very different. No book would ever tell you to work that way, but books are usually written by marketers, not engineers.

So, your company will start as a shadow of your own prejudices and talents. Your engagement with the world must show you at your best, but it will also constrain what your business values.

When you’re an employee, your skills compensate for your weaknesses. Unfortunately, at the top of a business, your weaknesses drag down your skills. This is why you eventually have to hire people because they are not like you and, sometimes, because they do not like you.

I’ve watched a perfectionist kill a business because the product that would have saved it was never deemed ready. I’ve worked for disorganised people running disorganisations, wearing out their social capital by failing to maintain their products and stunting their later growth. A company run by a narcissist is just another limb of that individual: banal, reactionary, unempathetic.

And you have only one brain. (‘One brain’, incidentally, is an anagram of Brian Eno.) Self-discipline is a resource that some people possess in greater quantities than others, but it’s always expendable. Sometimes you need to close your eyes or watch a crappy video, and the entire operation has to shut down with you.

There is nobody else to pick over your internal caffeine-comedown monologue for logical fallacies. All your imaginary personnel get flooded by the same hormones, so are all angry or despondent at the same time.

That email to a supplier, for example, who has just cost you two months and £5000 has to wait until after the weekend, when your business’s endocrine system has settled down. (That was last week. Still a bit raw.)

But this is why we need other people. The most notorious casualty of a solo round-the-world yacht race, Donald Crowhurst, went mad and jumped overboard in 1969 and was never seen again. He left his log book behind, though, from which we learn that his biggest mistake was to turn his back on his family, switch off his two-way radio, and start getting seduced by his own dark thoughts.

Rarely in the adult world are there prizes for going it alone. And even if you want to, at least one opponent is somewhat like a restless, deep, and uncaring ocean.

If you’re having the same embryonic thoughts I was having back in 2018, please prepare yourself, be lucky, and take a risk that I promise you won’t regret. Even if you fail in the process, you will gain so much.

Finally, this is advice to myself, but it applies to any introvert: when in doubt, pick up the phone, and use the person at the other end with consideration. It will only strengthen a friendship.