Saturday, November 20

1:37pm. My sole intention for the weekend is to do nothing whatever in furtherance of my day job. I find that I am able to get just past noon before relapsing, and I manage to repress the impulse after only a few minutes. Clearly this is progress.

We indeed put up the new sparkfun.com on Tuesday morning, and the smoke is starting to clear, though a couple of things are still more broken than they ought to be. Despite the fact that the site looks much the same as it has for ages now, I guess the change represents and encapsulates everything of any magnitude I've accomplished in the last few years.

I just started working part-time at Sparkfun Electronics. It is by far the most SFnal work environment I have had (in the Robert Heinlein Engineering Story sense), although my responsibilities are in the relatively mundane fields of web applications and busted-ass workstations.

When I wrote that, SFE was 40-some people in a quarter of an office building. I'd just been laid off by that doomed startup, and was failing badly at the whole independent contractor bit. I saw this ad on craigslist, and I thought well, this sounds pretty mad scientist, maybe I want to work for these people. I came on for 20 hours a week to do desktop support on the cheap (everything was on the cheap) and hack some PHP.

Within a couple of weeks, I found myself without much in the way of permanent domicile outside of a high-mileage Toyota. I may or may not have slept in my broom-closet-sized office for a while before moving into quasi-temporary charity digs in a former co-worker's basement. I figured at that point I was going to stay in Boulder County until Christmas or so, just long enough to save up for a plane ticket the fuck out of the country.

Three years on, SFE takes up the whole building. There're a hundred people there now, at least. The IT department that used to be two of us faking it has turned into nine of us who know a fair amount about what we're doing. I spend a lot more time writing code than I do replacing the burnt-out power supplies on crappy bottom-shelf desktop PCs. We're doing a thousand orders every couple of days. I started an IRC channel on a whim a while back, and now a couple hundred people idle there most days.

The company makes less money in a year than some smaller groups burn through in investment dollars, but therein the crux: We make that money. Real stuff goes out the door to real people. Rent gets paid and groceries put on tables. People are getting married and having babies. None of this is predicated on a series of frantic lies to potential benefactors about a product that will never exist and wouldn't be worth anything if it did. We are making it up as we go along, but bit by bit we've learned how to get a lot of it right. It all still feels something like a Heinlein Engineering Story, albeit one with more metalheads and stoners and hippie freaks.

SparkFun has had its reversals and mistakes. It has got its discontents. There's an ethical & aesthetic mingling here with the anarchic & communitarian stuff that first drew me to Free Software, which surely matters, but I still wonder constantly what the hell I'm doing at a successful business, participating in some story about entrepreneurial drive, market dynamics, and a good brand identity. After all, one reality is that I pay my rent on the steady flow of cheaply manufactured goods from places with low wages, weak labor rights, and few environmental safeguards. I'm too lousy a capitalist to feel unimplicated by that.

On the other hand, everything is compromised. If my only apologetic is that, in the complicated and problematic world of technology, at least I work on the side of voiding warranties, crazy nerds in garages, and teaching children to take things apart — well, maybe that's good enough. For now.