Interview – Becky Stern

For the past decade, Becky Stern has been one of the leading American voices in the maker subculture. She’s made light-up trainers (OK, fine, sneakers), maintained a 1975 Honda CB200T motorcycle, created a jumper to turn off errant TVs… well, she’s made far too much to go through here. What’s more, she’s meticulously documented almost all of these builds so you can craft your own projects using the same tools and techniques. In case you need more evidence of her commitment to inspiring other makers, she teaches Making Studio at the School of Visual Arts (New York) as part of its Products of Design Masters of Fine Arts (MFA).

This former Director of Wearable Electronics at Adafruit has been featured on CNN, BBC, Forbes, Vice, Engadget and just about every other major tech news outlet. When lunar legend Buzz Aldrin needed an illuminated jacket for an appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, there was only one woman for the job.
HackSpace’s Ben Everard caught up with Becky Stern to chat about what it means to be a professional maker in the modern world, and see how she’s getting on with her current job at Instructables.

You make things from a huge range of disciplines. Do you have a favourite tool or technique among them?

There’s not a favourite, there’s just familiar and less familiar. I learned how to knit when I was about 15 and I learned how to sew when I was eight, so those types of handcrafts always make me think of my family and being a kid, whereas I only learned how to do some motorcycle repair in the last two years – they all have different types of endearing qualities.
I guess I like things where I don’t have to get too messy. I like getting dirty with jewellery and stuff, but I don’t like getting oil on my hands. Working with luxurious materials always feels good. Wool and leather, yarn and fabric are always nice to touch whereas when you have to wear protective gear or get toxic chemicals on your hands … it’s a different mindset.

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Protective gear can feel like a barrier between us and the thing that we’re making – it changes the feel of the process. Do you make stuff because you want things that you can’t get another way or is it the process of making things that you like?

I really like making and sharing. Often, I could just as easily buy something but I’m interested in having a conversation about how that thing is made or how it works. [For example] it’s an IoT device and you want to talk about the security vulnerabilities – making an IoT device yourself is a great way to have a discussion on the internet about the security issues.

Making an IoT device yourself is a great way to have a discussion on the internet about the security issues

I think most of the things I make you can get, but some things you can’t. This is a vintage camera [see images]. I have a collection of vintage cameras because I’ve always been interested in photography. I don’t take film photos any more – they’re expensive to develop and this camera never took good film photos in the first place – and so I upgraded it with a Pi camera. It takes three photos, makes a GIF and then uploads it to Tumblr. Of course that’s something you can’t get in the store (a camera that uploads GIFs to Tumblr) but you can take GIFs on your phone and upload. The novelty is that you made it yourself and it’s ultra custom – it’s not so much about the object as how you feel after having built it. How do you feel after you build something compared to how you feel after you buy something. Yes, there are multiple ways to use your phone for the same net effect, but it doesn’t bring a smile to your face to have your picture taken by a phone any more, whereas this old camera brings something fun and personal with your own interests rather than just being a consumer of technology. There’s some empowerment there that I think is the point, more so than finding features that don’t exist yet because features will always exist soon.

Do you think that you got a dramatically different set of photos (OK, GIFs) from that camera than you would have done with a phone?

I think so because the subjects were performing for a special purpose. The audience is different than for a typical phone. It’s like oh, they don’t know quite how it works because I’m the one who programmed it to do what it does. You kind of have to have a more personal relationship with discovering it so for sure I got more smiles and more people had their photos taken.

One thing we’ve always found interesting about your work is that you bring a really wide variety of skills into your makes. You said before about sewing and knitting from when you were young and you were working at Adafruit for a while working with electronics. Many people come to making from the programming side of things. What skills would you recommend are worth learning for someone with a computing background?

I see a lot of computer scientists and people who know Linux really well, but are just dipping their toe into electronics. They should certainly learn more about electronics and physical computing, and I would say even try out Arduino stuff just for comparison’s sake because it really helps understand the low-level logic for components and sensors and stuff.

