Jason Long is a multitalented engineer and entrepreneur with a background in embedded technology, developing engineering programs, and technical publishing. Here he shares insights about building his company, doing business in China, and writing a book about embedded design

Embedded technology background

Abate: I think we first started talking in 2014. At that time, you said you were focused on growing Engenuics Technologies, which was developing embedded systems training courses. What are you up to these days?

Long: Oh, how time flies! The mission remains the same, just with many more experiences, successes, and failures under my belt. I ended up spending a lot of time in China working with a partner to develop my embedded university program there. I finally wrote all my embedded systems knowledge into a book (Figure 1) That was published in 2018. I also started developing content and summer camps for younger STEM learners. Somehow this is all going to tie into industry mentorship! Personally, I’ve endeavored to complete a Master’s degree in Engineering Education to further enhance the depth of my expertise in this field.
Learn about embedded technology with Embedded in Embedded
Figure 1: Jason Long’s book, Embedded in Embedded (Elektor, 2018).
Abate: Before we discuss your current work and your book, Embedded in Embedded, let’s talk about your background. When did you first become interested in electrical engineering and embedded technology?

Long: Since a kid, I loved to take apart electronics. I would gaze endlessly at the circuits and wonder what everything did. I enjoyed programming, and in high school, it seemed like EE was the correct choice. I didn’t really know what I was getting in to and didn’t like it at first; but in my second year, I discovered microcontrollers and never looked back!

Abate: In 1999, you started the Embedded in Engineering (EiE) program in Calgary, Canada. How did that come about?

Long: After discovering microcontrollers, I met a grad student who was giving tutorials on how to use them. He was awesome, but I wanted much more. I was also immensely aware of how terrible I was at speaking in front of people and keeping focused on extracurricular projects. So, I started EiE, which let me learn about microcontrollers, made be accountable on a weekly basis to other students to learn enough each week to share with them, and, of course, gave me the experience to stand up in front of a room and speak (Figure 2). Seriously, that was the best and most defining choice I made in my life. 

EiE program
Figure 2: EiE in action.

Working in China

Abate: When we first started talking in 2018 about your book, you told me that you were developing courses in China. What is the status of that endeavor?

Long: China was an incredible learning experience (Figure 3). I found so many similarities in the students’ position in what they were learning and what they wanted to do, but so many differences in culture and motivation. Where we were able to establish the program, it was very successful. Some of our students even won some very important competitions in China which they credited to their experience in EiE.

Unfortunately, the program has been idled as we simply ran out of resources to make it work (and that was in late 2019 before COVID). Oddly, my response to COVID will likely enable some new life in the China program as it seems inevitable that an online approach is the way to go. 
Jason Long working in China
Figure 3: The grand opening of the first EiE lab in China.
Abate: Tell about your experience working with Chinese engineers and companies. Has it been difficult?

Long: Incredibly difficult. I’ve worked with Chinese engineers since the mid-2000s long before I started trying to teach there. The cultural and language differences make communicating very challenging. I’m purposely not using the word “barrier” because to me that implies that communication isn’t happening. I don’t think I can write more of an answer, because the answer is so complex and I think it would be easy to misunderstand some of what I think I’d want to say. Perhaps the best thing to say is that working with China is an incredible experience and requires a lot of investment in relationship building.

COVID-19-related challenges

Abate: How has the COVID-19 crisis affected your work and your business?

Long: It hasn’t been too bad, though I definitely miss the opportunity to get in front of students in the lab. But in reality, the goals I have for the EiE program can likely not be realized with in-person training, though I don’t want that to go away. So, I think the COVID-inspired changes in general education will be a huge benefit to what I want to do and people’s willingness and capability to access content and training online.

Abate: The crisis has led many innovators to look online for engineering resources, courses, and content about embedded technology. Are you seeing the same thing?

Long: Ha, I think I just answered that! So now the challenge is how to sort through the immense resources available. I’ve seen so many companies pop up promising great online training, but I think we have to be careful about quality. I think established organizations like Elektor are fundamentally important to provide a reliable resource and to help vet some of the newer things that we’re seeing, not to mention sort through an ever-growing mound of available information.

