Monday, November 2, 2015

In the Field - Starbucks Hack Day 2015

          Finally, I get to write a piece more journalism-oriented than philosophical. This is to be contrasted, of course, with the various film reviews and philosophical pieces that I have done so far. In fact, it is a slight relief to finally be able to write a piece like this, insofar as I keep saying that I will do something with a journalism slant to it only to not have produced one up to this point. One of the virtues of doing a piece like this is that, insofar as it is more or less a report of something that has transpired, there will be less commentary and more explanation, which will make for a shorter piece. This is particularly so since this event wasn't that large (though nonetheless notable). Perhaps this will even be a piece that I can get done in one sitting (turns out, it wasn't). And on that note, I present my findings on Starbucks Hack Day 2015.
          This past Tuesday, October 27th, Starbucks hosted their annual Hack Day at their global headquarters in Seattle. The event was open primarily to employees, but there was, no doubt, a handful of visitors that had the opportunity to attend. And as can be implied by the previous sentence, if it wasn't made clear by my user profile or previous posts, I am a Starbucks employee based at the Starbucks Center in Seattle. I was fortunate enough to convince my supervisor to let me take a chunk of my normal shift to attend the event. I had only heard of the event a few days prior, so I still wasn't quite sure what to expect; the name of the event, for example, implied something along the lines of the DefCon or Black Hat conferences, which, as someone with a side interest in mathematics and the cyber underground, initially piqued my curiosity (this is not to say that I actually expected Starbucks Hack Day to be anything remotely close to DefCon). At the same time, the flyers for the event were done in such a way as to make the event seem more like an arts-and-crafts workshop than any kind of conference or event of that nature. In either case, I still felt like it would make for a nice topic to report on (in addition to being a nice reprieve from my usual duties that day), so I was inclined to attend nonetheless.
          The event took place in a moderately large conference hall on the 3rd floor of the Starbucks Center. Like any other convention or conference, there were booths set up where employees (internally referred to as "partners") were able to demonstrate whatever idea or innovation that they had been working on. Slightly to my disappointment, it wasn't so much of a hacking conference so much as it was a technology and innovation showcase, which is still certainly notable. Mobile apps seemed to be the overarching theme of the event, with the vast majority of the booths showing some kind of new iOS or Android application targeted at both customers and employees alike.
          The first demo I was able to take part in was called "Get Rollin'", a training application for new baristas designed by Steve Walker, Jason Stoff, and Bill McNeil. This particular application took advantage of the tilting sensor feature in iOS devices (iOS veterans may be familiar with this function from games like Naught or Zombie Highway). Essentially, this particular application constituted a game where new partners would have to carefully guide a silver ball along a path of tiles floating in space without falling off the side. The catch is that the path would occasionally fork, presenting the budding barista with a decision of which path to take, where each path in the fork would correspond to a possible answer to a Starbucks training question. Answer the question incorrectly and the path would disappear under the ball and it would be game over. In one way, there is actually the potential here for something truly immersive; somehow, either through the raw design of the aesthetics or the core gameplay concepts, I was reminded of Playstation's Intelligent Qube from 1997, which, in retrospect, was something of a work of art. At the same time, I found myself questioning the value of such an application; as someone who spent years working in restaurants and coffee shops while I was a student, the training required for such labor isn't particularly difficult or complex, so one is left to wonder to what extent such an app is really necessary. And even it does help a new employee train for their position, it seems as if it would wear out its usefulness once the employee has finished training. Ultimately, "Get Rollin'" was a great concept, and it certainly stood out from the rest of the applications on display, but perhaps the concept would better be served as a full-fledged game as opposed to being confined to a training app.
          After briefly playing around with the "Get Rollin'" app, I was ushered over to the booth for an application called "Markout!", designed by Stephen Ramirez, Nicole Tidwell, Diane Kerstein, David Gutierrez, and Zachary Camara. Again, this was another app targeted at Starbucks employees mostly for internal use, though I should say that there were some features of it that, if expanded on, would make for an interesting app for consumers. Essentially, this app functions as a reminder for employees to take advantage of their employee discounts. Pretty straightforward, though I admit that I am slightly scared to think that partners need to be reminded to take advantage of one of their most basic perks. What makes this app particularly interesting is a kind in-built stat tracker; an employee can input the information for the product that he or she used the discount for and then the app can make recommendations based on the user's habits. For example, if an employee used his or her discount to get a bag of a particular kind of dark roast, then the app uses that data to make suggestions for the following week, based on such things as roast, growing region, and so on. The data tracking portion of this app struck me as having vast potential; if it were reimagined in an app for consumers, it could potentially illustrate which of the various nuances of a coffee's flavor profile American consumers really enjoy, as well as serve as a kind of introduction into the world of coffee for the layperson.
          After getting the demo for the "Markout!" app, I continued to meander about the hall until I came to "Siren's Echo", designed by Tom Fernandez. The crowd around this booth was particularly large, and it didn't take me long to see why. This was a significant departure from the other apps on display; "Siren's Echo" showcased a kind of voice recognition software. Simply put, whatever someone would say into a microphone, the "Siren" would say back in a calm, clear woman's voice. One can't help but think of Apple's Siri technology when watching the demo. And while the technology itself was nothing new (again, Siri is, more or less, a full-fledged artificial intelligence, way more advanced than the "Siren"), it's applications struck me as the more important thing here. For example, one could image this technology replacing the headsets and baristas at a drive-thru store, more or less leaving the ordering process in the drive-thru automated. Or, more in line with Siri and the theme of mobile devices, this technology could be integrated into the mobile app for consumers, so they no longer have to navigate complex menus to place an order over the Starbucks app. It wasn't particularly clear which system architecture this software was optimized for, iOS or Android (or maybe I just missed it), but, since the increasingly ubiquitous Starbucks app is on both platforms, I would imagine that, if "Siren's Echo" develops into something bigger, it would be available on both.
          These were only three of the apps on display this past week, though these were the ones that stood out to me more, mostly for the aforementioned reasons. There was a contest at the end of the event where attendees got to vote on their favorite booth, but, for various reasons, I wasn't able to stick around to see the winner. However, this piece hopefully provides a brief glimpse into the technological developments taking place event at a company as retail and consumer-focused as Starbucks. I was also able to get some photos of the event, some of which I will attach to this post, and others I will post under the "Photography" label, marking my first foray into the intersection of writing and photography.

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