2021-04-15 15 min read

Notes, 2021-04-15.

It is perhaps counterintuitive, but in many ways I find it more enjoyable to be asked a hard question than to ask one. The job of an interviewer is to be both agreeable and challenging, whereas an interviewee simply needs to be relatable - to seem like they’re trying their best, and generally doing a good job at it.

With that in mind, I present to you the (surprise!) part two to my AMA/group interview from last week - something that I, for one, enjoyed quite well :)

It might go without saying, but one motive I have for sharing this is to convince you, dear reader, to join The Prepared as a Member today. We put a lot of effort into The Prepared, and even more effort into cultivating the stimulating, thoughtful conversation taking place in the Members’ Slack every day - of which this AMA is a direct outgrowth. If you look forward to opening The Prepared every week, please join us there; it matters a *lot.*

-Spencer Wright

And now, to the interview! The questions are italicized and blockquoted; my responses are the unformatted text. As you read it, I invite you to picture me as seen in the photo here:

Alex Kingsbury: So, what are we preparing for exactly?

It might sound overly introspective, but I’ve always been preparing for a meaningful career; a high degree of subjective well-being; a better set of objectives that are enabled by a better understanding of the way the world works. And while The Prepared is nominally about engineering, manufacturing, and infrastructure, you could just as accurately say that it’s about preparing oneself for meaningful work in the physical world.

Alex Kingsbury: If you could let your dreams run wild, what would The Prepared be in the future? A convention? An extraterrestrial civilisation?

Well I *really* love New York City, and there’s pretty much nothing I would like more than to work on improving NYC's transportation and infrastructure systems; basically, I want to build subways, bike lanes, and solid waste disposal systems. More broadly, I want there to be a legitimate community around physical technology & infrastructure here - I want more subway startups and fewer ad agencies. Ste 332, The Prepared’s workshop, is meant to be a small step in this direction.

More tangibly: Conventions have definitely been discussed - both virtual and in-person - though I’m highly partial to the unconference format. I’ve often rhapsodized about how The Prepared’s newsletter is meant to be an improvement upon trade journals, and similarly the Members’ Slack serves much the same purpose as a trade show - but is hopefully less stale, salesy, and homogeneous. In that sense, it’s fairly realistic to say that The Prepared is meant to be an evolution of the trade journal/conference organization.

Alex Kingsbury: Ste 332 – please explain. What’s behind the name?

Ah - Ste 332 is The Prepared’s workshop in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. Its structure is based on a proposal that Dan Hui and I made a few years ago to NYC EDC. They had signed a big contract with TechShop to run a maker space at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, and a few weeks after the space officially opened for business, TechShop went bankrupt - leaving EDC to find a new partner to run the space in a way that (ideally) created a net positive economic impact to NYC and Sunset Park specifically. Dan and I had this idea of a light industrial co-op, where small hardware companies could go from concept to at least an initial production run - with the actual manufacturing and assembly happening in-house in a shared, flexible fabrication space. We specifically didn’t want to run a maker space; the goal was to establish infrastructure for businesses to grow.

Anyway we had a few interviews with EDC but ultimately didn’t win the contract, and a year or two later I decided it was time for The Prepared to have a proper office/workshop. So, I signed a lease with the intention of sharing it with other people/companies in a similar way to our original proposal. It’s a ~2000 square foot space in a large building, and in addition to individual work areas there’s a handful of 3D printers, a small CNC mill, a wood shop, and a friendly attitude towards sharing resources. The name (Ste 332) is just the suite number ;)

Andrew Judson: I was curious how you first built your community and your audience. My wife is a member of the Members' Slack and it is very impressive how many engaged people are contributing to it. How did you find this core group of users, what methods did you use to bootstrap your community?

My growth hacks are all obvious to the point of being stupid: I did the same thing (send an email) every single week for seven and a half years, and I signed every email with the word “love,” and I told people I would buy them coffee if they just reached out. As far as the Slack community goes, I think the smartest thing I’ve done is to ask every single person who joins to book a 40 minute call with me. It scales poorly, but it gives every member a chance to feel like they have an ally there and helps to instill a shared mode of discourse.

Hillary Predko: Do you think the manufacturing industry at large would benefit from being more The Prepared-esque (touching on various products and processes, driven by curiosity, etc)? If so, what benefits do you see this mindset offering the industry?

