Meet Carrie Sundra: Art, LEDs, and a political message or two

HackSpace magazine talked to Carrie Sundra and it was SUPER interesting.

Contrary to what the liars at school told you all those years ago, swearing is big, clever, and funny. So, when we saw the FUnicorn display by Alpenglow Industries, we just had to talk to its creator. What does it mean? Why make everything so pointlessly beautiful? What’s all this about wanting people to vote anyway, and why does it matter if more people get into electronics? These are the questions that we put to Carrie Sundra.

carrie sundra hackspace
Carrie Sundra, of Alpenglow Industries

Morning Carrie! So who are you, and what do you do with Alpenglow?

I’m Carrie Sundra, and I have a very small company called Alpenglow Industries. I am an engineer by training. I went to Harvey Mudd College and graduated with a degree in engineering. At Harvey Mudd, they only give out general engineering degrees, so I have a pretty broad educational background in, not only several different types of engineering disciplines, but also science in general, because we had to all take classes in biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, math, and engineering as part of a core curriculum. 

Mudd has a philosophy that engineers and scientists should know a lot about a wide variety of subjects, and specialise later if they choose to, which has set me up very well for the path that I took. I ended up working pretty much as an electrical engineer in the UAV [Unmanned Aerial Vehicle] industry for a dozen years back in its infancy in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We were doing things with electronics that would horrify people – we were taking pressure sensors and milling them down in order to shave grams off of them, because electronics were still really big. And weight is really important in tiny aeroplanes, and we didn’t have the type of lithium-ion batteries that are common now. We were using nickel cadmium batteries and lithiums were, like, just coming out.

So anyway, it taught me a lot about doing stuff with minimal resources. At that point in time, autonomous flying aeroplanes were still just kind of a dream instead of something that you can buy off Amazon. After maybe a dozen years, I was super-burned out. And so, I just decided to dye yarn for a little while. 

That’s an absolutely dreamy career move. 

I was really into knitting and crocheting and yarn and fibre, so I decided to do that. I went from being the only woman in the room many times, and being the only technical engineer in the room most of the time, to being in a woman-dominated industry where something like 95% of the other business owners and customers were women. 

There was a little bit of whiplash there but, like, I remembered how to be human again. I dyed yarn for a few years, but I didn’t really love it enough to build that up to what it needed to be. I kind of got sucked into a crazy startup that a friend of mine was doing and did that for a little while. 

But really, I did miss engineering. I missed building things. I missed electronics and that challenge. I really liked laying out circuit boards – there’s a fun puzzle aspect to it that my brain really enjoys. And so, I started doing some consulting, and I also started to make the tools that I had always wanted to have as a yarn dyer. And so Alpenglow first started out as Alpenglow Yarn… I was dyeing yarn with natural dyes. Alpenglow Yarn turned into making tools for other yarn dyers, and now Alpenglow Yarn is a DPA under Alpenglow Industries, which, you know, has two pretty different product lines. One is the yarn tools that are for other yarn businesses; the other is maker electronics: helpful little tools for engineers and makers. What I’m really passionate about is just getting more people into electronics and playing with circuits, and hopefully just helping to create a world where the next woman electrical engineer won’t be the only woman in the room. 

Your website says that you support other women and marginalised folks? How do you do that?

In a variety of different ways. And we’re always thinking about how we can do better, because there’s no perfection, there’s no magic recipe for this, right? You just you do the best you can. The first thing is that visibility is super-important. If women see other women in the space, that is inspiring – I know that I have personally been inspired by other women in electronics like Limor Fried. It makes it feel more possible when you see people like you in the space and doing cool things. 

We’re also doing live streams. We’re a little bit on a hiatus right now – we’re going to start back up again in late September, early October – but we had almost a year of them. I’m not super-comfortable on camera, so I started it just to kind of challenge myself. It’s like anything else: to get more comfortable at it, you just need to practise. So I started live-streaming, putting together soldering kits, because we had a bunch of kits around the shop that were languishing, and I was like, ‘Let’s just start soldering them up live and see what happens.’ And then we started reaching out to some other makers who were making cool kits and having them on. So we really try to reach out and feature a lot of diverse people in tech on the live streams, and give other people that visibility too. 

The two other things that are the biggest points, in my mind at least, are to just be welcoming, and not questioning and not assuming of other people’s skill sets, or lack thereof.

When people ask questions, just answer them as best you can, from wherever they seem to be coming from. I really do try to share my experience and my knowledge as much as I can, whether that’s online on Twitter, having conversations with other people there, or on the live streams, or on various Discord channels, just trying to help other people out in the way that I can. 

And then the other thing is the whole issue of gatekeeping and jargon. When you’re new to anything, even if it’s knitting, right… I could go off about knitting. And I could use a whole bunch of words, and you would be like, ‘I have no idea what you just said.’ That’s not very helpful if I’m trying to get you excited about knitting! 

