FedEx Days at IGS Energy

Google is known for allowing their employees to devote a certain amount of time to work on projects that might not pertain to their day-to-day responsibilities. This practice gives Google team members an opportunity to flex their creative muscles while providing them with the freedom to work without limits. It has lead to the creation of several successful products (including Gmail). Following this same model, FedEx days (also referred to as ShipIt days) are typically a 24 or 48-hour period where employees are allowed to create and innovate with very little parameters or instructions.

Several months ago, it was decided that the IT department at IGS Energy would hold their own FedEx days. The idea was announced to our entire team at a department meeting. In the days and weeks leading up to the event, additional details were shared with the group. These details included a few rules.

IGS FedEx Days Rules…

  • We could work on anything we wanted as long as it’s not part of our regular job.
  • We could work in our system or work area, but not on items in our current backlog
  • The official clock started on a Thursday @ 2pm
  • We couldn’t start creating prior to 2pm but we could research
  • We had to show what we created or learned by Friday @ 4pm by creating a 2-minute video highlighting our work and outcome
  • Not everything will be a success, but often failure teaches us the most.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to participate at first. I had a lot of work to catch up on and could have used some time to focus on a few tasks. Fortunately, I was encouraged by a few co-workers to participate in the event. That left me with a  very important decision…what should I create?

About 10 months ago, I found myself in a situation where we needed all hands on deck to help solve a production issue. Since the issue occurred on a Sunday afternoon, it took me roughly 45-60 minutes to call everyone and explain the situation while discussing our next steps. I decided to spend my time calling instead of sending emails and text messages because texts/emails can be easily overlooked on a weekend. Afterward, I thought about ways that I could automate that process but I never really had time to devote to solving that particular problem. I decided this would be my challenge for FedEx days.

Before joining IGS, I wrote Python apps and lengthy PowerShell scripts but it had been about 2.5-3 years since I had even touched a piece of code. The idea of writing and deploying an app in 36 hours was really exciting. However, I wondered if I could actually get the work done in that short of a time-frame. I ended up partnering up with one of our Directors of Application Development (Matt). It had been about 10-15 years since Matt had written a line of code as well. We knew we had our work cut out for us but figured we would start by identifying our application’s requirements.

The requirements were really pretty straightforward…

  • The program should automatically call a list of people and play a brief message for them
  • The message should notify them there is a critical issue and that they would receive a follow-up communication with further details
  • The program should send out a text message & email with information about how to dial-in to a conference bridge
  • The program should be easy and quick to execute
  • The program should send out a Tweet when executed…because…why not?

Over the last few months, I had seen blogs about how people have creatively used Amazon Dash buttons to automate tasks. In fact, Amazon now sells AWS IoT Buttons that can be easily connected to AWS. This seemed like a fun way to kick off our process. Matt was responsible for connecting the button to AWS and ensuring that it could execute my python script.

A FedEx days project should celebrate failures. I would have been perfectly content if I gave this a shot and didn’t produce a working product. I was happy to just spend some time writing code and solving a problem with technology. Fortunately, thanks to some extremely helpful Python libraries and technical blog posts, we had a working script in just a few hours. After a few additional hours of tweaks, we even had the script executing from AWS after pressing our IoT button! We knew that there were potential improvements to make but we had solved our initial goal!

When it was all said and done, we had the following components in our solution…

  • AWS IoT Button – used to kick off our process
  • AWS Lambda – used to host and execute Python script
  • Python Script
    • Trello – used to make a phone call and send a text message
    • Tweepy – used to post a Tweet to my personal account
    • SendGrid  – used to send an email
  • Digital Ocean Web Server running Apache – used to host XML configuration file that was leveraged by Trello

We didn’t end up filming a video. This is mostly because Matt and I had to fit in a few meetings leading up to the final presentation. It also was a result of us making code changes up until 15 minutes before the projects were due. The lack of a video left us with a much more exciting yet nerve-wracking opportunity…a live demo.

We hadn’t tested the IoT button outside of Matt’s office and were a bit nervous about the recent code changes that we had made. We ended up configuring the script to call 16 people that we knew would be in the room during the presentations. When Matt pressed the button, I braced myself for the fact that the indicator light might turn red and the script wouldn’t execute. Sure enough, the light turned green and phones around the room started to ring. My Twitter account even sent out a test message (below). It was awesome.

 

There were a bunch of other great projects ranging from mobile applications to unique experiments involving spare laptop batteries. I was really proud of everyone that participated, particularly those that I work closely with on the Infrastructure team. Overall, I had a great time, learned a lot and I’m really looking forward to our next FedEx Days.

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