Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic
Angela Sheehan is an artist and educator passionate about craft electronics, costuming, and combining arts and technology. She has been working with e-textiles and wearables since 2005, when she discovered physical computing as an expressive way to prototype with electronics while studying at Bennington College. From 2009 - 2013 she maintained Soft Circuit Saturdays, which documented her continuing work in e-textiles and teaching throughout New England and Maker Faires before moving to Boulder, Colorado to join the SparkFun Education team. Angela is currently a product manager and e-textile education specialist at SparkFun Electronics, where she leads development on the LilyPad sewable electronics product line and creates supporting documentation and content for SparkFun's educational products. Through her career as an independent artist and working at SparkFun, Angela has helped facilitate over 90 e-textile and e-craft workshops, including sessions at Fashion Institute of Technology, WEAR (Smart Fabrics), USA Science and Engineering Festival (USASEF), National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), and International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). She has worked with organizations including PBS SciGirls, iDTech Camps, Society for Women Engineers Rocky Mountain Section, Women Who Code Boulder/Denver, and Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
Angela, how did you get into this industry?
After completing my degree at Bennington College where my work centered around digital art/animation, physical computing, and costume design with a focus on wearables, I spent some time in the footwear industry working for the Timberland Company. In my spare time, I continued to tinker around with soft electronics and in 2009 started a blog Soft Circuit Saturdays to share my projects and research with the growing maker community that was beginning to emerge around e-textiles and soft electronics. As the makerspace scene began to grow in my area of New England, opportunities arose to teach in these new community workspaces and I gradually built a name for myself as a local resource and at the national level through speaking and teaching engagements at Maker Faire. At the time I hadn't considered this work as a potential full-time occupation, but as the demand for maker education grew, I was eventually invited to interview for the expanding SparkFun Electronics education department as they prepared for their National Education Tour in 2013. I spent three and a half years working on the education team before transitioning to product development earlier this year.
What does your current job role entail?
I am currently the product manager for the education vertical at SparkFun Electronics, working within the Product Development group. I am part of a working group that oversees the selection and development of new products for our education, beginner, and wearables market segments. I work closely with our engineering, marketing, and technical support teams throughout the entire lifecycle of these product lines. This includes collaborating on market research and gathering customer feedback on products, writing product specs and product briefs for new products, project management, working with marketing on developing campaigns around new and existing product lines, writing supporting documentation and resources, and collaborating with industry partners. One of product lines I support is the LilyPad sewable electronics ecosystem; many of these products I have been using in my personal work since 2008. It has been really rewarding to be an active part of shaping the future of a product line so important to my own personal development and projects and that I have seen grow exponentially since I first encountered Arduino in 2005.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
For SparkFun, I am currently working on research and development for the next offerings in our product lines. We had a big year in the LilyPad sewable electronics line, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the first commercial LilyPad developed collaboratively with Leah Buechley. LilyPad was the first sewable electronic board produced for the hobbyist/maker market and was a revolutionary invention in the way that makers think about constructing electronic textile projects. Learn more about LilyPad at https://www.sparkfun.com/lilypad.
In my spare time, I am working on developing and sharing some of projects and costumes on my website GellaCraft. I have so many prototypes and projects I've worked on that are hanging out in my personal studio that haven't been documented yet. I've starting sharing the final builds and creating instructional resources around some of my favorite projects and processes. In addition to being a maker, I’m also a circus performer, and creating playful interactive costumes and props for performance informs a lot of my personal work.
How has your career progressed since your degree? Has it been an easy industry to get into or have you had many challenges?
For me, I think it was a combination of being in the right place at the right time with my skill set and interests. Many of my peers in the physical computing track in my undergraduate program have made paths for themselves in all the markets that have grown around the maker movement - crowdfunding initiatives, non-profits, museums, makerspaces, and more. The last ten years have really seen a growth in maker-focused industries, especially in combining fashion, costuming, and wearable products with technology.
How long did it take you to be where you are now? What was the biggest obstacle?
It took about two to three years of teaching and doing outreach work on evenings and weekends for me to build up the network and reputation that then attracted the attention of a company like SparkFun who was looking to add a dedicated education department to complement their product offerings. I think the biggest obstacle was finding a place that made sense for my particular passions - teaching and outreach - that wasn’t in a traditional classroom setting. I think the momentum around the maker movement was crucial in that shift, and now the market is much more open to these kind of careers.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
One of my biggest recent achievements so far was being accepted as a presenter with my colleague Melissa Felderman for SXSW Interactive, scheduled for March 2018. In an event so full of innovation and trends, having a session focused on handmade wearables is especially important when so much of what we see is consumer ready and retail trends. Learn more about our session on the SXSW website - Design x Tech: DIY Wearable Electronics.
What does the #WomenInTech movement mean to you? What are the challenges of being a woman in wearable tech / STEM?
One of the biggest challenges is fighting the notion that an interest in traditionally 'feminine' pursuits such as crafting, textiles, or aesthetically-informed design cannot overlap with 'real' engineering.
What I see happening in some educational programs is the hesitancy of parents to bring their children into e-textile or fashion technology programs that are not deemed STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) enough. There has been some great research proving the impact that STEAM, and in particular e-textiles, has on student engagement with engineering and design thinking processes.
Read some of my favorite research in a blog post I wrote for SparkFun Education - 5 e-Textiles Research Projects Making a Difference in Education.
In your opinion, what will be the key trends in the wearable tech and digital health industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
As we see the trend of consumer wearable technology getting more compact, easy to use, and inexpensive, I look forward to those advances trickling down to the hobbyist markets. Since my focus is mainly the education market, I see the next five years bringing product innovation around reuse for wearables, unique and compelling cabling options, greater strides in washability and power options. One of the challenges for educators, particularly in public schools, is the consumable nature of crafting with electronics - it is something that is difficult to do on a large scale with smaller budgets. As technology continues to develop, I think we will see it become more accessible as an option for classroom activities and exploration.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearable tech and STEM?
Naomi "SexyCyborg" Wu (@realsexycyborg) for her dedication and unapologetic approach to pushing the boundaries on the cultural perceptions around women makers and technologists. In an environment where women are constantly battling for representation and respect, she is on the front lines making a difference.
Leah Buechley (@leahbuechley) for changing the way we think about wearable technology and making it more accessible at a handcrafted level with her amazing work creating the LilyPad Arduino toolkit. Much of what we now see in e-textile and wearable tools is based on her explorations in designing the LilyPad format.
Becky Stern (@bekathwia) for her tremendous contributions to the maker community in both volume and quantity. Becky remains one of the leaders in bringing the idea of soft electronics to the larger maker community through her work first at Make, then Adafruit, and now Instructables.
LinkedIn: Angela Sheehan
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and co-founder of Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.