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Limor "Ladyada" Fried believes that anybody, no matter their background, can make something that changes the world.
It’s why the MIT hacker and engineer in 2005 founded Adafruit Industries, a New York City company that facilitates online learning for makers of all ages and skill levels.
For Fried, it’s about teaching all of us that engineering is actually fun — Adafruit provides free guides for everything from DIY heart-rate monitors to LED skateboards to motion-activated sparkle skirts.
In its early days, Adafruit received roughly 10 orders a week. Earlier this year, the company surpassed 2 million orders — and fulfilled another 200,000 since March.
Fried credits this tremendous success to Adafruit’s ability to keep up with the pace of technology, infusing speed and agility into everything from product design and demand forecasting to final customer deliveries. Moving quickly, without sacrificing quality or consistency, sets the stage for success.
Longitudes sat down with Fried to get her thoughts on how the maker movement is changing society at large, as well as the future of work and engineering. Check out the interview below:
Longitudes: Tell us about Adafruit and what the company produces.
Fried: Adafruit Industries is an open-source hardware manufacturing company — that means we design electronics for people to prototype and tinker with and then also share that manufacturing and design information with the rest of the world.
Longitudes: What inspired you to create Adafruit?
Fried: I was still in college when I started learning how to craft and engineer electronics. I started making small projects like a do-it-yourself MP3 player and a techno synthesizer.
When making electronics, the first parts you purchase are really expensive, but the cost goes down dramatically as you buy more — it’s about the same price to order 10 or 500 circuit boards.
Folks on the internet saw my designs and really wanted to make them for themselves, but getting all the parts together isn’t easy. So my friends and I went in together on ordering parts for 100 kits at a time and sold them online. This was back in 2005 or so. I had maybe 10 orders a week in the beginning!
Longitudes: Did you always want to be an engineer?
Fried: Engineering is fun for me. I love to take things apart and learn how they work.
It’s also cool when you can make something entirely new with your own hands. Electronics is how we interact with the world now; it can also be an art form.
“Kids are already involved in technology, so the best way to get more kids to try out engineering is to show how it’s a fun outlet for creativity.”
Longitudes: Do you have any engineering role models?
Fried: It’s been amazing to watch folks like Megan Smith — who worked on the very first smartphone designs and then also helped her country by taking on the position of CTO of the United States. How cool is that?
Longitudes: How does Adafruit encourage kids to explore technology?
Fried: Kids are already involved in technology, so the best way to get more kids to try out engineering is to show how it’s a fun outlet for creativity.
We have 2,000 free guides on our learning system for building everything from DIY heart-rate monitors to LED skateboards to motion-activated sparkle skirts. So, no matter what interests the viewer, coding enhances their personal creative endeavors.
Longitudes: How will STEM jobs influence the future of work?
Fried: The future of work is all STEM — nearly all jobs now require a computer or tablet. All professions will slowly absorb STEM concepts and computational thinking as we work alongside robots or advanced technology.
We aim to show kids how they can use technology to suit their needs instead of being stuck with whatever apps or devices the mass market creates for them.
Longitudes: As the leader of a technology business, which market changes have you noticed since launching the company?
Fried: More small and startup businesses create custom hardware or electronics direct to consumer now. Compared to a few decades ago, this is very unusual as designing and selling hardware used to be a lot more difficult.
Now there are easy supply chains, and the costs of incorporation, prototyping, injection molding or printed circuit board assembly have gone down so much. So we’re seeing smaller companies go at it alone without relying on deeper pockets.
Longitudes: What is your message to young girls?
Fried: Every week for the last seven years Adafruit has done a live video show called "Ask an Engineer." I answer engineering questions live, show new products, demonstrate electronics and more.
I often have my friend Amanda on the show; she's also an engineer. A parent emailed and said their 11-year-old daughter asked, "Do boys do engineering too?"
She will never know a world where women aren’t engineers!
“All professions will slowly absorb STEM concepts and computational thinking as we work alongside robots or advanced technology.”
Longitudes: Can you talk about your approach to employee development?
Fried: We train and build up our staff from entry level all the way to the top. Promoting from within takes more time and care than hiring outside experts.
But you’ll get a wide range of folks who know their job well, respect others in the company and grow into their role.
Longitudes: Did partnering with UPS appeal to your engineering sensibilities?
Fried: As an engineer, it’s really clear to me that UPS knows engineering and utilizes it to make supply chain management easy for all of us.
Manufacturing is about having all the parts in the same place at the right time so a production run can start. Then we have to ship our delicate goods around the world, often expedited.
Having a reliable partner like UPS lets me focus on what we do best, without stressing about whether our packages will arrive as promised. You need that assurance, especially during the holiday season!
Longitudes explores and navigates the trends reshaping the global economy and the way we’ll live in the world of tomorrow: logistics, technology, e-commerce, trade and sustainability. Which path will you take?