INFLUENCER: Michael Keegan, Technical Director at Rothco, says destruction is the mother of invention
It started with an ad.
This ad specifically.
I was six years old and I knew I had to have this toy. A letter to Santa was promptly dispatched. Christmas Day arrived and my parents looked on in delight as I retrieved my shiny new truck from under the tree, then their expressions turned to horror as I bounced up and down on it trying to break it. This wasn’t playtime, this was strictly business. I had to know.
It held up pretty well so I tried throwing it down the stairs a few times. Again, not a scratch. After a few hours of trial and error I discovered the toy’s fatal weakness – a hammer. Job done. Knowledge assimilated. Curiosity killed the truck. Decades later nothing’s changed. Well maybe a little. I’m still taking things apart to see how they work but I’ve reined in my more destructive tendencies.
As Technical Director at Rothco it’s my job to ensure that we deliver world-class technical solutions for clients like AON, Heineken, Samsung and Opel. That means staying on top of the latest developments, assessing which ones are worth investing in and devising a plan for using them to improve our clients’ business results. But therein lies the difficulty. Until you’ve used a technology, really got your hands dirty, you can’t truly claim to understand its true value, let alone see its true potential. And you can’t dive deep into a technology without a real project to work on, a genuine problem that needs solving. In our experience these don’t just present themselves – you have to actively seek them out. We make it our business to open our eyes and ears as well as our minds. Our development team meets regularly to throw creative technical ideas around in search of projects worth pursuing, projects that will provide a platform for learning but also produce real results. Recently we found two.
The first was inspired by the unseasonal heatwave that hit at the end of July. At a meeting to brainstorm ideas for our in-house app a suggestion came forward – “could we build an app that emails the boss on a hot day and tells him to buy us all ice-cream?”. It was a lovely idea, elegant in its simplicity, but there was a pressing deadline – the heatwave was due to end. If we were going to do it we’d need to launch the next day or else put the idea on ice (no pun intended) until the sun came out again. We quickly hooked up to the Dark Sky API to get a real time weather report, built a script to email the boss and another script to ensure we hadn’t already mailed him today (we didn’t want to be a nuisance). Then we wrapped the whole thing in a mobile friendly web page. Twenty four hours later the IceCreamBot was launched and the boss’s credit card took a battering.
Result: free ice cream and a very happy workforce. Proof that a simple idea, well executed can have an instant impact. We also noticed that sometimes it’s hotter in the office than it is outside. For IceCreamBot 2.0 we’re knocking the weather API on the head and putting a temperature sensor in the room.
The second problem we set out to solve was a little ‘earthier’. Put simply, we observed firsthand that, with our increasing headcount, at peak times during the day, it can be difficult to find a free cubicle in the bathroom. Much valuable time is wasted running from floor to floor, often in increasing states of discomfort. The solution is simple – set up a web page on the intranet where you can check the current status of each cubicle. The challenge was to create something responsive, lightweight and simple to maintain.
This was a much larger undertaking than the IceCreamBot – we’d need to brush up on our soldering skills, re-learn some physics and roll our own API for instant real time updates. We built a prototype using a wi-fi enabled Arduino board hooked up to a pair of door sensors. After a couple of mis-steps (ok we blew one up), we had a proof of concept up and running only to find that our script was a battery hog. Lesson learnt – we added light sleep and deep sleep functionality plus an automated alert system when the batteries were running low.
That was the first of many lessons –
1. Not all doors are hung exactly straight. Each set of sensors needed to be tweaked to know the difference between locked and closed over.
2. Heavy duty Velcro does exactly what it says on the tin. The doors will fall off before the sensors do.
3. The Wi-Fi in the toilets is patchy. We’re installing a range extender.
4. “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission” doesn’t apply when you’re putting electronics in the bathroom.
Why do we take these projects on? Because we believe that without experimentation there can never be innovation, that the best way to learn is by doing and that there are few things more inspirational than seeing ideas brought to life. But fundamentally it’s the insatiable curiosity of that six-year old child – we have to know.