Hacking: how I learned to learn

A brief account of a hobby that has become a way of life.

Hacking has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. As a Technology Apprentice at Junior, I am lucky enough to actually do the things I love the most for a living. This is a short tale of when, why and how I hack.

When I was young, I thought hackers were these badass people who sat at a cool workstation with at least three monitors, in the darkness, listening to loud techno music and writing code at the speed of light. In other words, people I saw in movies like The Matrix, Hackers, Mission impossible and Swordfish.

Tom Cruise: hacker, secret agent, overall cool guy

Growing up, even though I was learning to code, I didn’t consider myself a hacker. After all, I wasn’t bringing down governments or purchasing weapons for our evil organizations or dangling… from a roof..and stealing a list of names.. because the floor will.. ehh.. kill you!?

Where it all started

I got a little older and a little wiser I realized I was actually a hacker. I had been one all my life.

I had a few interesting habits during my childhood. I used to make custom GI Joes from the parts of the ones my brother broke. I made my own little frankenstein GI Joes and they were cool. No soldier left behind!

I opened up small electronic devices at an age when I could only pretend I understood how they worked. I wouldn’t know how to put back most of them and they would go ‘missing’. It was fine though, I learned a lot from opening them up.

I’m a 90s cartoon kid, so I day dreamed a lot about them, and I drew my own versions of those cartoons- characters, gadgets, vehicles, almost anything. I found them very cool. So did a lot of my friends.

To me hacking is the process of taking something that exists, modify it, experiment with it, break it, fix it and make it better.

Going downhill for a bit

Look up “schools are killing creativity” to understand what I went though.

I went on to get a bachelors in Electrical and Electronics Engineering. Unfortunately I didn’t become this genius hacker in undergrad because of my interests and going to an engineering school. But quite the opposite happened. School was too busy making me into a modular unit that would fit perfectly in a world that meant nothing to me. School was too busy trying to school me and refused to facilitate my creativity. I was in a sad phase where my 9 year old self would not have been proud of me. At the end of it I promised myself I would never be like that again.

Finding happiness

I went to Grad school right after my undergrad to become a designer. There I met Professor Michael Felix- a mentor, friend and maker. He re-lit the fire for hacking in me once again. When he realized I wanted to be a designer and I knew a thing or two about electronics he introduced me to the Arduino ecosystem. He threw a bunch of sensors at my team, gave us an Arduino Uno and asked us to make something.

My first ever Arduino project: Domed

I dove in head first. In four days I went from ‘what is an Ardunio?’ to making a fully functional prototype of a device that makes music when you swing your phone around it. All I had to do was look up what others had done before me, how I could repurpose those bits, make them talk to other bits of my project. My team built me a cool dome enclosure for it and voila: Domed was born. I considered it the proudest moment of my 23 years of existence at that point and my nine year old self was over the moon. I considered myself a hacker.

With Amar and Prof. Felix when we were making VENDOBOX.

I have always been lucky to be surrounded by amazing and inspiring friends. I have shared my success and failure with them and hacking was no different. Over the past two years I have done a few cool projects with my friends and fellow makers and hackers Tyler, Amar and Prof. Felix. I learned a lot from them and the sum of our whole was always more than our parts.

I was flat broke so I cut off all the collars from my shirts. I was able to update my fashion, din’t spend any money and also got a fun ball made of collars from the process. #fashionhacks

10 rules of hacking for Ashwath Anand

Based on the formative events I have just shared.

1. Work smarter, not harder

The best part of the hacking culture? Access to millions of smart people online who willingly share ideas to help you. Think about giving back to this community as well.

2. Let me (not) google that for you

Never ask a question you could have found an answer for. People want to help you, not spoon feed you. So if you ever get an answer in the form of this , be ashamed of yourself.

Professor Felix: He points me in the right direction, learns from me and made my challenges less scarier.

3. Find a guide

What I really mean is a mentor. A popular modern take on the role of a teacher is to be a guide by the side and not a sage on stage. Find a mentor who will facilitate your learning and even learn from you.

4. Do I actually give a s**t?

This is a very obvious one. Does this project interest me? Am I learning from it? Am I thinking about it as I pass out after a fun night out with friends? Do I want to get up early on a Sunday and spend the whole day on this?

I always prototype, test, take notes and iterate.

5. Always be iterating

No one wants to build a pyramid and then realize “maybe we should have made it a cube!?”. My best projects have always gone from sketches to cardboard to foam to wood to metal. Its almost like seeing your child grow up.

6. Grey is bad

Grey areas while making decisions is bad in any situation: deciding what to eat, asking that girl out and even coding and projects. It isalways better to make something and move on knowing it will work or not.

7. Challenge > Problem

My professor Bruce Claxton once told us “Approach everything as a challenge.” If I came up to you and said “ I have a problem, can you help me out? ” you’ll probably fake a phone call from your boss and leave. Although if I say “I have a challenge for us, you up for it?” you’ll probably fake a phone call from your mom to ditch lunch with the boss and come work with me.

With Tyler ( hacker, maker and general badass) I made a vending machine, my thesis project artifact, a motorized bike and lots of Indian food.

8. Hack buddies

No one is a master of all trades, people are hardly even a jack of all trades and I am only an Ashwath of all trades. So combine forces, form complimentary and synergic partnerships. More brain power =more awesomeness.

9. Make mistakes.

The fear of making mistakes always impairs judgement. I have learned so much from just making mistakes. And I have used this in work and in life. Making a mistake is not wrong. Not learning from it is a big mistake though.

10. “Have fun, otherwise whats the point?”

Jim Carrrey sums up everything pretty well with this line. I don’t believe in having fun at work. Table tennis and trampolines in the office mean nothing to me. I want my work itself to be fun. I always look to work on projects I find fun.

With my telepresence robot- GS1. 9 year old Ashwath will be very happy with the things I have been making lately.

The next chapter

As the technology apprentice at junior, I want to invent new and immersive interactive experiences, make robots and facilitate the better use of technology. For one of my first projects I made a twitterbot called Juniorbot with one of my badass founders Robbie. Read more about why and how we made Juniorbot and follow him on twitter for some daily robot wisdom. I learned so much making Juniorbot and am looking forward to learning more and making more at Junior.

Juniorbot: part robot, part wisdom, part shenanigans

Being curious and looking for something new to learn has always driven my work and my passion. Hacking facilitates my curiosity and gives me opportunities to keep learning and keep growing.

Hacking helped me learn how to learn.