The Great Reboot

Back in 2011 I started a mobile application project for bartenders. I called it RegularDB, a mobile-friendly website designed to connect bartenders and anyone in the Service Industry to their regular customers. The name never really caught on (I was very clearly inspired by IMDB), but the idea was sound. Before Facebook Pages came along, this would be a way to connect with customers (and vice versa) without sharing personal details, photos of kids, etc.

The most attractive part of this concept was, I was not going to charge bartenders anything for this. The idea was, if anyone in the service industry (or anyone with a mobile clientele, really) was working some place, whether behind a bar, in a kitchen, cutting hair, doing nails, whatever, their regular customers would likely come and find them. Who doesn’t want to go to a place where at least the working person you’re there to see knows your name? At a time when “hyper local” was a thing, the ability to bring customers to a locality meant nearby businesses were interested in reaching them. The plan was simple, the interest was there. The problem, if any, was that bartenders and others in the service industry didn’t see the value of maintaining yet another connection with yet another tool to their regular customers. I was inserting myself into an existing ecosystem without an obvious ROI.

Then, one day I went to Edgewood Eats, a food truck event held in an old grocery store parking lot in Palo Alto, Calfornia. I had been invited to join in with a friend of mine who was putting together his podcast and persona, FoodTruckNerd, and so we did… I met a few of the owners and everything clicked. Food trucks have the same challenge as anyone in the service industry. Regular customers, hectic and sometimes-changing schedules, last-minute changes added to that, and a strong need to maintain that connection to those regular customers regardless of those hectic changes in time and location.

RegularDB became FoodTruckYP, a platform to connect Organizers of events, the event Hosts, and those Regular Customers, all to the Food Trucks in the middle. The Y Plexus was born!

So some time in late 2011 and up until April 8, 2013, I was tireless, I was relentless. I worked on 5 different food trucks (Miso Hungry, PorkysSJ, ArabianBites, ForbittenCity, and of course, Mayo & Mustard), I helped to organize events, I worked with event organizers and got to know the major and minor players in the SF Bay Area.

Luckily Becky on Mao & Mustard was a willing graphic artist…

Eventually, I was part of a small group of owners that put together an owners’ association called Bay Area MFVA, and we even linked up with Matt Geller from SoCalMFVA to work toward a state wide organization. I went with Matt and Bert Gall to USF, Berkeley, and Stanford Law Schools and talked about Mobile Food Regulation, and I worked with city councils in Sunnyvale and Mountain View as they re-evaluated their zoning regulations for mobile food.

Somewhere in there, I was learning and coding. I would take the code I had written, push it to my work-in-progress website, then visit a food truck event and show my owner buddies the new drop to get immediate feedback. Much like a food truck owner on their truck talking directly to customers, I was going directly to my own [future] customers and getting their feedback directly. By the way, these are seminal skills that come in handy every day all the time and made my eventual job with Intel that much more interesting…

Along the way I learned a lot about a lot of the technologies in play at the time. Google Maps was not new, but it was still on the leading edge and Google had exposed all of what I can only call Magic in the form of the maps APIs, the geocoder, the streetview panorama… while Google Earth was still an experimental app that wasn’t so easy to use, and with the iPhone only out for a short while at this point, Maps was where it was at, and they supported a whole suite of KML features that enabled me to point a user toward a KML-formatted XML file and have my food truck data appear directly on a Google Map display! How cools was that?

At that point I was in full experimental mode. With all of this stuff rolling out all over the place, the world of web APIs, jQuery Mobile enabling web development that would function across desktop and mobile devices… it was almost too nerdy. Custom markers and BBox manipulation for direct rendering of KML was easy at that point. A long-lost demo of placement of a food truck image into Google StreetView was definitely an eye-opener. And the little details kept coming into play as well… posting on Twitter automatically? Easy. Capturing more and more data about vendors and vehicles and venues? No problem.

