Intel® Software Innovator Stacy Devino: Perfecting the Fine Art of the Hack

Stacy Devino is an Android* developer for s23NYC* based in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, working primarily on the Nike* SNKRS app. A frequent speaker on Android and various developer-related topics, she helps run a Google* Developer Group and leads Women Techmakers Dallas. In addition, she serves on an advisory council for Google Developer Groups in the US, focused on the Southern US and Puerto Rico, and works with women in tech groups locally and internationally. On the side, she and her husband, Stephen Wylie, run a small IoT-focused business doing miniaturization, productionization, and even full development of IoT platforms for medium-size traditional businesses. For fun, Devino restores vintage electronics, pinball machines, arcade machines, and gaming consoles – frequently hacking new functionality into them as well. 

What got you started in technology?

I’m from a long line of engineers and educators – aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings, cousins, etc. I remember being very little and taking my broken electronic toys to my grandpa and he could fix them like magic! I would watch him sometimes on his computer (a rare thing in the late ‘80s) and his tools, and just being fascinated. He even taught me some really BASIC computer usage on an old Timex-Sinclair kit computer he had (ZX80 or 81), which was just perfect for my tiny hands. Even my grandma taught me all the hidden stuff in Mario Bros.* (from the original Nintendo* -- which I still have), she could speed-run the game in 15-20 minutes. My mother noted my interest in science and took me to "Saturday school” almost every weekend and most summers. My father’s a tech recruiter, so we were one of the first families on the modern internet in the early ‘90s and everyone got "computer time."

The turning point for me was in 6 or 7th grade, when my father came home with the very first PalmPilot*. The next week, I was selling and trading whatever I could around the neighborhood to raise $100 to have my dad buy me one from work. I loved that thing even if most of what you could do was play simple forms of Dope Wars and Text adventure games. I became obsessed with one game, Space Trader, where I found bugs that would bring my playing time to a complete stall. I remember finding the website and some contact info about the group of developers who worked on the free/shareware game and sending them some bugs. They asked back for more bugs and later wanted to know if I wanted to try fixing some. At the time, it was just stuff like typos and weird states and truthfully I was way out of my comfort zone. I don't think they knew how young I was.

How did your skills start to develop?

I started learning C coding from working with games, and on forums and whatnot. I kept with it through middle school and high school. My siblings and I did the usual parts-stealing from each other’s computers, where you’d wake up one morning and your computer was missing a RAM stick or had a different sound card. I also kept my love of Palm* devices, getting whatever my dad was done with and passing it down the line to the next kid until the Palm M105, which I got for Christmas 2000. I continued to develop, play computer games, and do a lot of music groups and sports. Later, I sold off everything again (except the Palm M105) to get my next high school love, a first-generation iPod* Mini with 4GB. (Previously, I had an "ancient" iRock with 128mb.) Then I discovered a site called iPodWizard where people were hacking the firmware of their iPods. WHOA, this was so cool! Soon, I was adding games and changing themes and learning to hex-edit for myself and just about every other kid who saw my iPod. Soon thereafter I was helping port the iPod Mini to Rockbox and multi-booting iPod Linux* to run DOOM*! I totally was that kid who was rocking a Palm, iPod, and a Nokia* brick in high school along with still going to Saturday classes and summer school (with a mix of high school and college courses now).

What was the transition to university like?

I have no idea why, but I was infatuated with majoring in Applied Mathematics as part of the Engineering school. I was floundering and while I liked math and thought I was good at it, I wasn't that good compared to everyone else in engineering. I was still spending time making "tech stuff" like modifying headphones, making portable amplifiers, games, porting stuff to my iPod (traded up to a 4th gen at this point), and writing a utility to allow my Palm* Zire 72 to connect to the Cisco* wireless network at my university since I didn't have a laptop.

One night at the end of a Society of Women Engineers meeting, I met a man who would become a huge influence in my life, Allen Taflove. We spoke for six hours that night and he really helped me find my direction even though it wasn't his area of expertise (he had literally invented his own area of science). The very next day, I met with his longtime friend Larry Henschen in Computer Engineering. I may not have always done well because I was always inventing and building instead of spending time on schoolwork, but I was happy. My teachers, mentors, and even folks in the audio community helped me progress, nourishing that thirst with new projects and ideas. I even designed my first "real" electronics product entirely on my own from board design to code of a small, configurable sensor board "shield" for the Computer Science group.

At one point I won a brand-new first-gen iPod touch* in late 2007 – and learned that, groups from the iPodWizard community were trying to hack this device. Of course I had to join in! Early on, the iPhone software-modifying community relationship with Apple became somewhat hostile.. At the time, members of the Android team at Google were encouraging this sort of initiative, but they didn't call it hacking – it was development. Those projects got me my first job.

Where did your career go from there?