One of the other strings to Carrie’s bow: Alpenglow Yarn’s Skein Twister

So, I really tried to simplify my language and make it a little bit more relatable. And when I do use jargon, I try to explain what the heck it is I’m talking about. I think a lot of the time people tend to be kind of insecure and use jargon to make themselves sound accomplished. It’s a real gatekeeper kind of thing, like, ‘Oh well, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you don’t deserve to be in this
space.’ I really want to do away with that whole attitude. 

There are plenty of times that people use jargon that I don’t know about. And I used to freeze and pretend that I knew what they were talking about. But now I just come out with: ‘What do you mean by that? I’m not familiar with that term.’ Normalising that kind of attitude, and having people actually converse with you is key to being welcoming.

They do say that there is no such thing as a silly question, but that is a two-way process, and it requires the person who is being asked to be on board with that.

You do a lovely line in cute circuit boards. But why? Why make them pretty, when most other makers just make them functional?

It’s a good question. Why make art of any type, right? Because you like it! Because other people like it, because it’s fun to look at that kind of thing. Anything with LEDs and colours is fun to play with and experiment with. There are people doing some really awesome things with just colourful LEDs. Like Deborah [of Geek Mom Projects] – she makes all sorts of super-cool wearables that are all LED-based. Jason Coon is doing these amazing Fibonacci displays that you could just happily look at for hours. 

I think beauty is one more way that electronics can speak to us, and get others interested in them. 

If you just look at a circuit board for a computer, a motherboard or something, yeah, it looks really cool to a super-hardcore electronics nerd. And that is beautiful in its own way. 

But for somebody without a lot of experience, who’s not already really into it, you know, it’s kind of like, ‘Oh, that looks like a lot of chips and stuff and it’s kind of boring, right?’ 

If you can make something a little bit more interesting, then I think there’s an extra hook of making people want to learn about it, and just getting a little bit of that interest and just making it more engaging to people who will want to interact with your thing. 

It opens a bigger door towards having somebody maybe take another step and learn a little bit more about it.

Have you had to teach yourself a lot of industrial processes to step up from hobbyist to manufacturer, or did you already have a pretty solid grounding in that from making stuff that flies? 

Yeah, I got a lot of experience in jobs with doing that. And especially at that time it was such low volumes of anything; we were doing anything from single wacky prototypes of these small aeroplanes to making ten demos to get interest in them. Even the first production quantities that I worked on were just a few hundred a month, so nothing in a grand consumer electronics context. It was all really low volume, small batch stuff. That’s what really most of my experience is in, and that’s what I’m pretty good at: figuring out how to make hundreds or low thousands of something, and still make the numbers work out. 

It’s definitely not something that I learned in school, though I did do this one great class called manufacturing and metallurgy. The project at the end of the class was that you had to make ten of something. And I think that that class taught me more about manufacturing and what that is actually like than any other class for sure.

What’s your favourite thing that you’ve made?

I think it’s the FUnicorn. It’s a nice little tidy package of my personality. I initially made it for a white elephant gift exchange at a place that I used to work at. 

Everybody brings the present, you put it in a big pile, you all take numbers, the first person picks a present, but then the second person has the option to either pick a new present or to steal the first person’s present. By the time you get to the last person, it’s just all sorts of stealing, going back and forth. And nobody knows who brought any of the presents. 

So you have your typical bunch of smart alecs who will bring maybe sex toys, funny inappropriate things; then other people would bring stuff like bottles of booze. And toys – toys were also very popular because this was like a bunch of engineering nerds.

I wanted to actually make something for it one year. And I don’t know if there was an actual specific event that this was a response to, but I wanted to make a funny way of saying F-you, and then it just grew from there. I wanted to make something that lights up and it says F-you, and it’s kind of a surprise, right? And I thought, well, it should be classy, though. And so I decided that it would be in cursive script – because who doesn’t want to manually lay out 120 0603 LEDs in cursive? 

And then I decided to add the unicorn, because unicorns are super-classy. And what if it was solid gold? So yeah, it started with that. 

The first prototypes were pretty simple, but I really liked it, so I set about making it Arduino-compatible so that you could add other sensors to it. I had a graphic designer draw me like a nice unicorn, because I love making cool-looking circuit boards, but I personally don’t possess artistic drawing skills. So, I am always looking to collaborate with others that can help beautify the boards.

Of course, when you have this big giant copper patch on the circuit board, the obvious thing to do is make it a capacitive touch button. So I added that, made it Arduino-compatible, put a shield footprint on the back… so you can add stuff that’s I2C, and UART SPI is kind of shared with programming and stuff. But anyway, a lot of the digital I/O just are not available because they are busy blinking lights. But we did do things like you know, when Covid started, we made this social distancing version with an ultrasonic sensor, so you walk in front of it and it flashes.

