Zero to Maker: The Benefits of an Outside Perspective

Zero to Maker: The Benefits of an Outside Perspective

Over the next month-plus, David Lang, something of a reluctant maker, is immersing himself in maker culture and learning as many DIY skills as he can, through a generous arrangement with our pals at TechShop. He’ll be regularly chronicling his efforts in this column — what he’s learning, who he’s meeting, and what hurdles he’s clearing (um… or not). –Gareth

“So do you think it’s possible?,” I asked with a slightly concerned (but curiously hopeful) look on my face.
“Well, not really,” replied Zack, “But I do think we’re going to give it a good shot and you’re definitely going to learn a lot. Here’s how we can think about it…”

So began my conversation with Zack Johnson, my designated “Dream Coach” at TechShop. With the preface that I was complete beginner, I explained the goals for the OpenROV project to him, along with dropping the bomb that we hoped to have it ready before World Maker Faire in NYC on September 17th. Zack’s background was in electrical engineering, but like all the Dream Coach’s at TechShop, he was handy with just about every tool in the shop. If he didn’t know how to do something, he knew exactly who (at TechShop) would. Up until now, OpenROV had been the brainchild of my friend, Eric Stackpole, but his mechanical engineering wizardry could only get us so far. In addition, my lack of technical-anything was not contributing to the project in the least. To cross the gap to a working prototype, we needed some outside perspective and I needed some basic education. Zack understood both of those challenges, and together, we mapped out a plan.

During that first meeting, I gave him an overview of the project goals and some of the technical issues (as best as I understand them) as well as what I thought I needed to learn. His guidance was exactly what I needed. Zack didn’t just tell me what needed to be done, he told me why, and assured the learning process would be just as rewarding as the end product. We broke the action items into two categories: Classes and Workflow – classes that I would need to get up to speed, and workflow for attempting to have a prototype of OpenROV working by Maker Faire. The class schedule included Laser Cutting, Electronics, CNC (I didn’t even know what that was), Autodesk software, Arduino, Silicone Moldmaking, and a few others. He also suggested I take a welding class in case we decided to use any metal framing. As excited as I was about the classes, the workflow plan really helped to instill some much-needed confidence. Even though Zack hadn’t had the chance to talk to Eric, his methodical thought process of how to tackle the challenge was helpful for me to hear. I once heard from a lawyer that the main goal of law school was to get you to think like a lawyer. I suspect a similar truism for engineers based on the way Zack explained the process of trying to solve the problem with little prior information.

Even though I didn’t understand much of the details Zack was referring to, I knew enough that his plan differed slightly from Eric’s strategy. I decided that setting up a meeting with the three of us was in everyone’s best interest.

We found a convenient time to meet a week later. I set the tone by making introductions and noting that they both had slightly different ways of looking at the issues. After that, I just sat back and watched as the discussion quickly elevated to engineering jargon that was over my head. However, I was still able to follow along and make sense of the meeting through the alternating chorus of “Oh, yeah, that’s a good idea. I think that will work better than what I had in mind” and all of its derivatives. I also served the valuable role of stopping them periodically to put things in laymen’s terms, which proved to be a helpful thought exercise. All in all, the meeting was very productive. So much so, in fact, that all three of us were very positive that the OpenROV 2.0 prototype we needed could be finished just before the Faire.

Next on Zero to Maker: Crash Course: Laser Cutter

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn


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