#60 – Rediscovering the maker mindset

You have probably heard of the growth mindset (Carol Dweck’s seminal work in development psychology). This is the recognition that the brain is a muscle – with practice, effort and nurturing, it can continue to grow and develop, a clear departure from the more fixed mindset of intelligence being an innate trait (you either have it or don’t). This thinking has even made it into management books and organizations have dutifully incorporated this idea into their corporate learning and training programs. And as it so often happens, reality is far more underwhelming. The reasons could be many – and I don’t want to dissect them here. 

Instead, I want to focus on a specific aspect: as managers in an organization rise through the ranks, they keep moving farther away from the real work – so much so that it often ends up being an abstraction captured in numbers – reports, metrics etc. And this appears to be true across industries – from manufacturing to software. While I don’t have any data to back this up, I am pretty sure this is the case: ask someone from the C-suite to step in and say, fix a bug in the company’s flagship product, and you are more likely than not to see a squirming leader. And here’s the funny thing – every engineer starts with the best of intentions of being ‘hands-on’ in her chosen area of expertise. And then somewhere along the line, ‘management priorities’ take over and before you know it, you have lost the ‘maker muscles’. And the argument goes – that is fine, because the economic value a manager can create is not in debugging code but thinking about the bigger picture. While that is true, what we don’t realize is that letting go of the ‘maker muscles’ also means that we risk losing the curiosity, creativity, persistence and the fearlessness that are an integral part of doing pretty much anything that we build with our own hands. 

I am guilty of that as well – and it hit me the other day when my 12-year old saw me working on, you guessed it, a powerpoint presentation and remarked, “Hey Dad, is this the only software you use?” [the perils of working from home in a pandemic!] And that got me thinking – when was the last time I actually built anything? When did I last spend time tinkering? 

And so, my new resolution: start a maker project series – build something with ‘my own hands’. And here is my current project – build an Air Quality Index monitor. Very apt for California (what with the forest fires) and the point is this: it does not solve the problem of measuring the AQI near my home (buying one off the shelf is far more efficient and effective). The goal is to rediscover the maker mindset in me – and through this, rediscover some of the tinkering, ‘learning by doing’ muscles that we all had when we were kids. And hopefully, really live up to the ‘growth mindset’ that Carol Dweck had brilliantly posited many, many years ago. 

Goal: Build an IoT device that can measure the AQI (Air Quality Index – this is a calculated number with standards that vary by country: I will obviously use the US one) and transmit the reading onto the cloud, from where I can push a warning to my phone. 

MVP: I have a gas sensor that can measure gases (NH4, CO etc.). The next step is to add a sensor to measure particulate matter and push all of the data using a WiFi chip and a Thingspeak API to push the data to the cloud. From there, push notifications to my iPhone. If I can push myself, I will build an iPhone App that will download the data and visualize the data with alerts. It is crude and simple at this point – but then, it is a start!

V0.1 – Crude but it works!

What have I learnt so far:

  1. Building these circuits is easier than you think. Arduino is simple and for our scope, hugely powerful. All of it is in the open source domain – you can get up and running once you have decided your project. This kind of acceleration would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
  2. Modular design is powerful – each of the modules (sensors, wifi chip etc.) are easy to plug and play. Including the code.
  3. Incremental builds are critical – I have the most basic design in place now. Adding the dust sensor module etc. should get easier as we go along. At each stage, do a ‘release’ to put something useful/tangible out there.

More to come!

Further reading:

  1. Good piece on the Maker Mindset https://www.edsurge.com/news/2016-06-06-6-must-haves-for-developing-a-maker-mindset
  2. Carol Dweck and her work: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mindset#Fixed_and_growth_mindset

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