The Twitter Robot app icon, and a mobile-friendly description of your Food Truck for the database…

At this point it was almost effortless to render data any way I wanted to. At a time when Facebook’s GraphAPI was still young and innocent, they enabled creation of events externally (now it takes some hackery and FB no longer actually supports this in the API, unfortunately… or is this better in the end?). Obviously, automatic generation of Facebook event posts and status updates, tweets, maps and KML files, emails, and whatever else I could think of was a piece of cake once the data was present.

Your logo marker is easy, and so is generating Kindle-friendly content about food trucks…

Along the way I discovered one of the truly troubling aspects of being an Engineer in Silicon Valley (or anywhere, for that matter). While normally the triad of trouble exists within a tech company (Engineering, Marketing, Sales), all at odds with each other, keeping each other off kilter with an uncomfortable form of Checks and Balances, an Engineer working on a self-directed project, or worse, a self-directed passion project, has free reign over the addition of features! What you see above is a drop in the bucket! There was no weird thing too oddball to try out, and every time I spoke to a food truck owner at an event (or while I was working on a truck), yet another idea or feature request would find its way onto the stack.

From a simple whiteboard diagram to one of many pages of UML…

I was fast-approaching a usable state of the web app… a soft launch was on the horizon, at long last! I had given up on hanging out at the coffee shop since everybody there wanted to know when I was going to launch and what additional features I could add. Every food truck owner was asking the same question, “Is it ready?”

Then, at about 2am on April 8, 2013, there was a rather drastic change of plans. Luckily I had just gotten home and had drifted off to sleep on the couch in the front room. I was fully clothed, and my phone had fallen on the floor as I dozed off, awoken a few minutes later by banging on the windows and doors and frantic yelling outside. I went out through the back door, on the side where the real drama was to be found, and thus began my Homeless Experience.

Could have been much, much worse

While I lost a lot of stuff and everything I was able to keep would smell like a campfire and leave a black residue on anything and anyone it came in contact with, I was fine, and I did get my phone thanks to a friendly firefighter. For a while all I had was my phone, my car (luckily it was parked closer to the street away from the flames) and the clothes I was wearing. I didn’t lose my code, but I did lose the ability to access all of my surviving possessions which were now stuck in a condemned structure. It would be 3 weeks until I could get to anything, with an email from the property owner advising me to be careful since the fire fighters had taken down the ceiling, leaving “a little bit of asbestos everywhere.”

I grew a beard.

I searched for a place to live.

I recovered some of my stuff and put it in storage.

Eventually it became apparent that Silicon Valley and I were no longer friends, so I figured Las Vegas would be a reasonable place to move. This lead me to work for Intel as a Software Architect which brought me to various places around the world in my role in the Maker Innovator Group, wherein I met Makers of all ages in all places doing all things. And of course, there is always mobile food vending.

Mobile food in Eindhoven AND in Amsterdam
Mobile food in Rome at Maker Faire (yes, delicious)

There is mobile food everywhere! I went to Dubai and as it turns out, there is a Food Truck Explosion going on there. If someone can bring a concept of any kind into a reasonable form to serve from a mobile kitchen, it is being done, now or soon. It’s that simple!

I have always been surprised to learn that there really aren’t the tools around to help with this. I mean what I could call Carrier Grade tools… the kind of stuff where some real architecture is created, some real design and implementation take place. Yes, there are tools out there, but my vision remained and as I wandered around to different countries and around the US, my desire to get back to what I really, really wanted to do was nagging at me.

And then the layoffs came. Intel decided to reduce its force of employment around the world by 12,000 people or so, and I took them up on it. I blew the dust off of my old code base, started converting from jQuery Mobile to Bootstrap, re-jiggered the old database schema, and re-connected with vendors, organizers, and hosts all over the place. Back to my old habits, I’ve been bringing the code up to speed AND catching up with some of the needs that have thus far gone un-answered.

And so, FoodTruckYP is about to reboot… let us see if this works!