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How Charlyn Gonda is bridging the gap between software and hardware
Meet Charlyn Gonda, an SF-based maker and software engineer helping people and companies bridge the gap between software and hardware.
Meet Charlyn Gonda, an SF-based maker and software engineer helping people and companies bridge the gap between software and hardware. From delightful art installations to conference talks in the US and Europe, Charlyn has spent the past few years following the energy of her newfound skills by sharing, teaching, and cheering on others interested in making their ideas come to life.
Interviewed in March 2019
This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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Tell us a little bit about yourself. My name is Charlyn Gonda. I am a software engineer by day, maker by night. I’m passionate about making things including things out of electronics, circuits, 3D printing, and hardware. I’m also passionate about helping people learn that being a maker isn’t as hard as they might think it is and that it can be really fun.
Can you define the word “maker”? The term “maker” encompasses people who create physical art and projects with their hands. It’s interesting because folks in arts and crafts don’t traditionally use this term to describe themselves, but I don’t see a reason not to. I think more and more people are generalizing this term to include anyone who works with something physical or creates physical things versus digital relics.
What sparked your interest In becoming a maker? I’ve always been interested in electronics. When I was younger, I was fascinated by toys with batteries. I would play with them for a little while, but then I’d always found a screwdriver and would just open it up. However, I wouldn’t be able to put it back together, and it would make my mom so mad! Wait you would or wouldn’t be able to put it back together? Would not! (laughing) This is not a protege story! I think this is partially the reason why I took computer science instead. I found software to be more natural to me than hardware things.
What really happened is that I had a false start. I had an idea about me creating a ping pong counter which acted as a scoreboard. There would be four buttons, two for each side. You would be able to minus the other team’s score but also plus your own score to keep things fair. It would be displayed live on a scoreboard. I thought, “okay, I just have to make a couple of buttons.” And you had no experience at this time? No, no experience. And I tried to ask my friends for help who were super hardware people, looking for stuff online about it, but in the end, it was pretty bad. What do you mean? (laughing) Well, I just wasn’t able to make anything! It was a failed attempt.
Anyways, a few years later, I saw this badge. There’s this trend which has existed for a while where some conferences would give away electronic badges. An example would be the badge from Spectra, a conference hosted by Particle. It’s got a screen, tiny controller and light up when it’s on.
I saw a similar electronic badge, and it had a Particleboard on it. It seemed super easy to use because it was from this Twilio conference and I knew how to use the Twilio API. I realized that the microcontroller on the badge was talking to the Twilio API. I realized “wait, the Twilio API is super familiar to me, so it sounds like I’m already halfway there if only I knew how the connection works.”
At the same time, my coworker who works in marketing was trying to figure out how are we going to teach people about the different states of an Uber ride. For context, when I mean states, I mean if you just ordered a ride, if a driver is on the way to you, and if you get into the car, those are all distinct states. We were trying to figure out how to teach that to people in a fun way.
So my coworker asked, “what if we create a hat that lit up in different light animations depending on the state of an Uber ride?” My answer to him was “well, I have no idea how to do that but let’s just do it!” So I googled a lot, spent too much time trying to connect wires together. And you were doing this alone? Yea, I guess so! I had a lot of tutorials from Particle. They have done a great job documenting all of their stuff. I was able to sort of piece everything together after asking a bunch of questions in the forms. My questions were literally like “how do I connect lights to a microcontroller?” I had no idea, and these were all basic questions that I was asking in vague terms. Right, and you were just starting out so you wouldn’t know the terms right away. Yea! I muddled through it, and I finally created the sharkicorn hat!
So the hat is connected to the internet via 3G. It’s a shark-shaped hat that has 3D printed unicorn horn in it. It lights up depending on whichever state your Uber ride is on. It’ll light up when you request a car, the car arrives, and when you’re in the car to teach you about those states.
Overall, it was just super fun and came on as an evolution. I worked on it for about two months which was a really long time! (laughing) If you knew what you were doing, you could finish the project in less than a day. But you needed that time to learn it, right? Yes! Exactly, I had no vocabulary or the words.