In general, yes. I'd even take it a bit farther: I think that being aware of and curious about adjacencies is in and of itself a good thing, regardless of what work you do. I've written a little bit about generalism in the past (12) but the reality is that my justifications are self-serving: I never specialized in anything, and I want smart, hardworking people to think that that has some value.

Gabe Ochoa: As a small business owner and community organizer, how do you make sure you are taking care of yourself while stewarding The Prepared?

I'm not super good at this, to be honest. When I started The Prepared I was unemployed and had this very intense sense of scarcity. My life is in reality quite privileged, but at the time it felt like I didn't have a clear path to a meaningful and satisfying career. In some ways I think I've chilled out a little but I definitely still want to take on double or triple the amount of work that I reasonably can, and there's no question that my mental health and personal relationships are affected by that.

On the other hand, somehow I survived 2020 and was not all that stressed about the business even as the world was falling apart - a situation that definitely did affect my bottom line. My current hope is to hire someone else full time this year, and that their presence will provide an external sense of constancy and evenness - basically, that having someone else invested in The Prepared will smooth out my own emotional swings. In some ways I know that this is an unreasonable expectation, but I do believe that working alone is tough and there is strength and resilience in having someone else bought into the business.

Jill Morgenweck: Do you think that autonomous delivery vehicles will be lasting technology?

The people I know who work in this space tell me that it's a foregone conclusion (provided a semi-structured environment and some basic provisions for remote operation), and I like to trust people with first hand experience. That said, what I *want* is for pedestrians to have right of way over literally all vehicles on the road, and for bikes to have right of way over anything with a motor, and so on. And I worry that the more we incorporate autonomy onto the streets, the more the streets will be reserved for cars and robots - which as a cyclist is effectively the same as saying that the streets will be reserved for death machines.

Note, I acknowledge that specific phrase - death machines - might sound like hyperbole to someone who doesn't ride a bike daily; if that's you, I sincerely ask that you read it with empathy and curiosity. And while I do see how in theory autonomous vehicles could be safer than human drivers, I remain skeptical about what the practical effects of increased autonomy will be.

Jill Morgenweck: Where do you net out on the "automation kills jobs" idea?

I’m not a labor historian, but I’m inclined to believe that water will find its level.

Tara Pham: What are 1 or 2 companies or products you most wish existed?

I wish that the NYC Transit Authority looked more like the Hong Kong MTR, which (as I understand it) bundles transit infrastructure with private development projects and underground commercial space. I would also really like a major, cross-functional R&D organization in NYC, ideally one that would tackle climate change in the way that Bell Labs tackled long distance communications.

Tracy Van Dyk: Most (all?) of us aren't traveling to China (or anywhere) now for work. How is remote manufacturing going? Do you think it will change the way we approach manufacturing in the future?

You know, I kind of hope it doesn’t change it too much. I worry a lot about American attitudes towards China and am hopeful that the more Americans visit China, the warmer the two countries' relationship will become.

More to your question, I’m a big fan of genchi genbutsu - the idea that if you want to understand your manufacturing process, you should go and see it. And I tend to think that without a real forcing function, most US companies will go right back to sending employees to China once it seems safe to do so.

However: From a climate perspective, this would be a bad thing. In 2019, United Airlines accidentally posted a photo showing that Apple reserves 50 business class seats from SFO to Shanghai every day. At 10,000 km per flight and ~150 g of CO2 emissions per km, that’s around 75,000 metric tons of CO2 per day attributable to those 50 seats. If we assume the social cost of carbon is around $50 per metric ton, that means that the social cost of Apple’s flights to Shanghai is around $3.75M per day. In other words: In addition to what Apple spends on airplane tickets, their flights to and from Shanghai alone cost humanity something like a billion dollars per year.

Note: This is a back-of-the-napkin calculation. It doesn't take into account the ~3.5x CO2 multiple typically attributed to business class seats, or the many other airports that Apple flies to, or the CO2 emissions of driving from the airport to the factory, etc. Discount all of those factors to zero for all I care; I still think that nonessential business travel is a bad deal for humanity.

So, I don’t know what’s going to happen; I assume it’ll be more of the same. For geopolitical reasons I find that hopeful, but for environmental reasons I think it’s really, really bad.

Sophie Bushwick: What are a few links/videos you’ve enjoyed reading/watching most, or top “most clicked upon” links you might reshare?

