What does bicycle repair and software development have in common? For most people, that answer is nothing. But as I move from being a bicycle mechanic to aerospace researcher and now finally to software engineer – I’ve come to the realization about what attracted me to software development. The aspects of creative problem solving, testing, and collaboration are all things that bicycle repair and software development share. This is the story of how I became a bicycle mechanic by chance and then a software engineer by choice.
I was just about to turn 19 when I finished up my first year in college. As is usual, my freshman year was all about general education courses – so I didn’t really have much practical knowledge in anything. I had been applying exclusively to engineering companies before I noticed an ad by chance on Craigslist – a posting for a bicycle builder at Kozy’s Cyclery in Chicago.
The posting called for experience in bicycle repair and build. I had no experience in either of those things – so obviously, I applied! Though it wasn’t what I had envisioned for a summer job, I thought it would be interesting. I’ve always loved riding my bicycles so I figured, some variety would be welcomed.
With some help from google clip art & microsoft paint to dazzle my cover letter & resume – I managed to get an interview. A portion of that very same cover letter is shown below:
A week later, I had a workbench and was building bikes in the shop area of Kozy’s cyclery on South Wabash. I was taught how to build and eventually fix bicycles by the friendly senior mechanics in the store. The senior mechanics became mentors and close friends who collaborated with me on solving many of the unique bike repairs. Summer flew by quickly, and each night I would go home hot, exhausted and sweaty. (But I loved it!)
Even after school started again, I continued to dabble and mess with bikes. I decided that I wanted to resurrect a 1985 SR500 Cannondale. It was a premium frame for its time, but it was missing an out-of-production part in the modern day. The part in question was a Suntour cyclone shifter which also acted as a cable stop, crucial for accurate gear changing. I spent weeks searching for the shifter and alternatives. I even got in touch with Cannondale support who told me that the best option was finding that Suntour shifter. Without that shifter, I was stuck.
Or was I?
The missing part to complete the bike restoration.
Since I updated all the old parts to use modern Shimano 105 components, the shifting mechanism was integrated with the brakes via Shimano’s STi. So all I really needed to do was to have a cable stop. Inspiration struck: I remembered something from my university orientation. We had 3D printers free for students to use! And best of all? I already had the knowledge to make what I needed.
I fired up my student version of AutoCad Inventor and went to work. I even studied basic structural analysis in Inventor to analyze the part’s structural integrity to ensure the final product was stiff enough to maintain shifting integrity.
A side by side of the part I designed and the analysis results I completed on it.
A week later, I had a working prototype.
Two weeks later, I completed enough iterations of trial and error with the 3D printer that I had a finished product.
The 3D printed cable stop with a layer of epoxy coating.
That experience of seeing the bike come back to life by my own hands brought me a joy I’d never experienced until then. Thank goodness I took a chance with a summer job that was off the beaten path! By next summer, while my peers were looking at internships at Boeing or Northrop Grumman, I was looking forward to another summer back in the shop with the hilarious senior mechanics.
Although I’m no longer a bicycle mechanic, the spirit of rapid and creative problem solving have remained in me. That spirit has informed my choice to pursue software engineering at Ekta because of the challenging nature of the work. Working at Ekta required all the aspects of bicycle repair that I loved such as creative problem solving, testing, and collaborating with the kindest and smartest in the Ekta team.
I still think back on the experience and consider it the genesis of the tinkerer inside me. It awoke a love of creating and fixing things. And that has shaped my life and career choices ever since – all thanks to a little spice of life, variety.