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I got on Skype with Matt Haines, who runs the community for Electric Imp. Electric Imp was founded in 2011 and is a heavyweight innovator in the Internet of Things. Matt started as a software developer in Regina, Saskatchewan (Canada) and evolved into a hardware hacker-turned developer evangelist.
This is a great interview because we talk about the unique challenges of hardware hacking and the future of education, and how hackathons fit.
Brief overview of Matt’s background
Matt studied CS in University
Started a Hackerspace called CrashBang labs (in Saskatchewan, Canada) which is what eventually led to joining Electric Imp
David Gherhardt - was a professor who Matt knew, and between them they rounded up 10 people
Brief overview of your Electric Imp
The Imp is a tool to build internet connected hardware
Internet of Things (IoT) is the trend of products which aren’t traditionally connected coming online via wireless and starting to communicate with other technologies and services
Classic example is the “connected fridge” (spoof link :)
Electric Imp was founded May 2011 and now powers 15-20 established products (including GE, Quirky, and Budweiser) use Electric Imp’s platform.
Electric Imp’s core business is B2B, selling to large companies who manufacture connected products. Also serves the hobbyist market.
What does Matt do at Electric Imp?
Electric Imp doesn’t have a dedicated evangelist, focus right now for Matt is community
In short, Matt’s role is to enable other developers
managing support for active devs
re-write the documentation to be clearer and more example focused
How to balance supporting hardcore developers versus people who are just getting started?
It’s tricky. You need to watch the pain points, where people get stuck when you are out at events.
For beginners, the documentation is aimed at getting started story
Electric Imp has brought on a technical writer to serve the more advanced use cases
Electric Imp has a complicated product, so they do a lot of interaction inside a forum - their developer community is 15,000
Forum is powerful because it can inspire what to do next as a company
Mentioned - HeavyBit video library
What did you work on before you became a dev evangelist?
It was a natural transition for Matt because he had roles in both software and project management
He enjoyed acting as a bridge between really technical people and nontechnical users.
Also really enjoys going to hackathons.
Initially was just a fan of the product - Matt started at Electric Imp after buying one from SparkFun - so Matt as initially a member of the Electric Imp community
had gone to tons of hackathons in Saskatchewan - emphasis on open data initiatives
What is an API or product (not your own) that you love?
Firebase - backend as a service - it’s like a NoSQL data story but designed to synch
Firebase is something Matt used at most of the hackathons he’s been to
What is your favorite hackathon format?
Competitive - pitch for big prizes (Salesforce, Disrupt, AT&T)
Collaborative - science fair expos, finalists demo (MLH)
Themed - (Space Apps) - talked about open data companies
Matt’s Least favorite type of hackathon are the hypercompetitive ones- Salesforce/Angelhack, etc are very exclusionary in who they attract and who can participate.
A huge problem with competitive events is that they focus too much on product, not enough on process.
As a company it’s better to be involved in a collaborative or themed hackathons - more opportunities to mentor and interact with participants.
How can you measure the benefits you’re getting from a hackathon?
Electric Imp has very different goals than most software companies who sponsor
Hardware has much higher upfront cost
For that reason, Electric Imp focuses on recruiting interns/new hires, debugging their own product and docs, and to see where things go wrong with your product
Tell me about a great event you’ve been to in the past year
MLH hackathons - trend is that they are getting better. Organizers are getting more skilled at logistics. And importantly, organizers are figuring out how to handle hardware hacking versus a big focus on software
What are some challenges specifically for hardware hacks?
Classic problems - If there is no soldering iron you can’t solder, no way around it. If you need an accelerometer you can’t just download one as you may be able to with software hacks.
Some hackathons are now providing reimbursements for people that bring their own hardware
Definition of Hardware hacking is vague - projects that use Oculus or Myo armband are not necessarily hardware hacking. You’re just working with the SDK and adding that to your software.
Noticed that hacks can be repetitve - it’s very popular to use LeapMotion to play 2048, for example.
How to make hackathons better
A lot of hackathons are starting to take inclusivity more seriously
Hackathons are actually a big commitment, so it may be powerful to offer shorter form hackathons of 8 or 12 hours
Hackathons with transportation reimbursements help inclusivity
There are pros and cons to having everything in one room versus distributed
Throw a hackathon vs sponsor one - Which choice is better for a company who wants to get involved?
Depends on the outcome you are looking for - think about why you would be doing either
Sponsoring is probably better for evangelism
Your own hackathons, if you do one, should be based around a specific theme or provider (to illustrate the power of two techs combined) - for example, Electric Imp has done collaborations with Firebase and Pubnub
How to choose another sponsorship - partnerships where you are trying to build something for their technology stack, balancing with how it will benefit our users and community
Do you think hackathons will play a role in the future of education?
MLH hackathons - CS doesn’t teach you how to be a software developer, it teaches you how the systems work
Hackathons can sit in the middle between theoretical learning and practical learning, between University and Code Schools
To maximize the benefit of hackathons you probably should already be an autodidact
A huge benefit is being able to interact with likeminded folks outside of the classroom
Matt enjoyed his work/study degree, found working inside of companies and getting mentors to be highly useful
Where do the you see the dev evangelism scene evolving to?
At Evangelism events there is always a really similar conversation happening - what should you be doing, tracking, etc
JNC sophisticated wild ass guess (SWAG) - Possibly the most powerful way to measure evangelism reach is how many shirts you’ve passed out
Electric Imp isn’t necessarily aimed at driving sales via Evangelism, it’s about making the product better and learning
Anything (product, API, idea) you want to plug?
Electric Imp is headed to RobotsConf this weekend - same orgs as NodeBots and JSConf
There is an open source hardware robot kit called SumoBot - you can send CAD files to a Maker Space - has different components and is as easy as legos to build. Just need to control the servos. People are doing it with Arduinos, we replace it with electric imp
TVBeGone - turns off TV’s
Is there anything I forgot to ask that I should have?
Nope! Follow Matt on Social.
@BeardedInventer - Twitter
- @ElectricImp on twitter