For someone who has any sort of coding skills, another project I also worked on was helping people with coding skills to learn how to create similar projects faster through workshops. So far, I’ve only done one workshop but I’m hoping to do more this upcoming year. I created this workshop for my friends who were interested in hardware things. We took about 6-7 hours, and we made the same hat that took me two months to make. I got them from zero to hero. That was one of my created accomplishments. (laughing)
Wow, and you were able to give back so quickly as well! It was this great feeling that I could enable people to create in this medium. Since college, everything I’ve created has been on the screen. I mean, I’ve created posters and other crafts before. But I had always thought that working with my hands and working with the code was a separate endeavor. Now, I get to blend everything in, and it’s really fun. It seems like it’s a great way to work both sides of your brain that focuses on these different mediums. Right, and I don’t think I even ever thought about how coding and working with my hands would go together. They just seemed like such different things.
The project that was in the very intersection of these skills is something I’m working on right now. It’s a huge canvas where I’m folding origami with it. They are origami triangles. Some are transparent to allow light to go through. I’m currently figuring out how to make it light up. Eventually, it’ll be a headboard type of installation. I’ve been trying to make art for the home that isn’t just things that I buy. I think it’s great to find pieces that really resonate, but I get more satisfaction in creating art for myself.
Amazing, I’ve also seen you share your knowledge through talks at conferences as well. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Last year, I did this project called 12 Months of Makes which really was about me pursuing the energy. I know these skills are something I’m excited about, but I still don’t know what I’m going to use them for in the long run. I think, for now, I’m following the energy.
I was given the chance to speak at Github Universe because I applied for it. I finally had this idea that I was excited to share with the world. Especially with my fellow software people who may have been told over and over again that they are only software people. It was a very opportunistic thing that I was following the energy for.
I also got in touch with the people at Particle who made these microcontrollers. I had just wanted to thank them for creating such amazing documentation. I’ve also worked as a developer advocate before where my job was to create documentation that was easy to digest, effective and would cater to all levels of developers. I was super grateful for these people who were the main reason why I could even do my first project ever.
The team has just been so awesome with a great Community Manager. They invited me to their first conference last year as well where I also got to speak in front of a community of people in many Internet of Things companies. (laughing) They use and deploy Internet of Things at scale while I talked about Bongo Cat. The talk was about how Particle made it super easy. It turns out, a lot of people that work in the company felt the same way. Either they were hardware people who got into software because of Particle or the other way around, just like me.
Could you tell us a little more about the content of your talks as well?
Yes, so depending on the audience, I mostly focus on how you can get started with hardware prototyping or creating projects with hardware. The latest conference that I spoke at called TechChill in Latvia. I spoke with an audience which was comprised mostly of VCs and Founders, some of which had Internet of Things startups.
Basically, my talk there was about the fact that if you wanted to do any sort of hardware prototyping, you don’t have to immediately hire an electrical engineer or industrial designer especially if you simply want to validate the idea, to feel it in your hand or just want to see if its a good fit. Prototyping! Yes, prototyping is an important part of the product development lifecycle. And if you want to do some prototyping, and either you are a software engineer or have a software engineering team, you probably get a prototype up and running in a short amount of time. That was my talk, and I think it was pretty well received. (laughing) I felt a little out of place since most of the other topics were different from mine.
Not a lot of people are talking about what you’re talking about either, to begin with. It’s great to get that conversation started. Yea, I feel like it’s worth trying. [Hardware] is a medium that’s worth trying to create in especially if you are the type of person fascinated with technology and you want to be able to infuse everyday life with some sort of digital experience or electric thing-a-ma-bob. (laughing)
[Hardware] is a medium that’s worth trying to create in especially if you are the type of person fascinated with technology and you want to be able to infuse everyday life with some sort of digital experience or electric thing-a-ma-bob.
Why is this work important to you?
