I’ve two problems I keep coming back to and implementing (or attempting to) every now and again.
First is my home-grown voicemail system, not that anyone actually makes standard telephone calls to me anymore, but after a series of “voicemail with dictation” providers left the market, I rolled something together with Twilio and App Engine.
The other is the data feed for the TfL London Bike here scheme. I have failed to buy myself a bike, and still rely on the hire ones, and before app coverage was good, I had a webpage that could show me the docks around where I live.
These have both been revisited over the years, the Voicemail system got moved from being on Google App Engine which returned a complete web page (remember those), to running on AWS as a Single Page App, listening to an MQTT change feed, and connecting to the AWS services to retrieve data for the React App to update on screen.
Meanwhile, although the original Bike webpage went stale and stopped working, last year I started writing an application in SwiftUI that would display the data. Thanks to changes in iOS/Xcode that project can’t even run to get a screenshot anymore…
I’ve long wanted to be able to text something, and to get a reply about the bike docks nearby. Because I’m an iOS user, the Siri intents are very limited, and text message interacting is easier with voice – this would keep my eyes on the road.
So, after an idea just before bed, over the last few days I’ve created a chatbot, and I can ask it questions about the Hire bikes.
But why do I keep revisiting these problems?
TL;DR They’re boring problems that I understand the domain of.
I learn by doing.
My Professional Development Plan would be summarised as Continually Feeling Just A Little Out Of My Depth and managing to keep up.
It’s very much “I learn this stuff because I HAVE to learn it”.
Outside of that directed work frenzy, I have limited windows for learning – periods when I feel interested and able to commit some time to learning. I’ve found that I can generally learn 1 of 2 things:
- Approach: Something new about an existing domain I know: e.g. Using a new language, web framework or API to solve a problem I already broadly know.
- Domain: Learning new problem domains with existing technologies, e.g. building out a new website to use a new API, technologies I understand in areas I haven’t previously worked.
When I try to do both at once, I quickly get frustrated and quit. I’m not a full time coder, I architect systems and work with teams to coach them into building things, but I’m not best served building things myself, even though I love to work with those who are building.
When I’m working, the need to get things done powers me through any frustration walls (mostly). But when I’m doing stuff for ‘fun’, that doesn’t happen as much, so I try to only do one of the two things.
So, What does BikeBot do and What Did I Learn?
I can ask BikeBot for the details of a specific hire station if I know the name, which is useful if I’m heading to a place I know well, and just want to get details of bikes or docks that are available.
I can also ask bikebot for the dock Nearest to a point of interest, when I don’t know what the station is called.
Bikebot then returns the data from the TfL API, and is accessible over the phone with speech recognition or could be available by SMS if I configure an integration.
So, by revisiting a familiar problem, I got to learn:
- AWS Lex, the chatbot tool
- AWS Location, the tool I use to geocode “I’m at this Place give me dock”
- AWS Connect, the contact-centre product that makes it accessible to voice over the phone
I now have a neat demo, which with a little more work provides me something I can use myself.
I also re-learned just how easy managed services can make solving problems, because so much of the hard lifting is done for you. I would never find the time to do fuzzy matching of station name to user input, but if I give Lex that list, it’s done for me. Not perfectly, but orders of magnitude better and faster than I’d ever be able to do it myself.
“erm, cool story bruh, but how does this help me?”
If you’re running hackdays, think about how many ideas that teams have, and if the teams are capable of learning both 1 & 2 at the same time.
Some companies frown on “doing things to do with the day job” on hackdays, really wanting more Blue Sky Out There things, but maybe your team aren’t really up for that. Or if they are, they need a bit more planning, so teams and ideas are kind of sketched out ahead of the hackday, along with any of the pre-requisites to make progress quicker.