Mark Your Calendar: Maker Faire

January 20, 2015

Ever get into a recruiting event rut? This year, consider adding Maker Faire to your itinerary — it could change the way you think about engineers.

There are two large Maker Faires in the United States each year, one in the Bay Area (May 16 and 17) and one in New York (September 26 and 27) which are organized by Maker Faire, Inc. Luckily, those aren’t your only options for a tricky schedule; many other cities receive license from Maker Faire to hold their own events, from Atlanta, Georgia, all the way to Shenzen, China.

The Greatest Show (and Tell) on Earth

Maker Faire calls itself the “greatest show (and tell) on Earth,” featuring DIY and hobbyist projects from the science, engineer, artist, performance and craft communities. The “makers” range from people who have recently learned to solder or make paper to those making wildly bizarre electronic and mechanical art, said last year’s Atlanta Maker Faire executive producer David Sluder.

In many of the projects demonstrated at the Faire, Sluder found engineering. “A lot of the time it’s hard-core engineering work that [makers] do. It’s programming, it’s electrical engineering, it’s mechanical engineering. We’ve got robots out the wazoo at Maker Faires,” he said.

That’s not to say that every Maker Faire is necessarily an engineer farm, said Sergey Feingold, the master engineer and founder of “Shot Stats,” a sensor that connects to a tennis racket to instantly analyze your tennis swing. Feingold is a Georgia Tech grad with a mechanical engineering degree whose career is based in startup enterprises.

Projects he’s seen at the Maker Faire in the Bay Area were often consumer kit-based, including open source technologies like Arduino. “That’s easy to do,” Feingold said. Often times, “there’s no point to it beyond learning and having fun,” he said.

“But going from that to, say, designing your own electronics, laying out your boards and getting stuff manufactured, that’s a pretty big leap in the skill level required.” Even so, those kinds of professional engineers do attend Maker Faire, he said. And they’re there because they share a love of process with their Maker Faire peers.

“These people work on projects in their own time. They do this because they love it, not for any other real reason,” Sluder said. “Some people come to Maker Faires to get paid. Maybe they have a startup and they’re showing it off, but I’d say two thirds of the people we have at our Faire are there just because they make something really cool and they want to show it off and they want to connect with people.”

A Culture of Collaboration

There’s a culture of collaboration at Maker Faires is attractive to entrepreneurs, said Amanda Williams, co-founder and CEO of Fabule, an arduino-compatible lamp. Her hardware development group was part of the HAXLR8R startup accelerator last year, and she connected with the program’s participants at Maker Faire.

“You’ve got a bunch of people [within the accelerator] with a bunch of different backgrounds, including electrical engineers, software people, design people, marketers, so there’s a pretty diverse set of skill sets there,” she said. The startup community thrives on diversity and collaboration, Williams said, and they go to Maker Faires as part of their development process.

“There’s a lot of overlap,” she said. Her team presented early and significantly different prototypes of their hardware at Maker Faires, building only what would work for a demonstration. They engaged the startup community at the Faire and got invaluable feedback on their design.

Deep Prototyping Skill Sets

“Before you can engineer a finished product you do have to go through a lot of those prototypes and proving concept. So there’s this really key [prototyping] skill set from the Maker Faires and the maker movement that does help, a lot.”

The formal decorum of other design shows or engineering conventions is not at Maker Faire, Sluder, the executive director of the 2014 Atlanta Maker Faire, said. In addition to the startup community and participating engineers, there are also enthusiastic Storm Troopers, cosplay prop builders dressed as Iron Man, Steampunk couturiers and even woodworkers showing off their creations.

It’s important to remember that Maker Faire is a festival, he said, and the organizers foster the chaos and passion of all the participants.

“If you’re going to talk to someone at Maker Faire about what they make, they will talk your ear off,” said Sluder. “But they don’t do it in any sort of awkward way, they’re excited about what they make and they want to share it with you.”


Photo credit: Eric Wagner