The Arduino/Raspberry Pi Challenge

When you’re responsible for technology, sometimes it can become all too… tactical. You begin to quickly get to “the solution” place and by the time you’re reading this, we’ve already arrived at the end and are just waiting for you to get here. It’s an engineering trap. Forgetting you’re creative. Forgetting that you have a spark, or a natural curiosity; a desire to create things, build stuff. Sometimes you simply forget to come up for air and look around and smell the proverbial flowers.

So one of the first things I did when I took over Creative Technology, Database, and Analytics for JWT was work very hard to focus on the idea, “sure, you’re a developer, I get it… you’re an engineer, but you build stuff… you’re inherently creative and you work in a creative environment… embrace that shit”. I wanted my gang to enjoy using the right side of their brains. So I offered them up a little somethin’ somethin’ to get their creative juices flowing: I would buy anyone who wanted to sign up a Raspberry Pi and Arduino and let them do anything they wanted. Client related, not client related, fun, experimental, new… whatever they wanted. The only catch was, you had to come back in 90 days and give a presentation on your project. You had to tell us what your big idea was, what inspired you, and how you did it… oh, and you had to demo your project.

Five teams signed up. I was impressed right off the bat that it wasn’t individuals that signed up, but that my offer spawned several conversations among like-minded, organic groups (who, I might add, didn’t normally work together… so there’s that!) that evolved into formal ideas. There was a demonstration of Raspberry Pi running Xbox Media Center (XBMC), the open source Home Theater Software. A terrific idea involving geo-fencing/mapping, and outdoor location. One of my lead developers put together a demo/presentation of a larger idea for a “Holiday Card” that could potentially bridge the gap between two remote locations in a fun, engaging, and ultimately very impressive manner (that one I kept in my back pocket. As soon as I saw the idea I just told everyone in the room, “okay, we’re building THAT one this Christmas… you watch”). An iPhone powered paintball gun that was one of the highlights of the demonstration and created such an active discussion in the room, that it went from “An iPhone Powered Paintball Gun” to a “Twitter Powered T-Shirt Cannon” in less than five minutes. Finally, one of the engineers on my team who’s perhaps the quietest person I’ve ever met (he literally sits all the way in the back corner of the office) decided to take my offer of gratis computer power, marry it with a couple of hundred dollars worth of hardware and create a Microsoft Kinect powered, wi-fi enabled, remote controlled car. The beauty of this idea was that you didn’t even need to be in the same room as the car. The car contained all the computational power and network capability, and using node.js, was able to maintain a connection to a remote server that was coordinating the motion and movement. Theoretically, you could control a remote-controlled car on the other side of the world using just your body.

Crazy shit, right?

I relish my technology leadership role, but too often it can become mired in the tactical. The “throw it over the fence and build it” that sort of naturally occurs in these environments with their deadlines and requirements. It’s not bad. It’s the job. It’s just that sometimes it’s nice to stop and smell the roses.

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