While you may know him best as co-host of the electronics podcast The Amp Hour, Chris Gammell is also the founder of Contextual Electronics, an online video-based program to teach board-level circuit design and layout. Contextual Electronics is aimed at advanced Arduino users, software designers and anyone who wants to learn to design their own boards.

Chris Gammell photo.jpg

SK: element14 last spoke with you when you had just launched your online series of classes through Contextual Electronics. What week are you in now? (Note: I spoke with Chris March 3, 2014)

CG: We just started week 7.

It’s an eight week series?

Yes. It's kind of autopilot right now, I thought I would be screaming my brains out trying to get everything done, but at this point, people are following along. We're in the second week of layout, effectively.


Can you tell us how the course is structured?


There's a couple of different sections within the eight weeks. The first section is introduction and getting to know each other. And then there’s also learning Kicad, the open source software that is used for the actual drawing of the schematics and the PCB layout (creating the PCBs). 3rd, 4th, 5th week is about shopping for parts and understanding the background of why we are putting this stuff together. Weeks 6 through 8 we work on layout.


What software did you use at your last job?


Allegro (Cadence), and before that, PADS (Mentor Graphics).


In Contextual Electronics, do you instruct people beyond the mechanics of the software layout, as in do you show people how to lay PCBs out to deal with filtering, noise, electronic design and so on?


Yes, it's all pulled together in one course.


Can you describe the place that you worked at in the full time engineering job you just left?


It is a large industrial design firm that makes products for power plants. I designed analog hardware.

Can you elaborate on analog hardware?


I was designing IO subsystems, the kind of thing that might go in a networked PLC or an industrial component.


That sounds challenging and fun!


Yeah, there was a lot of interesting things there, the robustness, the network control, and yes, my team was good and it was challenging.


How far before you left the job, did you plan on leaving?


Right after I left the job before this one (Keithley) in 2012, I always said my next job would be working for myself. So I knew I would eventually leave from the very beginning, it was just a matter of when and if it would all work.


I have to admit I'm a little jealous of your job at Keithley, that must have been awesome.

It was alright, the people there were spectacular, they made me what I am today...although as with anywhere, there was the usual corporate silliness.


Yes, we've all experienced corporate silliness from time to time. What else made you want to start your own company?


I am a control freak, I don't like when decisions are handed down to me. Just to give context, I started at Keithley in 2008 and bought a house in 2009. It was a terrible time to start a job (because of the financial crisis).

We took pay cuts and our jobs were based on the semiconductor industry, where purchases are planned based on projected test equipment sales many years in advance.

So because of the semi industry not doing well, fabs weren't buying as much test equipment. And because you have to design so far out, it impacted many things, like job security.

I kept my job, but the only things that in my control were how much I could save and how hard I could work.

It wasn't the same as working for yourself, where you are control of hustling and looking for more clients for your company. It was more like being in control of not getting laid off...and I didn't like that.


In many ways, having a job is much less secure than working for yourself because of exactly that lack of control over your income. I remember talking to you right before you quit your full-time job, and you were going to ask your past job if you could work part-time. How did that go?


I went in and said I wanted to work on a startup so I'd really like to continue working part time and that I thought I could still contribute significantly. And basically there was nothing in place for that- there was no corporate structure in place for that, it was either all or nothing. At least, there was nothing in place for the job that I was doing, even though there may have been for other jobs.


I understand that corporations have multiple layers of decision-makers, but it doesn't seem to me like drafting a part-time version of your job would have taken that much from the Human Resource department.


They had contract resources in place and it was easier to assume they could do my work than to go through the work of keeping me around. I knew when I went into my boss' office to talk about it, I knew that I could be walking out without a job. And I think you have to be prepared to do that kind of thing.


How long did you stay after that conversation?


I stayed a little more than 2 weeks after that.


I am very much in favor of working part-time as a strategy for bootstrapping while one explores the idea of going out on your own. I think it's a good solution for many people.

Do you think that there is place for part-time engineers?


Depends on the kind of job, in hardware, it's more difficult, you need to be there a lot more, to switch between tasks and contacts.

Being quickly able to switch between tasks and breaking down the work into small pieces is needed for part-time work. Software work seems like it is broken down into smaller chunks than hardware.

For hardware-based work, from a system level, you need to be there for the pricing, you need to be there for the manufacturing, you really need to be there for the whole product lifecycle.


Many people do want to go out on their own and aren't able to get significant savings and it is a big shock to go from having a job to not having job.


I think the savings is important, making sure that you have a financial backup, it is a big risk... but I think it is worth it.


What does being worth it mean to you?


Supporting my family, retirement savings, non-tangible stuff like enjoying my job.

In my regular job, I never felt like I could go to conferences, even asking to go on my personal time felt like a chore and that always bugged me.

If it was very directly related, I could go, but there really wasn't enough freedom to just pack up and go to Maker Faire. I'd have to really plan for that sort of thing.

I do recognize that Maker Faire for example isn't directly related to my (past) job, but it had to have this return on investment kind of connection.


What conference will you attend now that you don’t have to tie it to a ROI?


I will be speaking at O’Reilly’s SolidCon out in the Bay Area in May.

What is O’Reilly’s Solid?


It's about everything, software, hardware startups and putting it all together.

From a corporate standpoint, there would be no reason for me to go to that sort of thing...but at the same time, it is always those soft connections, those happenstances, those rare occurrences, that’s where the magic hits.