It’s clichéd to say now, but the knowledge transfer density is high when electronics folks try their hand at 3D printing. If you can make an enclosure for your project, it makes your project more real. To that end, I would say vector drawing skills – Adobe Illustrator or Inkscape – are really important even before you learn CAD tools. There are simple tools like Tinkercad that I think are really useful for people who are doing coding stuff.

Also, call it Product Design for lack of a better word, although that term is also being used now for apps and that sort of thing, but I mean old-school industrial design – usability. If you’re going to design a device that someone’s going to hold in their hand, the shape of the object is affected by all sorts of psychological factors that are subject to the [content] of whole PhD degrees and Don Norman’s Design Of Everyday Things [see review, page 129] and how our intuition affects our ability to interact with the everyday world. How do you know to push on a door? That sort of thing is really important. It’s not just one skill. It’s a whole discipline of interaction design.

I would also say woodworking is really important, laser cutting is really important. Instructables has free classes on all of these skills. You can go to Instructables.com and find an intro electronics class, an intro Raspberry Pi class, an intro Arduino class, a woodworking class, a table saw class.

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One thing we’ve noticed is that you’re often described as a DIYer rather than a maker or a hacker. Do you prefer this?

DIY, maker, whatever! Look it up on Google Trends and whichever one is higher is the one people are searching for more. I’ve never been into labels – they’re both fine. I think DIY is a more old-school term. I gave myself a title before the word ‘maker’ really caught on.

I’ve been trying get across to people what I’m doing recently and it’s a little hard to get across to anyone outside of the subculture what it’s about. “It’s kind of about making stuff”, but that seems too broad unless you’re used to the term ‘maker’. A lot of people don’t get the word ‘hacker’. Maybe I’ll adopt DIY.

It’s the ’70s term. That’s when my parents were starting to do home improvements, so to them it’s always been DIY. My parents have renovated an old farmhouse into a bed and breakfast and they do all the framing and the plumbing and the electrical and the tile work, so I’ve always been in a house of the do-it-yourself attitude. Growing up watching TV shows like This Old House, that kind of home improvement stuff was always called DIY. The kind of thing I was working on up through college was always an extension of that. I don’t know if ‘maker’ resonates more with a younger audience because they know what the scene is now, but I’m sticking with ‘DIY’. It’s fewer characters.

In your career, you’ve been involved with quite a few of the major organisations in the maker scene. Do you have any advice for people coming in who’d like to be a professional maker or follow in your footsteps?

My advice to anyone who wants to be a professional maker of anything is to be constantly publishing stuff – not to wait for someone to ask you to do something. It’s to be constantly pushing out something that you believe in, even if you’re not being paid for it at first. I was hired as a media manager, or a video producer, at Make and Adafruit and my skills in video production and photography and project management were what set me apart from someone who was just making a tutorial. I could manage others who were doing the same work as me, and also see how my work fitted into a larger editorial vision, but that’s because I had a strong point of view.

I think it’s important to not let potential sponsors [control what you do]. Just be genuine to what you want to make and shape the opportunities for […]. I don’t know if it’s product sponsorship or freelancing for some of these publications. Let your ideas drive the relationship and see how things could fit in, rather than saying, “I have these skills as a maker, what do you want?” because often when you’re being hired for your social influence it’s because you have good ideas, not because you’re special and unique in the way that you make a video. Anyone can make a video or a tutorial; it’s about consistency, breadth,
and vision.

The change in the marketing industry and the blowing up of the maker subculture have really changed the landscape for what it means to be a professional maker

Logistically, it can be hard to get a job at these big companies now. I see the industry and the market changing a little as there are more independent makers like Bob Clagett (I Like to Make Stuff) and The Sorry Girls on YouTube (the Toronto-based duo).