From then on I was doing only Android development, a mix of OS and apps. That landed me my second job doing security and bug fixes for phone manufacturers and telecom networks. In that year I found and fixed some big bugs in a variety of OS's. Back then you had Android, iOS*, BlackBerry*, QNIX*, Windows Mobile*, Windows* 8 on the horizon, and some bespoke Linux* options. I was focused mostly on Android and managed to automate 90% of my work, which my company loved because at the end they could charge hundreds of hours off my week. For the next few years after that, I did mostly embedded work and some apps, eventually switching to Android apps fully. During that time, I got involved with my newly formed local hackerspace and Android User Group / Google Technology User Group* (GTUGS, now Google Developer Groups - GDG). As part of my community involvement, I started speaking and teaching cool electronics-making skills and software development.

What projects are you working on now?

I am currently working on the Nike SNKRS Android app, which has a mix of cool pioneering tech like augmented reality, geo-caching, and various interactive experiences, all driven by culture using little more than the phone in your hands. Indeed, a very welcome thing for a long-time sneaker collector like myself (having Nike* shoes I bought back in 2006). I am also still organizing groups, helping where I can and speaking more than ever. Not to mention building a full maker studio in my house with printed circuit board (PCB) printer, reflow oven, surface mount technology (SMT) rework stations, fused deposition modeling (FDM) and stereolithography (SLA) printers galore (five!), etc. to support my invention and side business. 

Tell us about a technology challenge you’ve had to overcome in a project.

Bluetooth* technology is my longtime nemesis/friend. I’ve been messing with it since editing the BlueZ stack on Linux and the iPod touch, primarily to support data and better codecs than the anemic SBC over A2DP (low-complexity subband codec over Advanced Audio Distribution Profile). In 2008 I started making my own Bluetooth audio devices with built-in amplifiers, digital signal processor (DSP) code, and fancy output current-voltage (I/V) stages. It didn't matter how nice I made the hacked-together digital analog converter (DAC)/amps in my make-shift boxes – they would only sound really good when run off my computer with a high bitrate MP3 codec and up-sampling the DAC. That’s why I started working in Bluetooth.

The moment I got my modified Bluetooth stack on an iPhone* 3G  "kinda" working with my new modified BlueZ binary on a very hacked device (I say "kinda" because I broke all other Bluetooth functions and never got the media controls of A2DP working), I literally could not wait to show my professors. I spent hours on this – hours I probably should have spent on classroom work. But it was worth it in the end because I learned more than I could have in class. By then, the iPod touch had been opened so many times, it was bent and I had rewired the Wolfson* DAC onboard to new output pins, which I’m sure was the first "DIY-modded" iPod touch. I’m very serious about my audio: until the loss of headphone jacks, I was still modifying Bluetooth (A2DP, Serial, pre-low energy (LE) mesh networking) or audio stacks on Android, the last one being the OnePlus* One.

What trends do you see happening in technology in the near future?

Mixed Reality platforms are really taking off in all forms, from specialized headgear and IoT distributed devices to the tech we already have in our pockets. They will all work in concert to augment our experiences in the everyday world and enable brand new ones. The new work on specialized machine learning chipsets to localized or hyper-aware cloud implementations have me really excited for what this medium holds next. It both blurs and sharpens the line of reality.  

Outside technology, what hobbies do you enjoy?

Music and gaming! I still sing and am very active in my music. What people probably don't know is that I have 12 pinball machines from all eras (1960s - 2018) and a number of ‘90s arcades. In addition, I have just about every gaming console made for the US and some only for Japan, along with about 30 vintage computers with my husband. We have a YouTube* channel, Texas Nerd House, and we help organize one of the largest gaming conferences in the U.S., Let's Play Gaming Expo (about 7,000 attendees this year).

I enjoy going beyond mere restoration of these pinballs and arcades: in years past, my husband and I have showcased things like electronic scorekeeping on electromagnetic pinballs using hall-effect sensors paired with RGB light strips and MP3 sound effects running on an Intel® Edison board, building a perfect-scale 100x Nintendo* controller (on Instructables), hacking the Tapper Arcade game for custom sprites/colors/backgrounds/art, and adding a reactive programmed RGB top-box ring to the Stargate pinball machine I beyond-new restored. We even made a pinball machine from scratch using only readily available and 3D-printed parts, which we showcased at the Intel Party at Google I/O '18. I can usually be found modifying headphones, building amps, and making my own keyboards when I have time outside of all the other stuff.

How are you planning to leverage Intel® technologies in your work?

In the past, I have used everything from the hardware IoT platforms (such as the Intel Edison and Intel® Curie™ boards), Intel® RealSense™ cameras and Android development toolkits for everything from education to projects, and even prototypes because of the ease and experience. I even built and worked on various permutations of Android on Intel Atom® processors and System on a Chip (SoC) systems like Android Things (codenamed Brillo) for work.

In some of my current personal projects and side work, I find myself leaning on the Intel® System Studio for microcontrollers as there really isn't anything on the market that competes well with the speed and malleability. Not to mention small Intel Atom processor-based UP Squared* boards to accomplish a variety of tasks from kiosks/interactive displays complete with plenty of general purpose input/output (GPIO). One of my pinball machines I own, Total Nuclear Annihilation, even runs an UP* board and open-source hardware all through! Of course, that means I had to have it.

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