Doing stuff like that is really fun. So many people I’ve talked to are like, ‘Well, you know, I have an Arduino, but I just don’t know what to do with it,’ or, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard about Arduino. I just don’t really get them, like what is it useful for?’ When you show somebody the FUnicorn, it immediately gets a laugh; it provides some context. We have one that is hooked up to a Raspberry Pi with the AIY Google kit. It’s a voice-activated FUnicorn, which is probably my favourite version. 

Don’t you have another similar design you’re working on?

Yes! Right now the FUterus is half-ish designed in KiCad, so it’s not super-far yet. And we’re pretty busy getting ready for our first in-person shows and conventions that are coming up in a few weeks. So, I probably won’t have time to bring it out for, like, about another month or so. It’s probably going to be a relatively simple, no-frills blinky thing. That was one that started with the message: the message was first, and then the board design was second.

carrie sundra unicorn

That that brings us on to your ‘I voted’ badge. Is there a place for politics in tech?

I definitely think so. It’s really hard for me to think about politics as a separate thing from life. Because at least right now, in the US, you know, there are a lot of things that are happening to take away rights. When that starts happening, that is my life, and my well-being and that of my friends that you’re talking about, and that’s no longer politics: that is a human rights issue. 

I feel pretty strongly in standing up for bodily autonomy and freedom of expression and equal treatment for everyone, and providing equal opportunities for everyone. 

alpenglow industries

[With the ‘I voted’ badges] we encourage absolutely everybody to get out and vote. Even if you’re not voting the same way we are, you still should get out and vote, because that’s the way our country decides things. But the second part of that is that I also use it as an opportunity to bring light to the fact that, even within the United States, there are still some very unequal voting rights. I grew up in the Caribbean on the Island of St John in a US territory called the US Virgin Islands. And a lot of people who are stateside don’t realise that people in territories have practically no Congressional representation. They do have Congressional representatives, but they can’t vote on legislation. 

People who live in US territories also cannot vote for president – you are not allowed. People tend to kind of write this off, as it’s only a small number of people – the old ‘it doesn’t apply to me’ kind of thing. Oh, well, maybe those people aren’t citizens, or have a different class of citizenship, right? And that’s really not the case. Any US citizen, no matter where you were born, no matter you where you live, if you move to a territory, you would be stripped of your right to vote for president – it doesn’t matter if you were born there or not; if you live there, you can’t vote for president. And that’s pretty messed up. I would like to see that change. 

So yeah, anytime that there is a national election, I try to talk about that a little bit. And then, of course, the other thing about the territories is that it is mostly people of colour there, and so there are absolutely partisan efforts going on to block people from having representation in Congress, because if you add a few more Senate seats, you will probably get Democrats in there. 

That is baffling. 

I think one of my favourite ways that I’ve heard it in a short little bite was that we’re still on democracy 1.0 and the rest of the world is at least on 2.0. Some are on 4.0. We’re like the Windows NT, or something, of democracy.

How did you come up with the name Alpenglow?

I picked the name Alpenglow back when I was dyeing yarn. Another thing that I’m pretty into doing is climbing. I really love being in the mountains, and the Sierra Nevada in California are probably my favourite mountains in the world. 

alpenglow industries

There’s this amazing light effect that happens in the mountains called alpenglow, and it happens at sunrise and sunset, when you have like these really long, reddish wavelengths of light. It just lights up the entire landscape in a very different way. And especially when it hits the Yosemite granite, it lights up orange, like it’s on fire. You have this grey granite that suddenly just has all of this colour and it’s literally glowing. 

It’s just such a fantastic and beautiful thing. One of the things that I was trying to do with my business at the time was to get a little bit more flexibility so that I could actually take trips and go to the mountains. And here I was, like, creating these amazing colours on yarn.

Do you find that your products reach people who don’t, maybe, have an educational background with electronics? 

I do find that people who don’t know anything about electronics or soldering, or whatever, will see some of our boards and see some of our kits and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, that’s kind of cool.’ And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do. 

alpenglow industries

I think there’s also this image of who you have to be in order to successfully use electronics, or work with electronics, or understand electronics. You have to have gone to school for it; you have to have played with electronics kits since you were a kid in order to really be into it or understand it. And that’s really not the case – you can get into electronics any time you want. Any old time with any kind of background, and you don’t need calculus in order to get started with it, you know.

That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to approach electronics from this perspective that it’s fun and cool and interesting. And it’s just like any other skill: if you wanted to start trying to build your own workbench or something like that, and you didn’t have any woodworking skills, you would probably look online for some videos, start learning about it, and maybe talk to some friends who have done something similar. Electronics is exactly the same. It is a skill that anybody can pick up a little bit of, and then dive as deep into as they want.

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