“Effectively, how I got into designing electronics was by doing. It’s not any more complex than that, I did it.”
Jimmie P. Rodgers is a programmer, circuit board designer, artist, teacher, and writer. He dropped out of college several times over 5 years and a handful of majors, and did not complete his degree. With no formal training in electronics, he currently makes a living selling DIY electronics kits of his own design, and is well known in the hacker/maker community. Like others I interviewed for Don’t Go Back to School: a handbook for learning anything, Jimmie cites his local Dorkbot chapter as an vitally important in his journey as an independent learner. Participating in the group’s events and mailing list led to the creation by Jimmie and others of a Boston hackerspace/gallery (now defunct) called Willoughby and Baltic. The space, with its extensive tools and machinery, along with a strong community of committed makers and learners, was a crucial learning institution for Jimmie. I was also struck by Jimmie’s insight about workplaces that had rigid degree requirements—that they would be quite hierarchical and not a workplace he’d thrive in.
I’m basically a self taught electrical engineer. I have no formal training whatsoever in electronics, but I make a living making open source hardware and selling electronic kits through my website and a bunch of retailers online. I went to college for five years and had more than enough credits to graduate, but still didn’t get my degree. The problem was I kept switching majors every year because I wanted to learn what I was interested in, not a bunch of prerequisites. So, I started off in computer science and I did that for the longest, almost two years.
I first went to a community college because of residency requirements for in-state tuition for the university, and I actually had a pretty decent time there. It was a very practical and hands on. But when I got to the university, it was kind of potluck. Most classes are designed around standardized tests. I had a real problem with that. I knew I learned better when it was more open-ended, more about thinking. Some of my instructors were fantastic and really engaging. I had a history class on imperialism and the early 19th century through 20th century that was entirely essay based and I loved it. We weren’t learning a set of facts. You had to find something you were interested in and you had the space to focus on it. But most were like my calculus teacher. He would come in and just talk, write some stuff on the board and then walk out.
Then later at the university in the Computer Science department, I got very bored with the course work. I’d do assignments my own way, to make them more interesting for me. Once I used the Game of Life, which is a program with only four rules, but you can do pretty complex things with it. I used it to program something which was technically very complete—it generated output and reacted to output—but it used 600 lines of code instead of the twenty or so that was the ‘right answer’ for the assignment. I had fun and got creative, and that wasn’t what they wanted. Everybody was expected to do the exact same thing. And that didn’t suit me well.
I did learn a lot at the university, but it wasn’t technical stuff, it was life stuff. Like living with people, and talking to girls. I got socialized. It was a good experience that way. I encourage people to at least try it. But maybe not stick around for five years if you figure out it’s not working for you.
While I was in school, I also started my first business doing tech support for students. That actually got way too popular. I had more business than I could handle. Because of that, I got a taste for having my own business, and some experience at it. I had already been working with computers from the time I was fifteen in high school. By the time I dropped out of college, most of my other friends had their four year degrees, some in computer science. But, I had close to eight years of experience on my resume, plus a half dozen different certifications via the community college, which the larger universities didn’t even offer. So, I found work right away, anywhere I went.
I did run into a number of jobs where they said, we’re concerned that you didn’t finish your degree. And some employers it was just flat out, no, this job at this pay grade requires a degree. And then there were other employers who looked at my application and said, well, come in. And then when they saw what I could do they said, oh wow, you actually know your stuff. That’s right, because I’ve been doing it.
It wasn’t really a problem when I ran into a situation where they won’t hire you because of some qualification or degree you’re missing. What that tells me is it’s going to be a very bureaucratic, hierarchical type place, which I don’t do well with. It’s not that I have issues with authority or anything like that. I actually like having a good competent boss who can help direct me. I just don’t like the arbitrariness of the way bureaucratic places work. Things just have to be done a certain way with no reasons. And anyplace like that is usually not going to reward creativity.
In terms of what I do now, I really got going in electronics while I had a normal 40-hour a week job, so I actually had spare time to myself. This was around 2006. I made enough money that I could just buy an electronics kit that I got interested in, and a good soldering iron, stuff like that. I started getting kits through Adafruit and Sparkfun, and using their tutorials.
At that point, I was mostly learning from the internet, and then I got involved in Dorkbot and hackerspaces, where you get to learn stuff with other people physically around you, instead of just being in touch online. I bought some books as well. It was all driven by the fact that I really, really wanted to know how these things worked.
In the hackerspace I was part of in Boston, I started running workshops, that were very informal, like, “There’s an electronic synthesizer I’d like to build. The parts to build it cost this much money. If we get ten people together, it’s one quarter of the price for each person and so is anyone else willing to go in on this?” I’d get 15 people who’d want to do it and luckily I was in a position where I could just buy all the parts and then have people pay me at the class.
I didn’t know how to teach, I just organized people to get together and figure it out. I said, I’m ordering the parts, let’s sit down with the schematic and the instructions and build one of these things. Then five or six of us would get one working and then get everyone’s working. After that, I would often run a workshop teaching how to do whatever it was we’d figured out.
I fell into the teaching role because I really enjoyed it. For those classes that I didn’t know anything going into them, I was teaching and learning at the same time and then following it with teaching, I learned it so well. No other method works as well for me. I still try to do that; anything that I’m learning how to do, I just run a class on it. I don’t pretend to be an expert. I don’t have fear about doing that because people are understanding as long as you’re up front about it then it’s fine.
Effectively, how I got into designing electronics was by doing. It’s not any more complex than that, I did it. I sat in my room late at night struggling with learning to solder. It’s easier now. Having resources so freely and easily accessible online is really important. The instructions are there and if I had the hacker space at the time I could have gone and learned how to solder in five minutes. On the other hand, I know how to solder really, really well since I had to figure it out.
Connecting with people was also a big way that I learned. Mitch Altman, who is big in the hacker electronics scene and sells kits, he became my mentor. Very early on when I was starting with my electronics business, he sat down with me and went over openly the finances of everything that he does, how he does it, how he has everything structured. That was super helpful, having somebody sit down with me who’s doing the kinds of stuff that I wanted to be doing. That’s actually been way more effective than school. I learn things so much faster in that way, sitting down with people who are engaged and like I’m engaged in the same thing. I get a lot of information from people I don’t know. I send people emails asking questions about various things. At hacker conferences if somebody gives a talk on something that’s interesting and later on I see them at the conference, I might sit down and have a beer with them. That’s one of the magical things about conferences.
I’ve generally found that if you’re enthusiastic about something and you talk to somebody else who is also enthusiastic about the same thing, they tend to also be enthusiastic about talking to you about it. This is how I’ve met all my personal heroes. They tend to be quite approachable because I’m excited about the same things they are.
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