My build process consisted of choosing and buying parts within an allotted budget and compiling the parts into a functioning computer. I pursued the Artistic and Creative STEP Signature Project in the form of a PC build from scratch. I was also tasked with creating documentation on how to build a computer from the ground-up so that other individuals would be able complete a build following my steps.
One of the positive takeaways from this STEP experience was the discovery of the tight-knit community that comes with planning a build. Everyone goes through the same process of searching for the best deal and wanting the best overall performance. The community isn’t limited to people who decide to build a computer from scratch; a lot of the enthusiasts built their own PC 10 years ago and have been replacing parts as the performance starts to degrade. Everyone who has succeeded in this task is ready to help everyone else with his/her insights. The value of community knowledge is undeniable and ultimately leads to smarter individuals and deeply informed decision-making for everyone.
Creating anything from scratch provides training in discipline and perseverance, and it feeds curiosity in the subject matter. It was difficult for me to actualize the roles of each piece of hardware until I had to combine them all to create the machine I now have. I also had to create a build document so that any individual could build a computer from it. This was a very introspective process for me. I found myself having to take the machine apart in order to get revealing photos. I also had to take myself through the build step-by-step in retrospect for this documentation. There are a few orientations for certain parts and braces that were the most difficult to idealize and transform into words. It’s easy to say “install the processor”, but the real challenge is describing the process of using the thermal paste and how the brackets get screwed down to secure the cooler to the motherboard. The ability to teach is a strong reflection of knowing the material, and so through this documentation I added another layer of understanding to computers on top of the initial build.
Causes of Change
I am a strong believer in the concept that failures have more to offer in learning than successes. The mistakes I made during my build resonated with me because it made my build a much longer process than I had previously intended. I also damaged valuable hardware which would make anyone quick to learn from the causal mistake.
The build began with the installation of the central processing unit / processor (CPU) into the motherboard. Placing the CPU into the slot of the motherboard is simple assuming the contact is only made on the edges of the unit and the placement into the slot is clean. The installation of the CPU cooler was harder. There were rubber pegs that were supposed to be placed on top of holes in the motherboard, but they weren’t in the same packaging as the hex screws that get placed onto the rubber pegs so I wrote it off as a generalization of the instructions that did not apply to my particular case. I was wrong. After bracing the cooler onto the motherboard and getting to a point where the braces wouldn’t bottom-out, I took another look at the manual and all the little packages of screws and washers and found the notorious, rubber pegs. I then proceeded to undo my entire CPU cooler installation which I had been working on for the past 45 minutes or so (including having to pull apart the pieces connected via thermal paste) and redo the same thing with the rubber pegs in place. The motherboard is a hardy piece of equipment, but it definitely isn’t dummy-proof. If I didn’t stop screwing the braces to the board when I did, I could’ve easily snapped the board and I would’ve been down approximately $65.
The next part of my build that contributed to my growth was during my documentation process. As I mentioned above, I had to retrospectively think through my build in order to document every step and every decision I made to get to the complete build. I also had to include pictures, and of course I didn’t take pictures during the build process, so I had to take apart my build to some extent to get good pictures of sockets, smaller parts, labels, and wiring. When I removed the graphics card, I didn’t remember there was a latch that needed to be pressed down before removal to release the bottom of the card. I ended up yanking the graphics card out easily enough that I didn’t think anything was wrong. Luckily, the graphics card wasn’t damaged at all. The slot in the motherboard, however, was damaged, and resulted in the computer not being able to relay information to my monitor from the HDMI port on the graphics card. My motherboard had two Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) slots, so I was able to install the graphics card into the second slot for expected results. It’s also possible to purchase motherboards with three slots and four slots. This motherboard set-up is useful for parallel computing and/or deep learning, but it’s rarely necessary for leisurely computer use and one graphics card can perform more than well enough for recreational projects.
Making mistakes is a trivial part of life, and even the most successful people to exist in the world have made mistakes. The most important part of making mistakes is learning from them and hopefully not making the mistake again, or at least not in the same way. The mistake with the graphics card will pay off if I remember the latch on the PCI slot when I remove the graphics card or replace it with a new one in the future. I have also been told by many members of the PC building community that even veteran PC builders damage PCI slots, so that was a source of comfort. The incorrect CPU installation did not result in hardware damage, but it did waste a lot of time. This mistake will pay off in the future as now I know to look for rubber pegs, or to simply not doubt the manual provided for the cooler. The cooler will need to be removed if I decide to upgrade my processor if I decide I need to upgrade my fan or simply, if either of them die.
The documentation process was helpful in providing a summary and a test over what I had done and how well it worked out. I don’t think I would’ve benefited from the build as much if I didn’t go through creating the tutorial. It was challenging to be tasked with putting actions, processes, and techniques into words when I mainly used videos for build assistance. The ability to effectively communicate ideas is invaluable in the workplace, and especially in engineering as engineering education isn’t focused on teaching technical communication as much as technical material knowledge. Also, individuals that pursue engineering disciplines stereo-typically don’t have the strongest communication skills (though this is certainly not true of all engineers). Especially in computer science, documentation is a task that no one wants to do, but is necessary for scaling knowledge.
Why does it matter?
I remember having a family computer in the basement as a kid that had no access to internet, and it had only a few games loaded on it via CD for me and my brother. At the time, it was merely an outlet of entertainment. As I grew and the technology grew, the entertainment capacity evolved as well as my interest in the internet. I remember my dad telling me not to get on YouTube without his supervision because there was content that wasn’t appropriate for me at the time. At some point, I understood that there was more going on behind the screen and the keyboard than what I saw, but I didn’t have an interest in it until I got to college and was taught the language of computers. I remember thinking it made so much sense to navigate that way, and then I started speaking in code in everyday conversations (side effect of being a dork), and then I decided to study computer science. Building this machine felt like I was fulfilling a necessary step in my journey of studying computers. In comparison, how can a scientist claim to study anatomy without being able to label all parts of a human body, or without being able to construct a model of the human body from scratch? As I alluded above, I am a visual, hands-on, learner and discussions of builds and hardware only contributes so much to by knowledge base before I think to myself “What does this actually look like? What is going on in that black, metal box?”
I enjoyed the build and I am going to enjoy maintaining it in the years to come, however it did confirm my opinion that I do not like dealing with electrical hardware and wires. I prefer engineering processes through code rather than hardware and it makes much more sense from a communication perspective. Setting a variable to “true” seems clearer to me than relying on an electric signal to go from a source to a gate 1000 connections away. Building this machine was so much fun and insightful and fostered so much curiosity in me that I hadn’t felt in a long time, and I am so excited for the years to come and what my computer science career is going to bring me post-graduation.