How We Work: E is for Engineering

Engineer Geof Lipman talks tools and technology

October 31, 2013

By Karen Balliett

Here at littleBits Education we are discovering: the more teachers and students work with littleBits, the more they become curious about what goes on inside the littleBits office. We recognize the process that produces littleBits is educative in and of itself. We wish we could host more visitors in our workspace, but simply described, our littleBits office is an approximately 4,000 square foot hive of crowded and intense activity, and unfortunately we don’t have enough space or time to keep up with the demand for visits.

In an effort to reveal ‘How We Work’, this week the Ed Blog highlights the “E” in Engineering with a STEAM feature on Geof Lipman, Engineering Team Lead at littleBits. The impetus for this profile is inspired by a section on Lifehacker that I recently discovered and love called How I Work? which they describe like this:

“The ‘How I Work’ series asks heroes, experts, brilliant, and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces, routines, and more.”

Name: Geof Lipman

Location: littleBits, NYC


In one word– How do you work?

Extemporplorationally (I made that up)

What is your favorite tool that you can’t do your work without?
Oscilloscope – this is the single most important tool for electronics design. With it, you can see what is happening inside the circuit in real time. Without it, all you have to rely on is your wits and intuition. Both can get the job done, but the scope makes everything easier and faster.
Describe your workspace:
My workspace is like most engineers that I have known. A bit cluttered, but cluttered with tools and equipment and parts. I have a desk, and we also have shared workbenches. At my desk I use a computer for circuit simulation, PCB design, embedded programming, and debugging. At the workbench, we have soldering irons, oscilloscopes and other test equipment. In front and above the benches we have racks of electronic components of all types for the assembly of new designs.


How did you learn how to do your job?
My dad was a person who was always fixing things. If the TV or the car or the clock would break, he wouldn’t buy a new one. He would take the thing apart, figure out what was wrong, and fix it. So I learned from an early age that when something breaks, you just take it apart and fix it. So naturally, when I began to play electric guitar, if anything broke, like an amplilfier or effects pedal, I would just fix it myself. Using what I learned, I started a repair business for musical instruments. As I gained understanding of electronics, I began trying my own designs. I wouldn’t say that the early ones were good, but they worked after a fashion. That process has more or less continued to this day. I just keep trying new things that I think are interesting.


What inspires you to do your job?
There are a few famous engineers who are really inspiring, but I guess I would say that Barry Gilbert and Jim Williams were most inspirational to me. But at the risk of sounding too much like a geek, I’d say that the bipolar transistor is really inspiring to me. It has really accurate exponential properties over a really large range of operation. So it’s kinda like a physical chunk of math. Inspiring.


What technology do you rely on most for your work?
Computers, pencils, metal, and heaters.


What do you do when what you are working on isn’t working?
I use a number of troubleshooting strategies:
1. Perhaps the most important thing is to be able to reproduce the problem. If this isn’t possible, it’s hard to test solutions.
2. Try to break the problem down into smaller problems. Start with the smallest indivisible element, and get just that working. Then add in more elements one at a time.
3. Look at it from a different perspective. If I’m working on hardware, maybe I’ll go back to the schematic. If there’s an operational problem, maybe try operating it in different conditions.
4. For difficult problems, it’s hard to quantify how I respond except to say that I usually go back to “first principles” and work methodically, documenting what I do along the way. So far that’s worked.


What’s your favorite littleBit module and why?

The light sensor. Lots of transistors.
Stay tuned for more littleBits team ‘How We Work’ features!