STEM Education

Abate: You are working toward a Master’s degree in Engineering specializing in STEM education. Are you focused on STEM at the elementary, high school, or university level? Or perhaps you are focused on professional education?

Long: My grand vision is to encompass the whole spectrum from K-12, through university, and into industry (Figure 4). It’s fairly easy to put robots on front of young kids, entertain them for a while, and teach them a few things. However, I firmly believe that there’s a lot more to STEM education especially with respect to the racial and gender biases that are still dominant.

Another very important part of my vision is the bi-directional flow of education. I guarantee any engineer can learn a lot of information from teaching or mentoring students. The experience is humbling, but also incredibly empowering. I think a lot of engineers — or any professional for that matter — can lose sight of how much they know, and how valuable their knowledge and experience is. When you start to share that, it reminds you how much you have learned. I see the same fear in every mentor that I start to work with of speaking in front of people that I faced back in university when I started EIE. Literally every single person I have worked with has been so amazed by the experience and how they are able to improve their confidence. This has immediate positive impact in their professional lives.
EiE summer camp fun
Figure 4: EiE summer camp fun

The business of eletronics education

Abate: Let’s turn to the business side of what you do. What is involved with developing an embedded systems-related course? For instance, do you start with content about embedded technology? Do you always develop some hardware?

Long: Every course I have developed started because of the incredible array of problems I had to solve to create a product or fix a problem. That’s why I think the courses I’ve done are so authentic and successful. If you read my book (which is no doubt the epitome of any of the courses I’ve created), it probably has more anecdotal information than technical information. The technical part is easy, until you hit a problem. I try to capture the problems I faced and really discuss the solutions and my thinking in finding the solution, including as many of the options and tradeoffs that I considered. I also emphasize the process of creation, design, and trouble-shooting, because if you’re good at the process, then you can apply it to anything.

Abate: Tell us about your business model. Do you develop and offer online courses? Book and hardware bundles?

Long: I’m going to be the first to admit that I’m terrible at business! When I first started my company, I expected that free programs like EiE would generate enough exposure and networking to drive sales of courses in my city. It did to some extent, but it’s not a big enough market. I spent a lot of time with EiE between now and about 2015 expecting that we could build a scalable, transferable university program and continue to feed my original model. However, the relationships I’ve built with companies here in Calgary took years to form, and need to be maintained. That has proven very difficult when it comes to scaling up and suffers from the classic “chicken-and-egg” problem of needing the network to build the relationships, but need the relationships to build the network.

Once my Master’s is done this year, it’s time to pivot a little in my approach. Like so many organizations do, it’s time to look at everything that has been learned, weed out what doesn’t work, and focus on what does. I think investing in growing my online presence is key.

Abate: Where do you see the engineering education market going in the coming one to three years? Where are the opportunities?

Long: There is so much demand for STEM education, that I expect a continued surge in companies and available material. I don’t think I have seen a truly amazing platform and methodology to deliver it yet. We’re talking about teaching innovation, which is another chicken-and-egg problem since realizing innovation requires a vast technical skillset, but inspiring the commitment to develop that skillset stems (pun intended) from innovation.

I also think it is fundamentally impossible to run a business based on education, yet there needs to be a link to the mass education systems to find and develop people who will then pursue STEM careers. There will never be enough money for education, so I think there is a big opportunity to find a solution that can do all that in a fiscally sustainable way without limiting access to everyone. Given my experience, I think I’m one of the best people in the world to help drive that, and am trying to figure out how — perhaps a PhD project in cooperation with government and industry. Just a starting point — if you know anyone with a few extra million to fund the team I want to assemble, please let me know!

Looking ahead

Abate: Do you have any new books or products in the works?

Long: My thesis is the biggest thing I’m working on right now, and I’m excited to spin off a few things from that. I want to bring more of EiE online and then catch up on some of the latest IoT technologies that I feel I’ve slipped behind a bit in the last few years. This world changes quickly, though I know that those good processes I mentioned will help me catch up in no time!

Want read the full interview with Jason Long? It will appear in the November 2020 edition of Elektor Industry magazine.