The Next Work Project

It’s lunch time, and I don’t have a lot of time. I’ve been up since 6:30AM working. When 5:00PM rolls around, Melissa and I are jumping in a car and heading to Lakeview, Oregon, where I’ll be working until Sunday. Just like NaNoWriMo, I have to write during lunch sometimes, otherwise I won’t make my goal. And I have every intention of making all my goals.

Because work is on my brain, I’m going to talk about the next work project. I won’t get too technical or dive into code. I think I can make this interesting without giving away company secrets or getting into esoteric fields.

Before I can get too much into the new product, I need to talk at least a little bit about the product it will be replacing. We have a suite of applications that work together to present information about solar production to our customers. The customer owns land with equipment on it, including solar panels and batteries, and we talk to this equipment, allowing the customer to control it all. Additionally, we provide reports and metrics for how well things are going. It’s pretty sweet.

Unfortunately, time is a thing, so the decisions we made 8 to 10 years ago when building this system are no longer the same decisions we’d make today. We used some technologies that have aged out. We built the whole thing based on the requirements of that day, which are no longer the requirements of today. Everything has to be both bigger, faster, and run on cheaper hardware. Those three requirements on paper should be mutually exclusive, but we think we can do it. And, we think we can save a lot of money along the way.

The current system requires a lot of setup time. People with specialized skills have to build out components of the system. Once those parts are built out, they’re then able to configure the website to work with that equipment. They currently can’t do much in the website until the components are configured, because the website won’t have anything to talk to.

That approach made so much sense at the beginning, because we didn’t have the website when we first started. We just had those components, which are good at talking to the equipment and reporting to the agencies that are interested in power production. That was our specialty in the beginning, so those components were designed to be very good at fulfilling that task.

We realized fairly soon that we could build on top of that, and so we did. That’s how we got to where we are today, and we’re very successful. We do good work. I have an excellent team.

But now let’s talk about the new product. If we want to make it bigger, faster, and cheaper, what is our path forward?

For starters, we’re going to start building the new system from the other direction. We’re going to make it so that we — or the customer — can use our platform to configure the site before they’ve even broken ground. No equipment or components will have to be configured in advance, because our website will be the way the configuration tool.

We will use advanced simulation software so that the person configuring the site will be able to see what it looks like when it’s real. All of the tweaking and adjusting required to make a satisfactory presentation, controls platform, alarming, and reporting, will be done in advance. If we do it right, the customer will be able to do it themselves. When they’re satisfied with how it looks, they can place their order to make it a reality.

Based on how the site is configured, we will ship out the equipment necessary for the operation of the site. This could be a few devices or a few hundred devices. Instructions will go out with this equipment, and either one of our field technicians or the customer will do the install. Once the hardware is in place, it will phone home, register with our software, and the configuration will be shipped down to the site.

At the site, the configuration will be split out over however many devices are available on the network. The main component will monitor all the satellites, shifting pieces of the site configuration around for load balancing. All of that happens without user intervention. When a piece of hardware fails, the other hardware takes up the slack and alarms are raised, so that the bad hardware can be replaced when convenient.

Our biggest pain point right now in terms of cost is configuration. It takes people with specialized knowledge hundreds of hours to get all the configuration correct before the system operates. Our new approach will reduce this considerably. If we make it so that the customer can do the configuration themselves, it could eliminate our configuration costs entirely.

The configurations can be bigger, because we’ll distribute them. The system will be faster, because we’re using new technologies more suited towards getting the higher throughput we need. And the installations will be cheaper, because we won’t need to send multiple expensive servers to a site for the operation of the equipment. Instead we can ship an appropriate number of inexpensive devices, all working in tandem to provide greater stability.

That’s the next work project. I have a great team, and I think we’re going to make the best version of this software that exists in our corner of the market. We just have to stick to our vision and not be scared and compromise when things look tough. If we do it right, it will change the game.

I am excited for this. Am I as excited about this project as I am about the next novel I’m writing? Well… it’s different. My novels don’t sustain my family. They just keep me sane and happy. The technical projects satisfy me, and I appreciate making a living. I will keep working on my writing and striving for that to become my next full time job, but the job I have now is a good one, even when the hours get a bit long.

Okay, that’s it. Now I have to pack a bag, so that Melissa and I can start driving as soon as we’re both done with work.