How FindChips started as a NASA engineer’s hack

Randy_Sargent-founder-of-findchips

A couple of weeks ago I was visiting SupplyFrame to meet the new owners of Hackaday. The CEO, [Steve Flagg] asked me how we can introduce FindChips to the readers. I’m used to people trying to get things on our front page so I had the question ready for him: where’s the hack? Much to my surprise he was ready for me. “What if I tell you that it started as a hack by a NASA Engineer?”

It turns out he was right. He put me in contact with [Randy Sargent], the founder of FindChips.com. If you’ve ever hacked together a script to make your life easier you’ll want to listen to what Randy had to say. You never know when it’ll turn into a full-blown start-up.

Beginnings

It turns out that [Randy] wasn’t a NASA engineer when he founded FindChips, but he is now. For those that aren’t familiar with it, the site offers a unified search for electronic components that will give you data from worldwide vendors on their stock count and price breakdown. This sort of service simply didn’t exist in the 1990’s and [Randy] was getting really frustrating with the time he was spending visiting every possible vendor site to search for components going into his designs. So he did what any good hacker did, he wrote a script to do it for him.

The script and how it spread

What he came up with was a Perl script which used web scraping to do the searching for him. [Randy] recalls that there were no parsing libraries (eg: Beautiful Soup) available at the time so he wrote everything to grab the data and made sense of it with regular expressions. The software was fragile in that small changes on one vendor’s site could break the scraper so he wrote libraries that would search for general landmarks. For instance, they looked for any table and matched two column headers to identify it. This way if other columns were added or removed, or if the order of the tables was changed, the script would still run.

seattle-robotics-society

At some point in 1998 the first version was up and running from his home DSL connection. He found it invaluable in his own work, and for that reason he made a presentation at the monthly Seattle Robotics Society meeting. The group of about 30-40 people spent most of their free time making robots; this was perfect for them. And so it’s no surprise that traffic quickly outgrew his home connection. He moved on up by physically transplanting the box running the site to a colocation facility.

Vendors started to notice so [Randy] hacked on their search algorithms

The thing about web scraping is, if you start to use a lot of traffic the server owners are going to notice. [Randy] recalls that vendors generally approached him in two different ways. Some either asked him to stop scraping their site, or blocked him directly. But others had the opposite reaction. They told him that his site was the largest single source of traffic for them. That sounds great at first, but since he was using the web search interface it had the side effect of slowing down the vendor site search for actual human users. The solution was to set up a system where a copy of the vendor’s stock database would be uploaded to FindChips once a day.

This wasn’t an API, it was direct access to their data which had [Randy] back in the coding chair once again reworking his script to query server side rather than web scraping. He told me that he modified the grep command to help with this search process and ended up with a faster return from the db query than the vendors themselves were able to offer. Seeing this success it wasn’t long before more vendors jumped aboard.

Where we are now

findchips-logo[Randy] sold the site to SupplyFrame in 2010. Sure, it’s not a company the size of Apple. But the stories are along the same lines. He developed it to fix his own problem, showed it off to a hobby organization that is surely a predecessor of today’s Hackerspaces, and then turned it into a sizable web start-up. That’s not only impressive, it’s inspiring. Maybe the projects we screw around with will someday be useful to a wide audience?

These days, in addition to being a Computer Scientist for NASA’s Ames Research Center, [Randy Sargent] is a Visiting Scientist for Google and a Senior Systems Scientist for Carnegie Mellon University. One of the projects he’s most excited about right now is the GigaPan Time Machine. It captures and makes available time-lapse photography on the scale of billions of pixels.

[Image Source for Randy's headshot]

Comments

  1. Beherith says:

    This is still not a hack. This is PR fluff.

    • Chris C. says:

      Being free and legitimately useful, I would want to be introduced to FindChips if I didn’t already know about it. So I forgive the self-promotion.

    • Me says:

      It started out as one and it is still an intereting story. It’s also quite relevant to our hobby.

    • Exit151 says:

      They made it very clear when they bought HaD this kind of thing would appear from time to time. It’s not a hassle, it’s not ruining your day, it’s merely necessary. Don’t like it, don’t post, and skip over the article. However you can thank companies like this as it’s essentially paying the bill for the HaD you obviously read often.

