At the heart of everything we do here at Gun.io are our incredible Gunslingers. They’re the talent we send out to tackle the big ideas and help brands build and scale. And we want to share their stories with you in a new series called the Gunslinger Interviews.
This week, Cal Evans talks tech with Wolf Donat about Commodores (and we don’t mean the band), fisheries, and woodworking.
Wolf Donat is a computer engineer, best-selling tech author, and programmer, with experience in robotics, sensor networks, automation, hardware/software integration, and animatronics. He is a course instructor at Udemy and StackSkills with over 5,000 students.
Cal: Hi, there. My name is Cal Evans, and welcome to the Frontiers podcast. In this episode, I’m going to talk to a member of–or somebody that’s on the Gun.io talent stack–named Wolf Donat. Say hi to everybody, Wolf.
Wolf: Hi, how are you?
Cal: Wolf, I gotta say–and I didn’t prep you for this–but I gotta say, I love the name. I got a friend of mine who named his son Wolf, and so you’re actually the second person I’ve run into with that name. I just love that name. That’s cool. The whole idea here is to get to know a little bit more about you so that people can understand who you are–and you’re not just a name and a picture on a website. Talk to us a little bit about how you got into programming.
Wolf: Well, it’s funny. So, like a few others, I’ve been around the block a few times. In other words, my very first computer was, I think in about 1982, my dad brought home a Commodore VIC-20. So older people probably rejoice that. I’d always wanted a 64, but couldn’t get it. But that was my introduction to computers. I started learning BASIC, I started copying and retyping programs from those Compute! magazines, so I could, and of course back then there wasn’t–I didn’t have a tape drive yet. So every time you turned off your computer, you lost all of your work. There was no–nothing was saved, which was terrible. Once I finally figured out how to use a tape drive, I got that working a little bit better. So I did that, and then fast forward I don’t know how many years, I decided I need to go back to school. And so since I had always been interested in tech, it had been a while I’d been away from it, but I’d always been interested in it. I think my dad had started that. I went back to school and went back for computer engineering because I was interested in both programming and the hardware side of things. So that seemed better than either computer science or software engineering. That’s pretty much all my life.
Cal: I’m another Commodore fan. I had a VIC-20 for a while, upgraded to the 64, and life became so much better when I purchased a 1541 floppy drive.
Wolf: Oh yeah.
Cal: Kids, floppy discs are those icons on the save button, you know, that’s not a coaster. And so, I had one of those. At one point I actually had three Commodore 64s. I was big into it. I ran the local user group. I was a huge nerd–still am, but you know.
Wolf: I was drooling over the Amiga. Remember when they released the Amiga? And I said, oh my god, that’s beautiful.
Cal: Yeah, that is, and a friend of mine over in Germany, Sebastian Bergman, was big into the Amiga scene and still to this day promotes the old demos that they used to make–the graphic demos and all that, the videos. He still promotes those, and he has Amiga emulators where he can run them and all kinds of fun stuff. The fun thing is, you know, our phones are now more powerful than those things ever were, but at the time, they were cutting edge.
Wolf: Yeah. I know.
Cal: Hey, let’s move on to the second question, ‘cause I can sit here and reminisce forever, but nobody wants to hear me talk. Talk to me about your favorite project that you’ve ever worked on.
Wolf: I think that would have to be–I worked at a company in Alaska called Saltwater and they do–I lived in Alaska for about 20 years–Saltwater does what they call electronic monitoring. So they work with national fisheries. And so what they do is they build–well, actually they ask me to build–an electronic monitoring system that could be installed onboard commercial fishing vessels to basically take the place of human observers. And so this system would kick on whenever a fishing event was taking place, and it was basically a server, some hard drives, and then a bunch of IP-connected cameras and some sensors. So what it would do is monitor the fishing event and check for bycatch, check to see that the fishermen were keeping what they should, throwing away what they should, looking at catch sizes and whatnot, and then monitoring things like GPS location and all that.
They didn’t really have much when I started, and so that’s one of the reasons they brought me on. They said “Would you like to build this?”, and I was almost fresh outta college. And I said, “Yes, absolutely.” So I was there for a little while. The system I built from the ground up ended up being used in what was then one of the largest EM projects in the world, the Tuna Fisheries Project. So it’s one of my favorites because A, I’ve always been very ocean-oriented, and so I got to work on fishing boats, and then B, it also drove home the fact that the thing I like most about what I do is when I write code that interfaces with real objects. So I hate sitting at a screen and just writing code that makes software. I prefer writing code that interfaces with hardware, if that makes sense. I wanna be able to, you know, press a button or type a command and watch an LED or a robot arm or something like that. That’s my cup of tea, that kinda stuff. And that project, I think, really brought me home.
Cal: Very cool. Now, since I’m a scuba diver, the ocean’s very important to me. But you mentioned a term that I’m gonna have to ask you to define: “fishing event”. Is that when somebody throws a net in the water, or is that opening a can of PBR? ‘Cause you know, here on charter boats, that’s a fishing event.
Wolf: No, this was in mostly smaller boats, you know, like two or three crew, up to larger boats. But yeah, what they define as the fishing event is when they actually drop the long line, if they’re doing tuna. Or if they’re doing crab fishing, when they actually start throwing the pods overboard. And so what we had was a couple of sensors. We had a hydraulic sensor on–I’m having a blank. I don’t remember what the hydraulics were used for, but when the hydraulics would kick in, that would mean that they started fishing. We had another sensor on the reel that spooled out the long line, and so when the reel started moving, okay, we’re fishing. And then the last thing we did was–since I had a GPS onboard–we also experimented with GPS fencing. We knew that this particular boat would start fishing within this zone. And so what we could do is as soon as the boat entered this zone, then we would start capturing data.
Cal: Very cool, that had to have been a fascinating project to work on. You know, I could sit here and pick your brain forever on that one, but we need to move on. Hey, most of us are not just programmers–a couple of it–for a while, that was my hobby, and I figured I could get paid for it, but most of us are much more well-rounded human beings. Talk to me about one non-tech hobby that you enjoy.
Wolf: I would say right lately, I have been really getting into woodwork.
Cal: Oh, nice.
Wolf: Yeah. I have always been a musician all my life, so that is one thing that I’ve always done. But lately over the past year or two, I’ve been picking up some tools. I’ve inherited a couple, I’ve gotten some gifts from friends, and woodworking is just really starting to appeal to me. I’ve noticed that it’s a good way to unwind, especially if after I’ve had a bad day in the office or a bad–when I’ve written a whole lot of code, it really helps you get out of your head and start thinking more about shapes and joints and connections and all that stuff, rather than just straight, you know, if-then statements and blocks and functions and all that stuff. It’s a, you know what I mean? It’s that completely opposite side of the coin, and I love it.
Cal: Yeah. That’s the reason I scuba dive. It gets me out of my head. So, you know, but woodworking sounds fascinating. It’s always been an interest of mine, but never had the time to do it and everything else. So, it’s fascinating that you’re into that. Hey Wolf, I wanna thank you for taking the time to be with us here today on this and talk to us a little bit. Audience, I hope you’ve enjoyed this, and we’ll see you next time right here on the Frontier podcast.