Supercon 2022: Selling Your Company And Not Your Soul

Haddington Dynamics is a particular company. After winning the 2018 Hackaday Prize with an open-source robotic arm, we’ve covered their micro-factories and suction cup end-effectors for making face shields during 2020. They’ve been laser-focused on their mission of creating a fantastic robot arm at a small price tag with open-source software and design. So how does a company with such a hacker ethos get bought by a much larger company, and why? They came to SuperCon 2022 to share their story┬áin a panel discussion.

Haddington Dynamics started with two clever inventions: optical encoders that used analog values instead of digital values and an FPGA that allowed them to poll those encoders and respond rapidly. This allowed them to use cheaper motors and rely on the incredibly sensitive encoders to position them. After the Hackaday prize, they open-sourced the HD version of the robot and released the HDI version. But in 2020, they were bought by a group called Ocado. As to why the somewhat practical but not exciting answer is that they needed money. Employees needed to be paid, and they needed capital to keep the doors open.

So this leads to the next tricky question, how do you sell your company without changing it? The fine folks at Haddington Dynamics point out in their panel discussion that a company is a collection of people. The soul of that company is the collective soul of those people coming together. A company being bought can be akin to stopping working for yourself and going to work for someone else. Working alone, you have values and principles that you can easily stick to. But once you start working for someone else, they will value different things, and while the people that make up the company might not change, the company’s decisions might become unrecognizable.

As the panel points out, looking for a buyer with the same values is critical. Ocado was a great fit as their economic interests and culture matched Haddington’s. However, it’s not all roses, as Ocadao tends to be a very closed-source group. However, Haddington Dynamics still supports its open-source initiatives. It’s a fascinating look into a company’s life cycle and how they navigate the waters of open-source, funding, acquisitions, innovation, and invention. Despite the fairytale-like nature of inventing a revolutionary robot arm in your garage and winning many awards, it turns out there is quite a lot that happens after the happily ever after.

We look forward to seeing more of Haddington Dynamics and where they go next. Video after the break.

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Organizing Teams With Collective Fictions

There is often an observable difference between what is considered the right thing to do, and what actually is being done.

Terry Pratchett said it best when he made Death declare mercy and justice nonexistent: “TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY.” (Note that Death is not shouting, he simply speaks upper case.)

We can’t measure justice and mercy. These are collective fictions — things we agree to believe to enable us to get along — and finding consensus on the immeasurable extends to political systems, religion, and most of economics. In a recent article [zwischenzugs] makes the point that methodologies in software development fall into the same category. Like collective societal fictions, methodologies tend to elicit strong emotional responses among those dealing with them.

A software development methodology is a playbook for getting from nothing to something. It’s a control system for how people working on the project spend their time. And there are a lot of these prescribed methods, from Agile to Waterfall, and any combination of letters is likely to turn an abbreviation for a methodology. An interesting game when hanging out in groups of software engineers is to start the “Have you ever tried the…” conversation. Just don’t expect to move to another topic anytime soon.

One disheartening aspect of methodologies is their resistance to scientific scrutiny. Two samples of development teams will differ wildly in so many characteristics that a meaningful comparison of the way they organize their work is not possible. Which will leaves us with anecdotes and opinions when discussing these things.

Current opinions regarding the impact of methodologies on the success of a project range from ‘marginal’ to ‘essential’. The latter position is mainly propagated by consultants selling agile certifications, so you may want to take it with a grain of salt. Whether a team adheres strongly to the methodology or adopts it in name only, it’s obvious they serve a purpose — but that purpose may not match the face value of the method.

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[Adam Savage] Giving A Speech About The Maker Movement

[Adam Savage] gives an interesting talk titled “why we make” at the Bay Area MakerFaire. Many have been comparing the leaps we’ve been taking in home engineering/hacking/making etc, to the early days of computers. People are making things at home that are actually making a difference.

[Adam] is a huge collector and maker of movie prop replicas. When he was talking to someone and showing off some of the amazing replicas that determined individuals are constructing in their homes, the person lamented the lack of originality. [Adam] does a good job of representing the other side of that argument. He explains how the drive to replicate these things is sometimes what is pushing the methods and technology further and supporting the community. It is an interesting video to watch, if only for the fun stories you get to hear.

Though he does open the speech by mentioning that he wants to play with an Arduino, you should continue watching. He’s done some amazing work and has some great insight.