It struck me the other day that a lot of people buy development boards the way they buy a music CD (I know nobody buys music CDs anymore, but stick with me): they pick something that's popular with their crowd, look for the cheapest place to get it, and then bring it home with expectations of how great it will be.
The problem is this: a development board isn't a CD. Listening to a CD is a passive thing (except for some of you with musical training): you stick it in the player, let the tunes flow while you do something else, and then put it into your rotation (if it's good enough) and come back to it every now and then.
But a development board is active: it doesn't do anything unless you make it do something. You don't just plug it in and have new designs rolling out as if by magic. Instead, you have to find the right power supply and interface cables. You have to load some software (if you're doing FPGA stuff, you have to load a lot of software). You may have to fight with a driver or two. Then you load some pre-built "Hello, World!" application that shows the board works.
At this point (and, believe me, a lot of people don't even get this far), you start to learn the basics about what you've gotten yourself into. What connects to what on the PCB and how does it talk to the outside world? How do you create a new design? Do you write software? Modify hardware? Both? Where are the stupid libraries? Are there existing designs you can modify? Is there still time to return this for a refund?
Eventually, you'll move beyond the canned applications and try something new. (After all, what did you buy the development board for?) Which means you'll probably reach a point where something isn't working and you can't figure out why. And that's gonna suck donkeys! That's when you're going to have to push hard and re-think your problem and try something new. And then do it again when that doesn't work. And again. That's when you grow as a designer.
That process isn't like listening to a CD; it's like going to a gym. You might start off all enthusiastic when you buy new sneakers (I know they're not called sneakers anymore, but stick with me) and get familiarized with the exercise machines, but the real test comes when you start to sweat. And hurt. And vomit. Are you willing to do that in order to grow?
For a lot of people, the answer is no. It takes too much effort, there's no quick payoff, there's too little time, there's more interesting distractions (ooh, Dr. Who marathon!). As a guy who makes development boards, I often think how hard it is to get a board from the idea stage to where it's sitting in a customer's mailbox. But the hard journey - the really hard journey - is the one from the mailbox to your benchtop and eventually into a new design. I can make boards that are easy to setup, provide tutorials, build design examples, and host part libraries, but I can't do that last part. You have to. And that's the part that makes it all worthwhile. Otherwise, I might as well be selling timeshares in Florida.
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