There are two parts. One, it’s important to me because I’ve found another thing to be passionate about. It’s important for me to follow the energy. I’ve been thinking about which direction I want to take my skill sets in, and I honestly don’t know yet. I’m a chronic problem solver. There’s a lot of opportunities to do that with hardware and my existing skills as a software engineer. I’m still deciding on what type of problems to pursue based on where I am today.
It’s interesting because you haven’t found “the problem” yet that you really want to solve, but you’re preparing for it by refining your skills. Exactly. I’ve been trying to talk with a lot of people who consider themselves as makers as well. They are very passionate about creating art with the skills that they have, and I think a bunch of the stuff I’ve done qualifies as art. However, I’m also in the mindset if I want to keep making fun, delightful art projects or do something else with my skills. Either would be a great outcome. I’m simply just open to following the energy right now of where my skills take me.
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What are some common misconceptions about you, your industry, or anything In general?
It seems like people feel like hardware is not something they can do. It might be the same as software where some people think “oh, I can never code because my brain doesn’t work like that!” Guilty! I totally get it, I’m not advocating for everyone to code or take up hardware. I believe that if you’re interested in or have the slightest inclination to want to create things, just because you don’t have the skills doesn’t mean you should stop pursuing your ideas. I want to encourage people who are even marginally interested in making these projects because I didn’t have a huge cheerleader [when I started]. I want to be that cheerleader for the next “past Charlyn” who just didn’t know how to begin.
I want to encourage people who are even marginally interested in making these projects because I didn’t have a huge cheerleader [when I started]. I want to be that cheerleader for the next “past Charlyn” who just didn’t know how to begin.
Do you have any advice for the past you when you were just starting your journey?
If I have to do it again, I would have given [myself] the top three things that I’m going to recommend on top three resources on how to get started. I probably would have started much earlier.
The other thing is, the other reason why it took me two months to make the [shark hat] project was that I gave up in the middle of it. I have this tendency to not adapt to a growth mindset. I was thinking, “oh man, it’s too hard, and I should continue because I don’t really know what I’m doing.” There were a lot of things going wrong with the project like my 3D printer stopped working, I couldn’t figure out how to connect the lights, and so on. So in the middle of it, I took a break. Because I started around November of 2017, Christmas break came around, and I said to myself “what else would I do? So I might as well try to figure this out!” I ended up powering through it with the help of [my boyfriend] Bryan who encouraged me to make the project more fun by choosing a shark hat over a boring baseball hat.
Overall, my advice to past Charlyn is to not give up so easily. The learning curve was so steep, but I would get through it. It’s okay to stop too, to rest.
There’s a common theme here with your work where there’s a lot of collaboration with other people, whether it’s with Bryan, workshops with friends, or giving talks, you’ve always had a cheerleader just in different forms. Right, I super enjoy going to meetups in San Francisco to surround myself with other people who also enjoy making stuff. There’s also a bunch of other people who are also following the energy.
Give us a list of top 3 things you’d recommend.
My top 3 recommendations for learning resources if you want to start learning about making hardware projects!:
Adafruit is an online shop that sells great microcontrollers, sensors, and other electronic components that enable you to make your ideas real! They feature a huge treasure trove of Learn Guides to inspire you and help you make projects of your own!
Particle is a company that makes internet-connected microcontrollers and makes it easy for you to put code in those microcontrollers wirelessly. Think of them as the Apple of microcontrollers — this thing just works and is a great starting point if you don’t know much about hardware. The Particle Photon was my gateway board to the maker world!
Finally, looking through issues of Make: will get your creative juices flowing, and attending a Maker Faire will inspire you to roll up your sleeves and make stuff!
Bonus: Check out this post I made about how to get inspired and get ideas for what to make!
What song do you have on repeat right now?
Mission Control by Knox Hamilton. I’m obsessed with this song right now because it’s super head bobby. I love the feeling the song gives me. It gives me a zest for life! I’m not sure if it’s the lyrics themselves or the beat. I love it!
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