If you have a hundred companies, and one engineer from every company goes to the exact same conference, well then every one of those hundred companies is going to design effectively the same thing. And you have to branch out in order to gain that creative edge or to be able to take a risk.


I could go to ESC (now re-named EE Live) every year and listen to the same people every year and learn some things and network. But I might be limiting myself by only going to an embedded conference and only meeting embedded engineers. I might need a mechanical engineer, and I want to make that soft connection.


I always thought a missing link in companies was the divide between Sales and Engineering. Sales is always pushing Engineering to build something and Engineering has no input, and even worse, has not been allowed to be in touch with the customer at all.


That’s a good example, when does lightning strike in terms of a creative aspect of things to integrate into new products? That's what engineers really want to do, they want to design new things to help improve the world. And it can end up being all re-hashed stuff because Sales is going out to ask the customer what it is that they need.


If you ask a customer what they want, they will say I want exactly what I have now, but cheaper and faster. If you don't actually interact with the customer and tease out these details, from a design perspective, you really can't make someone want something they don't know they want. So for me now, having the freedom to go out and interact is just great.


Hierarchal engineering institutions are built around the efficiency of one person doing one task faster and better for the company. But I don't think that is realistic these days, from my personal view as an engineer. If I just do the same thing for my whole career then that means that I am dependent on my employer to continue to feed me analog tasks so that I can churn them out faster and better and cheaper.


From a personal growth perspective, and from a practical building perspective for what I would be building for an end user, getting out into the world is very important.

In a traditional engineering institution, I don't feel that this is well planned for.


Exploring other points of view is not supported within a corporate structure as it is not good for the bottom line.


Yeah, there is always that direct line, where you have to say I'm doing this and explain why are you doing that. You hear how is that going to increase our revenue and sometimes the answer is...I don't know, it just feels like it will.

Some people will say that if you go out on your own as a consultant you have that freedom (to go explore) even less because you are tied to hourly wages, which is also true. But a definition of success for me would be, to be able to try out new things without being concerned about the next hour that I can bill for. Success is working without thinking about the next deliverable that I can give to a boss in order to get a bonus. Even if it means a lifestyle of readjustment… that's fine with me


What do you think about consulting versus building a business? And what defines a startup?


A startup is about growth. And since Contextual Electronics is just me, not a platform of people who teach alongside of me, then CE is a lifestyle business rather than a startup.


Are you accepting consulting work right now?


I am consulting right now, small stuff at the moment while I figure stuff out, but all channels are open!


A consulting (service-based) business and a product business like Contextual Electronics are not the same thing.


The downside to consulting is that you can only sell 168 hours in  a week, and in that case it is a pretty bad week.


168 hours? You must not sleep!


That's your actual maximum, so while I'm not yet near 168 subscriptions in a week, I could theoretically sell 169 subscriptions. Not only that, there is flexibility in hourly rates, but that has an upper limit as well.

I think consulting is risky, but less risky than other types of businesses. You are simply selling your knowledge and your time to someone. With a product, like Contextual Electronics, you have to invest up front time, or you have to invest money in it, and you have to pay something up front to get something back.

Of course, now Kickstarter has changed that as well. There is still a lot of risk there- you are risking blowing other people's money and potentially your own reputation. Plus, you lose time in developing your product...opportunity cost.


What else are you working on?


I have medical startup, but I’m not going to talk about it too much, but I can say that it is a medical therapy product.


Are you working on it alone?


I have a partner. He is a fraternity brother, he's a mechanical guy and he needed some electrical help, so he came to me and that's how the partnership was formed.


So he reached out to you to be  a co-founder?


Yeah- I don't like these terms, and I feel like there is so much culture around startups these days that it is so distracting from the actual thing. People have been starting businesses for years and years and as much as I like reading the writings of Paul Graham and  Fred Wilson (because they are very good writers)...there's so much silliness around startup culture. SO much focus on fundraising instead of focus on solving the problem that needs to be solved.


I agree, I'm not a fan of titles in general.


You have to do that for corporate structure, to show that you can make decisions.


How did you, or your partner, come up with the product idea for the medical startup?


It was from a past relationship with a researcher, we are building to order, working with a third party, building what they want. So it is like having a customer first, which is great. That is the best case scenario, because it's hard to get a first user.


Some of the companies I've worked for started out that way.


It's a very valid way to start a business, and I think making that jump based on that customer, it's a leap of faith. We have to trust that they are giving us good specifications to work with and that they will pay us on time.

Everything is based on trust, but my partner has had a good relationship with the customer for a long time.


So generally I close these conversations by asking about general happiness with your new employment state, but since you've just left, I'll ask you how your last two weeks have been.


It feels like it is always the weekend, and I've been sleeping a lot. So that's what I'm working on now, just self-discipline.

I had deadlines before, for Contextual Electronics, but I had been taking care of that after work...so now it's like what do I do with all of that extra time. It's nice though, spending time with my wife, which is great.

I flew out to LA last week and I'm going to Florida and then San Francisco, so I'm getting to travel a bit, which is good.

I haven't hit the point yet where I have to pay bills without a regular paycheck, so I'm sure there will be some hyperventilating, but I think I'm going to be OK.


To contact Chris Gammell for consulting and/or to learn more about his course:

Contextual Electronics

@chrisgammell on Twitter