These ones! The list is vastly incomplete but there are a lot of *real* gems there.

Saket Vora: Many other publications focus on the final design or the end user experience of objects or spaces in the physical world. In contrast, The Prepared focuses on the craft of making or building these objects. It’s an appreciation of the tools, techniques, and processes that are used to create the physical world around us, from large skyscrapers to intricate jewelry.
With this core value of The Prepared, what single tool or technique would you desire that every person be proficient in using?

As someone who utterly failed to specialize in college, I’ve got to start with the rather trite observation that my most valuable skill is critical reasoning. I wrote a ton of argumentative prose in college, and in addition to using to, you know, write this newsletter, I generally think that an understanding of first order logic and the ability to construct longhand arguments is really useful.

Perhaps more practically:

  • Probably the most discreetly valuable skill I learned in college was the ability to navigate a command line using Bash. The extension of this would be Python, which I learned later and now use fairly extensively in The Prepared’s content and business backend. If I was recommending a tool to a mechanically inclined person, I’d recommend Bash and Python without hesitation.
  • If I were talking to a software engineer or a nontechnical person who was looking for a physical tool, I’d probably recommend something related to sharpening (my favorite sharpening tools are here). Pretty much everyone owns at least one knife, and knives work *so* much better when they’re sharp, and a general proficiency with sharpening encourages a broader level of comfort maintaining physical tools. And, it turns out that you use sharp things throughout wood and metal working, and many of the same tools that you use to maintain your kitchen knife can just as easily be used on a chisel or lathe bit.

Both of those recommendations are general purpose, and have a huge range of applications. I also really appreciate specialized tools - things that have an opinion about how a task should be completed; The Prepared’s Tool Guide is a pretty good representation of my favorites.

Jemuel Joseph: Much of what I was able to accomplish in my life (technically and professionally) was because knowledge that otherwise wouldn't have been accessible to someone like me was obtainable through the internet, and outlets like this newsletter.
Much of what The Prepared offers the viewership is a place to find knowledge on fairly technical manufacturing and logistics topics. This appears to be part of a larger movement we’re seeing with information on technical domains being democratized through the web through websites like SciHub.
What industries or areas do you see changing in the next 5 years as a result of knowledge being more accessible? What other effects do you think this will have?

What a great question! Well, I really wonder whether higher education will be meaningfully impacted by [waves hands] the internet. I think if I were a high school senior graduating in 2020, I would have seen no point in going to college, but a) that was a pretty unique moment in time, and b) it’s likely that I don’t understand high school seniors as well as I once might have, and c) I was, am, and will probably continue to be super privileged and therefore have a relatively haphazard approach to risk.

More broadly, I place a lot more value on work done than I do on ideas had, and I wonder what the actual effects of free information are. My initial guess would be that freely available information is a necessary but insufficient factor in creating economic opportunity, which is to say that we as a society - and each one of us as individuals - must find active ways to tug on the bootstraps of underprivileged folks if we want to live in a world with widely distributed wealth, power, and opportunity.

Alex Animashaun: Brewster's Millions - you have $30 million to spend, what would you build?

I recognize that $30M would be a drop in the bucket, but I’d try to parlay that into some kind of a public transit play in NYC. I think that NYC is the best city in the world, and I also want it to be *so* much better, and a lot of the changes I want to see have to do with transit and infrastructure. I want NYC to build legitimate solutions in subways, bus rapid transit, bikeability/walkability, and public utilities and I want to then export those solutions to other cities across the world.

Alex Animashaun: Sliding Doors - if you weren't in making and community, what would you be doing?

Probably working in construction in Eastern Long Island, which is what I was doing the year before I started writing The Prepared. My formative professional experiences were all there, and while it would be a radically different life than I have now, there was a time not so long ago that I saw it as my clearest path towards maximizing my own professional potential. There’s probably also a world where I would have moved to SF after college and done… SF things, though that seems totally foreign to me today.

Alex Animashaun: What's the closest you came to quitting this path of making/community?

It sounds put on, but I really haven’t come even remotely close to that. The Prepared has just provided such consistent positive feedback - more than any other professional experience I’ve had. It’s hard to imagine what would convince me to let it go.

Reilly Brennan: What are some of the emerging builds and projects that you see most often in 2021 that weren't present when The Prepared launched?

Well, there are a lot more 3D printed bike projects now then there were then - which is to say that I think I was ahead of the curve!