  2. Joe Pitz says:

    I guess if you are going to mention findchips then you should also mention octopart.

    http://octopart.com/

  3. RP says:

    It’s close enough to a hack for me. Clever work piecing together various tools to create a new tool that serves a special need and then general needs.

  4. Nate B says:

    Nobody has a good hobby project BOM costing tool. I want to paste in the BOM for a qty-1 build, and see graphs taking into account the price breaks at various quantities, shipping, etc. Should I build ten of these for my friends, or is it really stupidly cheap to build fifty and just sell the extras on tindie?

  5. Dave says:

    Randy’s a good guy. Besides being just generally smart, he discovered the “Herbie” LM386 Op-amp hack used to build a light-following robot. We loved it, and asked to turn it into a kit (Herbie the mousebot). He’s donating all his royalties to KIPR.org (KISS Instutute for Practical Robotics – educational outreach program).

    At one point we were discussing parts sourcing, and I mentioned this cool website we used to find chips, and his reply was a humble “Yeah, I sorta did that site…”

  6. DougL says:

    I love findchips. To me it sounds like a hack that turned useful to many.

  7. xorpunk says:

    sourcing isn’t easy when you’re not doing mediocre projects that can be sourced from beaten path hacker marketing kit sites, by all means help me get stuff..

  8. My worst fears are coming true. I’m bummed Hackaday is no longer cool.

  9. medix says:

    I worked on a project with Randy at CMU, and I gotta say: He’s a really cool guy!

    Hackaday, keep it coming!

  10. BuggzBunnie says:

    OMG WFT! HaD so totally sold out! Everyone riot! They’re trying to make money!!! Fight the machine!!! … … … *crickets* … umm… hello?

    • I don’t mind them trying to make money. Put up a ‘sponsored by.’ banner or an overt advertisement. But it’s garbage to try to promote under the guise of editorial.

      • Steve says:

        However it does start with “How do we get FindChips on the front page?” so… it isn’t really misleading to me.

        • Yeah, but it’s like saying ‘sorry for the spam’ and then sending the spam anyway. It’s still spam.

          • shocked and annoyed says:

            spam is an unwanted commercial solicitation. Being an owner affiliated company makes this a properly placed commercial solicitation. Complain about googleads. They are spam….and when you get done complaining…bust out your checkbook.

            The introduction made it clear what this post was…..Ive used the service. I wouldnt use it more because they are owned by HAD new owners. But I clicked through, interested to read an origin story and see how it applies to others projects.

            For all the fluff and filler we endure, this article is not out of place.

          • Sorry, I respectfully disagree. To me this is the equivalent of a newspaper writing a story about one of their advertisers, just because the advertiser bought a big ad in the paper. Don’t get me wrong, I get it. HAD needs to make money etc. And, I’m all cool for advertisements. But, it’s insulting to try to wrap a marketing message in the guise of editorial. I’m actually really surprised I seem to be the opposing voice on this. Then again, many of those who are supporting this are replying from anonymous handles…

          • Greenaum says:

            The “anonymous handles” don’t really matter. I know your name, Mike Klein, but you could still be anyone anywhere. You could post up your photograph, and your address, but unless I lived nearby we’re still never going to meet, or influence each other’s lives.

            You might not even really BE Mike Klein. I wonder if all the other Mike Kleins on the net know you’re trying to impersonate one of them?

            Anyway on the other issue, the “advertorial” is pretty low-class. Just on general journalistic principles. Useful, the owners, or whatever else, don’t make that any different.

            I dunno if Findchips are expecting to find their page-views go up today, or if this is just a toe in the water to find out just exactly how much of a bunch of ornery nit-picking fuckers we all are. The answer is “quite a lot” btw. But money talks, so maybe it’ll happen again.

            I still wouldn’t have paid half a million for this though!

          • Lol, based on your comment I’m starting to question my identity ;)

          • Greenaum says:

            You could turn to drink, except Klein bottles tends to spill a lot.

  11. Rob says:

    Nice to learn about the origins of our new corporate overlords. Inspiring example of how a good idea can grow legs and build momentum at the right point in time. Findchips is a great service and I couldn’t be happier that HAD has a safe and happy home with SupplyFrame!

  12. Jack says:

    Findchips has always been useful but now with Digikey’s AWFUL redesign of their site, I’ll be using findchips to search Digikey instead of using Digikey’s native search.