There’s a lot more single entrepreneurs – individual people not working for a large company – trying their hand at the business of being a maker. It really comes down to what you have to say and your ability to produce high-quality [content], and frequently. I got offered the opportunities, I think, in my career mostly because of my tenacity in publication. I was just relentlessly always publishing something. I was never taking a six-month long hiatus, I was never taking a year off to write a book, I was constantly publishing all the time. If you want to make a living doing maker projects, you have to be able to show people that you have a workflow that’s going to be sustainable.

You mentioned the way that individuals are creating opportunities for themselves. Is that how you see the future of professional makers – where you may have a partnership with a company but it’s much more about your personal brand and the things you’ve built up?

My observation has been that more individual personalities are succeeding in the maker space as their own business entities through private product sponsorships rather than my situation, which is becoming a full-time employee of a maker company. I’ve just seen it happen a lot more this decade compared to last decade. I don’t know if that’s because the maker subculture is bigger now.

There’s also a bigger overlap with the bigger non-maker culture of observing makers as entertainment. A lot of non-makers are observing makers and thinking, ‘oh, I want to do a project someday.’ I feel like that audience has grown by orders of magnitude in the last ten or so years, which enables a platform along with regular social media influencer marketing where the future of marketing has changed. People looking to do marketing with young people who are excited about making things are reaching out to people who are influencers in the community already and sometimes it’s easier for those companies to have a direct sponsorship with those people than it is to buy a big campaign with a big magazine or a huge booth at Maker Faire.

They could support sponsorships for YouTubers who are already going to have that embedded audience who will show off their product to exactly the right demographic. But it also means that there are a lot more people trying to be just that. Who wouldn’t like to be their own boss and do whatever projects we want to? I think that there’s a lot more people with that goal now too but at the same time, it’s never been easier.

You’re now at Instructables. I don’t want to call it a social network, but it’s sort of a network of people showing off what they’ve done. There are a few companies in this sector: Instructables, Hackster, YouTube, etc. What is it that you think makes Instructables the best place?

It’s the breadth of subject matter that makes it unique. You go to a site like ravelry.com – it’s the internet’s pre-eminent site for knitting and crochet patterns and it’s a great community. It’s a great website, but anyone who doesn’t knit or crochet has never heard of it. There’s not a lot of bleed-through of people who are just interested in simply making stuff on that site. On Instructables, you could go there because you’re interested in knitting and crochet and see somebody’s project that includes electronics and get inspired to try a whole new genre of making things that you never knew that you would have been interested in. The community is really nice. There’s a team at Instructables whose job it is to enforce the ‘be nice’ comment policy that’s been there for all of Instructables’ more than 15-year history. I think the quality of the community coming to look at each other’s projects and support each other is really huge.

I think the ‘classes’ content there that’s still relatively new – it’s just gone up in the last couple of years – has more honed, curated, and introductory-level classes for individual maker skills. Those cross over really well, so if you’re dipping into a really cool project but you don’t know how it was even conceived of, you can do a class that can give you the background information to then pull off that cool project that inspired you in the first place.

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Do you have any tips for people looking to win Instructables competitions?

The contests are judged both by user votes and by a judging panel, so the user votes impact which projects get selected for review as finalists for the judges, and anyone can become a judge as well. If you go to the site footer, you can write in about becoming a contest judge and that could potentially be a good way to see what projects are coming in as finalists. There’s no secret to winning a contest when you just have to create good content, so writing good instructions with good photos and with empathy for the person who’s reading – who’s trying to create your project. That’s how you create a good Instructable, and good Instructables win contests.

It doesn’t hurt to campaign among your friends and get them to vote for you or to write into big sites and blogs that talk about projects like yours to get them to look at your project during the voting window, so that any spikes in traffic you get would allow you to get people to vote for your projects. So if it’s a technology project, sites like Hackaday, BoingBoing, and Engadget. Those kinds of places garner a lot of traffic for DIY-type technology projects [and] could really help you move the needle on votes, but you have to have a good quality Instructable to start with. I did an Instructable recently called Five Tips for Better Build Videos and it included tips about scriptwriting and how you can turn the script into the draft for your Instructable, and just some tips on documenting your projects in general.

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