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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Innovation, Arduino and "Tinkering"

Many of my customers (mostly super-large IT shops) wouldn't recognize innovative behavior.  Large organizations tend to punish defectors (folks that don't conform), and innovation is non-conforming.

I've just had two object lessons in innovation.  The state of the art has left many in-house IT development processes in the dust.  The cost and complexity of innovation has fallen, but organizations continue to lumber along pretending that innovation is risky or complex.

You can find endless advice on how to foster a culture of innovation.  Often, this advice includes a suggestion that innovative projects should somehow "fail fast".  I'm deeply suspicious of "fail fast" advice.  I think it misleads IT management into thinking there's a super-cheap way to innovate.  It's misleading because "fail fast" leaves too many questions unanswered.

  • How soon do you know something's about to be a failure?  
  • What's the deadline that applies so that failure can happen quickly?  
  • What's the leading indicator of failure?

If you are gifted enough to predict the future -- and can predict failure -- why not apply that gift to predicting success?  Give up on the silliness of unstructured "innovation" and simply implement what will not fail.

At MADExpo, I saw an eye-opening presentation on the Arduino.  I followed that with viewing Massimo Banzi's TED Talk on the subject of Arduino, imagination and open source.

There are two central parts of the Arduino philosophy.

  • Tinkering.
  • Interaction Design.


Without delving too deeply, I'm trying to build a device that will measure the position of a hydraulic piston.  It's the hydraulic steering on a boat, and a measurement of the piston position provides the rudder position, something that's handy for adjusting sail trim to reduce the strain on an autopilot.

Clearly, such a device needs to be calibrated with the extreme port and starboard range of motion.  Barring unusual circumstances, the amidships position is simply the center between the two limits.

Part 1.  Buy an Arduino, a Sharp GP2Y0A02YK0F IR distance measurer (for 10-80 cm), plus miscellaneous things like breadboard, jumpers, LED's, test leads, etc.  A trip to Radio Shack covers most of the bases.  The rest comes from SparkfunRobot Shop, Digi-Key and Mouser.

Part 2.  Learn the language (a subset of C.)  Learn core algorithms (de-bouncing buttons and the IR sensor).


At this point, we've tinkered.  Heavily.

What's important for IT managers is that tinkering doesn't have a project plan.  It doesn't have a simple schedule and clear milestones.  It's a learning process.  It's knowledge acquisition.

The current replacement for tinkering is training.  Rather than learn by attempting (and failing), IT managers hire experts to pass on knowledge.  This is, generally, limiting and specifically stifles innovation.

Years ago, I worked on embedded systems: hardware software hybrids.  We burned ROMs and programmed in assembler.  Back in those days, this kind of tinkering was difficult, and consequently frowned upon.  It was difficult to specify, locate, source, and assemble the components.  There was a lot of reading complex product data sheets to try and determine what to buy and how few were needed.

What had once been a very serious (and very difficult) electrical engineering exercise (IR sensor, button, LED, power supply, etc., etc.) was a few days of tinkering with commodity parts.  The price was low enough and availability ubiquitous enough that frying a few LED's is of no real consequence.  Even frying an Arduino or two isn't much of a concern.

Interaction Design

The next step is to work out the user interface.  For the normal operating mode, the input comes from the hydraulic piston and the output is some LED's to show the displacement left or right of center.  Pretty simple.


There's the issue of calibration.  Clearly, the left and right limits (as well as center position) need to be calibrated into the device.

Just as clearly, this means that the device needs buttons and LED's to switch from normal mode to calibration mode.  And it needs some careful interaction design.  There are several operating modes (uncalibrated, calibrating, normal) with several submodes for calibrating (setting left, setting right, setting center.)

Once upon a time, we wrote long, wordy documents.  We drew complex UML state charts.  We drew all kinds of pictures to try and capture the important features of the interaction.

Enter Arduino

The point of Arduino is not to spend too much time up front over-specifying something that's probably a bad idea.   The point is to experiment quickly with different user interface and interaction experiences to see what works and what doesn't work.

The same is true of many modern development environments.  Web development, for example, can be done by using sophisticated frameworks, writing little backend code and messing with the jQuery, CSS and HTML5 aspects of the interaction.

The scales fell from my eyes when I started to document the various operating modes.

Arduino doesn't have a great unit testing environment.  It's for tinkering, after all.  It's also for building small, focused things.  Not large, rambling, hyper-complex things.  You can achieve complexity through the interaction of small, easy-to-test things.  But don't start out with complexity.

After writing a few paragraphs, I realized that the piston movements could easily be self-calibrating.  Simply track the maximum and minimum distances ever seen.  That's it.  Nothing more.  In the case of a boat, it means swinging the wheel from stop to stop to define the operating range.  That's it.

A button (to clear the accumulated history) is still useful.  But much simpler since it's a one-time-only reset button.  Nothing more.

Moving from idea to working prototype took less time than writing this blog post.

Next steps are to tinker with various display alternatives.  How many LED's?  What colors?  LCD Text Display?  There are numerous choices.

Rather than wasting times on UML, specifications, whiteboard and diagrams, it's a simpler matter to write the user stories and tinker with display hardware.


  1. I always love these either or conversations.

    I am not sure what the answer is, just trust me and give me an infinite amount of money to tinker and experiment. This ignores the realities of running a business, cash flow and making payrole.

    I need to know down to the exact number of hours of how long it will take you to implement (some nebulous requirement). This ignores the fact that requirements discovery is unpredictable whose unknowns are turbo charged by politics.

    How about a different approach. How about saying, I have x dollars w/ which to experiments; what should we try first. As we are trying x, lets think about what the next step should be. I think that this is called agile?

    How about if we just realize that the client doesn't want to tinker but wants a package solution. Check out "The chicken and egg of big data solutions" by Jim Stogdill. (

    1. "just trust me and give me an infinite amount of money" is clearly just a fanciful straw man argument. It doesn't actually exist. Why propose it? There is no such thing as an infinite budget. This post has nothing to do with an infinite budget. You're misrepresenting this in an egregious way.

      "just trust me and give me an ... money" is isomorphic to "I have x dollars w/ which to experiments". Isomorphic. The same thing. You're "different approach" is the same thing I'm suggesting here.

  2. Personally, I like "Do-It-Yourself: An Automated Bartender" project. (

  3. Check out the article "Sensors and Arduino: How to glue them together" (url:


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