The other obvious answer is that there are a *lot* more newsletters. This mostly makes me queasy, like my main gig somehow predates (but could still be brought down by) a big internet bubble, but at the same time I’m largely outside of the Substack craze, have a very different business model than Substack writers, and (hopefully) will be somewhat protected by the fact that a lot of what I do now is more community management than “writing a newsletter for a living.”

Totally separately, I hear about a lot more startups building software style devops (version tracking, continuous integration/deployment, etc) to hardware these days, which I think is cool.

Nick Fountain: If you were to put yourself in one career box right now, which would it be? Engineer? Journalist? Trade association-ier?

I think the latter is most accurate. Ultimately I get paid for two things:

  1. Creating & nurturing an audience that advertisers want to get in front of
  2. Creating & nurturing The Prepared’s Members’ Slack, which people pay money to be a part of

I don't honestly love the idea of being a professional community manager, but at the same time I do genuinely enjoy the work that entails (meeting & hanging out with smart people who are interested in engineering, and manufacturing, and infrastructure) and I get a lot out of the positive feedback from the newsletter itself. Also, a possibly little-known fact: I’m not an engineer! I studied linguistics (mostly English syntax) in college, and only faked my way into being a mechanical designer years later.

Dan Blank: A random thing that popped into my head is how people who like to tinker and make things usually get that interest at a young age from role models in their family who do it. That’s being lost because less people have those skills. How do you think that parents who *don’t* have a workshop at home can nurture enthusiasm for tinkering in their kids?

My optimistic opinion would be that you don’t really need a workshop to instill a desire to build stuff in the physical world. I did grow up doing wood projects with my dad in his workshop, but we also made paper airplanes and read The Way Things Work and (for some reason - I’m really not sure how it came up) memorized that PV = nRT.

But my kids are still relatively young, and I’m sure (or I hope) that I’ll get to do things with them in the future that really do require a workshop. Take Estes rockets, which I built with my dad - even if we did build one at our apartment in Brooklyn, I’m not really sure where we’d launch it. I guess the net result is that for city dwellers like us, you really do need to rely on third places in one way or another as the projects you take on grow in size and ambition.

I suppose the last point I’d make is that I am (via Ste 332) bought into the idea that shared workshops can be a thing! Ste 332 is a way nicer workshop than anything I grew up with, and (WeWork hype aside) I do think that sharing commercial real estate makes sense in the context of a workshoppy third place.

Brian Potter: Do you know of any other industries (like apparel, which got a shout out in 2021-04-05), where production is still very labor intensive?

Agriculture and building construction are both really good ones! I also like consumer electronics as an example. Super fast sales cycles, small parts that are easy to handle manually and don't cause a lot of strain, assembly processes that are relatively straightforward to break up into steps and teach to scores of low skilled assembly workers.

John Hart: How will manufacturing be different in 2050? (…or how will manufacturing in the US be different in 2050?)

I have a hard time imagining that the US-China trade relationship stays as-is for another thirty years. It’s inevitable that a lot of low value manufacturing will end up in India, Southeast Asia, and (hopefully, IMO) Africa, but I really wouldn’t mind if at least some of it ends up back in US cities. This is one of my more controversial opinions: that we should accept *much* more mixed use in the US, to the extent that residential and light industrial neighborhoods are more or less fully integrated. Now, I’m not sure how much I would wager on this eventuality, but I think that in net we’d be better off to adopt it.

Skyler Adams: After it becomes safe to do so, do you think you will host any events or meetups? Like "we are all at this trade show, come hang out" or the New York Infrastructure Observatory tours?

Yes! Before the shutdowns I was even entertaining the idea of something like an unconference, though every time that comes up I need to remember just how large the lift would be and how limited my own bandwidth is. Either way, I very much enjoy and look forward to hanging out with you all in person <3

Thanks as always to The Prepared's Members for supporting The Prepared. Thanks also to everyone who sent in questions - you're an excellent group of interlocutors.

Love, Spencer.

p.s. - We should be better friends. Send me a note - coffee's on me :)
p.p.s. - We care about inclusivity. Here's what we're doing about it.
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Spencer Wright
Spencer Wright
Spencer Wright is the (mostly accidental) founder of Scope of Work, which he started writing (as The Prepared) in 2013. Today he serves as its editor-in-chief and chief dilettante.
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