  13. xorpunk says:

    Heh.. usually I’m the critical one on this site being hated for negative comments, but now I find myself, at least with this blog entry, being annoyed by people being dramatic over something..

    WAHHHH this isn’t an arduino beer machine or LED circuit, give me back my status quo!!!!

  14. Analog says:

    I still enjoyed this article, to spite the fact that it was an obvious advert to begin with.

  15. pcf11 says:

    I looked at the home page of findchips and I think they need an about us link. I always like to read the little “about us” blurb before I’m really comfortable with doing business on a website. I don’t know why because I suppose it could be all made up lies, but I still like reading it. Testimonials are OK too.

    Other than that screw all of the whiners here crying about how hack a day is advertising in one of their articles. They seemed up front about it enough to me. If someone didn’t want to see this they didn’t need to click on it. They sure didn’t need to leave a snarky comment about it either. Don’t go away mad, just go away.

    For me one of the greatest things about the Internet is shopping. Even when I was living in an urban area getting a lot of esoteric items was always a challenge. Convenience is convenient.

  16. parko says:

    Randy Sargent… HA!

  17. ICTom says:

    I mostly use Octopart because they have better filtering. Partstat has some suppliers that Octopart and Findchips don’t so I use that too. Findchips isn’t a *hack* either guys!!

  18. Greenaum says:

    It’ll be nice when the Gigapan looks to us like the chintzy old valve ‘n’ Bakelite radios of the olden days. “It’s got a squillion pixels and it can see through time!” “Yeah, my old watch did that, but the hologram projector only did 6 feet so I got a new one”.

    When that old dude talks about The Singularity, I dunno that it’s actually going to happen, based as it is on the idea of computers doing original research. But technology’s accelerated at a massive rate just in my lifetime. I was born in the 1970s.

    Is this rapid advance of technology a new thing? Seems like it started in the late 1990s. Is this the case or does everyone feel like this? Did tech seem to be racing along in the 1960s just as fast?

  19. M4CGYV3R says:

    Shill-a-Day
    Fluff-A-Day
    Payola-a-Day
    Ads-a-Day
    Sellout-a-Day

    If the new owners are going to force you to publish nonsense like this, you can count me out.

    • Mike Szczys says:

      I’m sorry to be losing you as a reader. But nobody forces us to write anything. This story has merit, it’s a tool that is useful in ordering electronics parts and has an interesting back story.

      May I recommend that you simply skip reading the articles you don’t agree with?

  20. Joejoedancer says:

    Damn, I was hoping it was going to be a find chip by features or architecture. Like I need a chip to do these things with this architecture and this footprint kinda thing.

  21. Jarrod says:

    Well done HaD! You introduce me to a pretty damn cool tool that I had no idea existed and will save me a ton of time, while subtly advertising for the new owners! Not an easy balance to attain, but I think you’ve nailed it.

    Honestly guys, stop whining about advertising. It’s a part of life, especially when reading free resources on a corporately owned website. At least it is relevant, and interesting to read. Not every article has to be about a hack, it can also be about the tools that help us do the hacks we want to do, and I don’t think anyone can argue that findchips is a pretty decent tool for us to use.

    When HaD starts posting articles on why it’s time to buy a car, or some sort of new credit card deal then you can start whining about how they have sold out, till then, so long as the articles are relevant to the hacking community shut up and enjoy the free service they are providing.

  22. hsiboy says:

    You lot were so busy fretting about HAD editorial that you missed the fact that Randy had DSL in 1998!?!?!

  23. Samuel says:

    Interesting..In terms of a price comparison search engine, I use http://www.oemsecrets.com
    Simple line by line price comparison between the industries largest distributors, I know what I want in seconds rather than trawling through 50 parts from Digikey, 40 from Avnet etc

  24. Robot says:

    I wonder if I ever had Randy as a customer at Wacky Willy’s?

  25. Mr_Sheesh says:

    Another site I use occasionally is digipart.com; I’ve used findchips for a long time, didn’t realize it was Randy’s. (I’m local to the SRS folks.)

    IMO anything that gives me ideas for hacking or shows us something productive that another hacker did – or makes sure people know about VERY helpful tools like findchips – is HaD fare. Unlike some projects on HaD, I’ve USED findchips :) Which is fine – Varied people like quite different things.

  26. static says:

    As I see those complaining where given an an opportunity to purchase Hackaday, they didn’t put up, they should give it a rest. IMO.

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