Hudsonblick 04

This week, for those of you who do understand the fine art of reading english, Charles remembers his time surfing the waves of the new economy in the US of A. Did he stay or fall? Did he get the surfer chicks?

You’ll find out in a second by reading

The Tech Horde and the Last Mile

There“™s only four things [Americans] do better than anyone else:
Microcode (software)
High-speed pizza delivery

–Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

I think it was probably my first time in a sub-basement. I was under a building in SoHo that was at least a hundred years old, by the look of the cast-iron pillars. The room was surprisingly large: at least a couple of hundred feet deep by thirty across, and the ceiling had crumbled apart in places, revealing Looney Tunes lath and plaster patterns. My host gestured along one wall, where there were about a dozen servers of various vintages, some scuffed, some nicked, and some partially assembled. This was the hive of hot-swappable drives from which under-an-hour delivery would return to Manhattan.

The last time this city enjoyed under-an-hour delivery was during the dot-com boom. Most people remember the boom for its excesses: the astronomical stock prices, the free massages, the weird parties; but I remember it a little differently. My dot-com days were spent either hammering out delivery code, or on a bike making deliveries. Bag after bag of movies, munchies, and porn porn porn. Under an hour from web click to doorbell. This is the Holy Grail of logistics: the Last Mile. Did I mention porn? Our customers ordered a ton of porn.

The „high tech, low life“ aesthetic can be traced back at least as far as William Gibson“™s first novel, Neuromancer, where he famously describes future-science technologies and their street-level applications. This novel, this aesthetic, was probably what got me interested in writing software in the first place. So you can imagine my surprise, my complete disbelief, when the CTO of a small dot-com company asked me if it was possible to develop an AI system to optimize deliveries for bicycle messengers. Spreeblickers, when someone asks you if your dream is possible, always say yes.

After accepting the position, I quickly got my first taste of corporate culture. The Operations Software Development (OpsDev) office was located in a one-room apartment in the upper east side of Manhattan. The room was crowded with sagging rows of steel shelves and Hefty sacks full of VHS tapes. This was where the programmers worked. The neighborhood was typical upper east side, but strangely the only bar on the block was owned by music legends Ashford and Simpson. We went there once for happy hour, but honestly, we were a little underdressed.

The place where we built the software was fairly strange, but the warehouses where they used it were completely mad. Yelling, shoving, swearing, and generally a complete lack of moderation are required to get a bag of ice cream and DVDs delivered in under an hour. The original ‚corporate headquarters‘ was literally in the basement of a warehouse, and I strongly suspect that the corporate culture was influenced by this. In the warehouse, it was always too busy to explain „not my fault“ or „not my job.“ In HQ, everyone thought that they had the ball, and everyone was trying to run with it.

Not long after I started, they moved HQ to a normal office building, and our OpsDev group was moved there, too. The idea was to make the company look more like a regular business, but we never really took to it. Our CTO, Chris, holed up in a tiny utility closet next to my desk. The OpsDev department turned down cubicles in favor of easily-relocated folding tables. We deliberately unscrewed all of the fluorescent lights. The rest of tech, on the other half of the floor, was in similarly shabby splendor: Web Development (WebDev), Quality Assurance (QA), and IT. The general idea was to make it easy for tech people to work with tech people, but the effect was to create a cabal of Outsiders in the midst of the corporate headquarters. QA included a party promoter and a spectacle artist. WebDev had Crazy Tom and Double-Crazy Tom. IT had so many self-inflicted challenges that they made the rest of us look like insurance salesmen.

Somehow, it worked. The warehouses became cybernetically-augmented distribution hubs. Dispatch began to look like air traffic control. Our mad scientist projects bloomed, and we had the blessing of HR to bring in more people. I personally hired a motorcycle mechanic and a three hundred pound skinhead, both excellent programmers.

In the middle of this whirlwind, our CTO ducked in and out of his utility closet. He was remarkably composed, impossibly hard working, and fervently revered by the Diamond Dogs of delivery technology. He knew every part of our system, and never failed to make something work when it had to. I once overheard a conversation between him and our COO, Skip:

„Chris, when do you think can we change orders to credit-only, so the riders don“™t have to carry cash anymore?“

„I think we can get that going for you in about a week, it“™s not too hard.“

„Alright, thanks; I „™m just asking because our delivery guys in D.C. keep getting shot at.“

„Ah. OK… I“™ll get that fixed tonight, then.“

„We“™d really appreciate that, Chris, thanks.“

Yelling, shoving, and a complete lack of moderation were the rule on the Last Mile, but behind it, someone had to keep their head on straight.

Continue here: the waves of terror

Links of the week:


9 Kommentare

  1. 01

    Sounds like a cool job! :-) Which company was that?

  2. 02

    That was Kozmo.com, where the drama never stopped…

  3. 03

    Did you guys actually employ AI algorithms for the optimization of the delivery?

    Also, more importantly – was the bar Solid As A Rock?

    SCNR :-)

  4. 04

    Honestly, in a field as mature as logistics, AI isn’t exactly the right word for it. The basic problems turns out to look a lot like the classic Travelling Salesman Problem (http://www.tsp.gatech.edu/), but in practice, of course, it’s never that simple!

    Our ultimate goal was a completely automated dispatch system, and we fully expected to fail at this. But in the meantime we produced tools to assist the dispatchers and delivery people. Sort of the ‚cyborg‘ approach, vs robotic.

    First, I integrated geographical information into the delivery system, so that the dispatchers could have a geographical representation of the state of outstanding orders. One dispatcher laughed when he saw it because he said it reminded him of when he was in the Air Force.

    I also developed software for a ruggedized palm pilot (http://www.amerbar.com/catalog/palm.asp) so that information awareness could be extended out into the field. This was in beta when the company went down. The ultimate plan was to gather every scintilla of data that we could about delivered orders (weight, location, time, etc, etc x100), and then apply statistical and machine learning methods to predict things like delivery times, problem orders, even order occurence. Philosophically, the plan was to use the past to destroy itself…

    The bar was called Sugar Bar. You should look at the link I put in there, it was verrrry fancy!

  5. 05

    Those are some great memories. Very good job of summing up 2 to 3 years in a handful of paragraphs! So much comedy came out of that place, you could write a book about it.

    Kozmo changed the way I look at „work“. The hour or two to go to the gym is now a requirement, jeans and t-shirt are a must. I remember when Chris used to make fun of me for being overdressed when I wore khakis and a polo shirt. Now I must argue with my boss that I will not wear khakis and a polo shirt.

  6. 06

    Andres, do you remember who that canadian guy was who we worked with uptown? The one who ended up in the tombs because he jumped a turnstyle or something? That was when I first started with you guys, I should have known right then…

  7. 07

    Oh no, I think you are referring to Patrick. It is torturous just remembering him! There were a few other Patricks later on, but this guy was very early on. I am proud to report that I was not involved in the interview process with that guy.

    The guy blasted music you could hear through his headphones. I remember wanting to get rid of that guy very badly and he kindly obliged with assinine move after assinine move.

  8. 08

    Now that you mention it, I think Claudia threatened him with a screwdriver trying to get him to turn it down…