Posted November 22, 2017
Maker Spotlight | Dawn Ho on Empowering Others to Build Hardware
Plethora's vision is to enable anyone, anywhere to create anything. The Maker Spotlight series highlights Plethora employees that embody that same creativity and maker culture outside the office through personal, passion projects.
Dawn Ho is an engineer on the web development team. She works on customer facing and factory facing website applications, as well as internal tools for the factory and production team, such as building the inventory management system. She has been a Plethoran since March 2017.
You have an interest in hardware that exceeds the office- you built a rocket. Tell me about that.
The rocket was a small project. Some of my friends at SpaceX were throwing a party in the Mojave Desert, and they’d bought a bunch of rocket kits for everyone to assemble. I wanted to make my own, so I bought this cardboard tube, built the nozzle, and glued some ends to the tube and put an engine in it and attached a parachute to it.
Recently, I’ve been focusing more on electronics-- that’s something I really enjoy. For example, my roommate and I finished a two-factor authentication feature for our front door. It involves a pin and some arbitrary security features to prevent hacking and theft.
How did you learn the skills to make all these things?
I learned these skills through projects. Whenever I had an idea to do something, I’d talk to my friends to figure out the details of these like which micro controller would I want to use or what material looks cool. I got inspired by seeing other people’s projects and borrowing elements from there. I spent a lot of time hanging out at hacker-spaces in the Mission and at various hacker homes in my community. That’s where I met a lot of makers and was introduced to many opportunities to make art.
You lead the Science Hack Day event here. How did you get into that?
Nick, our CEO, introduced me to this cool hackathon where scientists, engineers, and designers come together and build stuff. He was looking for someone to help with the hardware section. While I love making hardware, I also enjoy teaching people how to use tools and sharing that experience with other. At the event itself, I worked with people of all ages-- from children to older scientists to peers who love hardware, and some who are less familiar with it.
Everyone had varying levels of proximity to science. Someone was building hardware with particle physics, someone else was building a piece of hardware to find cats in the constellations. Another person was building a device for stroke awareness upon seeing a photo of your own face. It was inspiring to see what everyone came up with in just a day of building and the variety of ideas that come out. For me, one of the highlights was being able to teach a lot of people how to use microcontrollers.
The event was hosted at Github in SOMA. Plethora had its own little section in the corner and we bought all the tools and set up a hardware shop. It wasn’t all hardware--there was a lot of software stuff, too. Something that Plethora really values in terms of its vision for manufacturing and the future of hardware is can we use software to advance the industry. Jeremy, Plethora’s co-founder, bought his pinball machine to the event, and he hooked up his pinball machine to servo motors to teach a computer how to play pinball.
What is the most challenging part of taking time to be creative outside the work environment?
I think a lot of it is about hidden knowledge-- there are areas of engineering that are not well documented. Software, on the other hand is very well documented with so many different resources available and accessible. With hardware, you have to learn through apprenticeships or formal training. The process of making hardware and manufacturing in general is hard to document with words: a lot of it is 3D. Some of the strategies that have helped me are creating prototypes and using cheaper materials to practice a technique or a certain design-- and talking to a lot of people. At the end of the day, the best way to gain experience is through trying something and seeking out those who’ve done it before.
(A tent that Dawn made for Burning Man that now hangs in her room in her apartment.)
How do you channel your creativity at Plethora?
I really enjoy having a hobby shop at Plethora, and I appreciate that we have Days of Making where we can get together and engage in that creative building energy together. This past year, I started, but have not finished, a hydroponics project in our backyard. It was fun to collaborate with one of our machinists, Jay, on that. We sourced different materials and split up the work to figure out how we should mount the structure and how the piping will work. It’s really awesome to have so many people at Plethora have a deep interest in making stuff. Once you have that, and are able to work together and share that, you can really channel your creativity in ways you can’t alone.
Why did you choose to work at Plethora?
When I first came across Plethora, it was through a recruiting email. I wasn’t looking for a job at the time, but when I looked into Plethora, I thought to myself, this is such a cool company! If I ever decide to look or a job, I should check out Plethora. I had always wanted to get a little closer to hardware and manufacturing-- it’s always been something I’ve been fascinated by.
More recently I’ve been more and more interested in understanding how different manufacturing processes vary and develop over time. I visited Shenzhen recently and saw their electronics area, which help me understand some of the challenges around the industry. What’s really admirable is how Plethora is taking such an innovating route to solve these problems and increase access to manufacturing for other companies. I love being part of that journey.
What makes Plethora stand out/different?
The focus on values and morals is unique to a lot of manufacturing companies. At the end of the day, Plethora tries really hard to do good onto the world. Nick has put a lot of thought into why he chose this area. I feel a lot of intention from Nick around building a good company culture, and building a place where he is benefiting both our employees as well as Plethora’s customers.
We’re enabling more hardware design and creation out in the world so that startups can access the hardware development process more easily. It really does feel like we’re helping create more good in the world, and there’s a little more meaning to the world than making any old website for startups.
What does your ideal day look like?
I would probably stay at home and hack on things. And build things. I generally do 2 things in my off time: I enjoy movement activities like jiujitsu and dance, and I try and build stuff.
What is one piece of advice you’d give to those wanting to go into a creative career in either hardware or software?
I recommend taking things apart-- especially if there’s something in particular that you’re curious about. You should be curious about the things around you. Notice how they’re built, how your clothing is sewn. Look at how things are put together. And as time goes, when you keep the thread of observations, your brain forms patterns around what is interesting to you, and then you can start drawing your own concepts across the board. Ultimately, act on things. Don’t be afraid to just try things out and prototype.