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Jack Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant specializing in embedded systems' development issues. He has been a columnist with Embedded Systems Design for over 20 years.
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Posted: 05:14:52 PM, 14/03/2014

On hackers and makers

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A Wikipedia entry offers this enlightening tidbit in an article on hackers: "Today, mainstream (mediums) usage of "hacker" might mostly refer to computer criminals, erroneously noted continuously by the experts during the history, due to the mass media usage of the word since the 1980s and the continuous negligence/incompetence to these days."

In the olden days "hacker" conjured up the image of the bad guy, the generally not-very-competent script kiddie who took a malicious delight in breaking into computer systems. There was no positive spin on hackers; clever, perhaps, but not all that bright, they were perceived by grownups as little more than computer vandals.

Today, many use "hacker" in a positive light, as a smart white hat who probes computer vulnerabilities. There has also been the rise of the "maker" movement, a much-celebrated effort to create stuff, often electronic stuff, outside of the normal confines of disciplined electronics labs.

As one suspicious of marketing malarkey I cringe at this rebranding of experimenters into a not-so-new category of hobbyists. In my mind, hackers do software, poorly. Makers make stuff, often poorly as well. To me, these notions imply a person with but a facile understanding of the world of electronics or computers.

The idea of a maker, an experimenter, one who plays with electronics is old and admirable. Many of us grew up as kids fiddling with transistors, tubes, and ICs. Building stuff is as old as humanity, and that tactile interaction with components, circuits, and theory gained from such building things is much more visceral than a class on electromagnetics. I wish more young folks had a passion for making things.

What seems to be missing from the maker/hacker movement is a path to professionalism. That's not to say every experimenter needs to become an engineer. Rather, the emphasis seems to be on making something work, rather than constantly upgrading one's skills. To make is a great thing, but to make well is much more difficult. As one friend says about firmware, it's easy to get to 90%. The last 10% is really hard.

Ham radio has always had a maker-style zeitgeist. Hams often build their own equipment, sometimes on the cheap, often with innovative ideas. But hams have a culture of increasing rigor. One gets a Novice licence, then, through study, progresses to General and maybe eventually to Amateur Extra.
It's fun to see someone dress up an Arduino as a fashion accessory. It's admirable when that person's code gets critiqued, then rewritten to comply with the tenets of structured programming. Anyone can toss in a 1K resistor to bias a transistor, but my hat is off to one who asks "why" and then learns about hfe.

The word "hacker" still gives me shivers, and that's probably due to being an old fart encumbered with too much history to easily adapt to what seems a new meaning of the term. "Maker," as used so widely today, is something I strongly support, no matter what the individual's goals may be. The outcome could be an artist having a great afternoon dabbling with blinking LEDs or someone trying to hone his or her skills on the path to a professional career in the field. My fear is a sense of conflation in the popular press of the pro and the pro-wannabe. We all start in the latter category, but advance to the former by adopting a discipline of learning. My hope is the Maker movement can serve as a gateway drug into real engineering. My fear is that some easy successes will convince Makers they are ready to build a heart-lung machine.

It has been said that an engineer is someone who makes something for a dime what any fool can make for a dollar. But unlike what the fool produces, that dime-priced device will also work over temperature and with unexpected inputs.


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