August 26, 2016
Many people think that interns are just hired to perform grunt work and other repetitive tasks, but that is not the case at PointSource. Instead, PointSource provides a distinctly unique culture. Software Engineer Interns are welcomed into the office culture the same as any full-time employee, provided with valuable office-life experience and tasked with developing an entire application from start to finish.
We all arrived at PointSource from different universities with different levels of technical experience but were all eager to kick off the internship with our new coworkers and fellow interns. After our onboarding process, which was very similar to that of a full-time employee, we were tasked with implementing a system that tracks the amount of snacks consumed in the office cafe, a centerpiece of the PointSource culture. During the first week of our project, which we call SnackTrack, we participated in many different technical tutorials that allowed us to learn the technologies used within the company and ones that we would utilize throughout our project. In addition, we met with employees from different departments of the company to understand how we as developers would interact with coworkers while completing our project.
As we began the project we quickly realized our responsibilities were extensive. Our project began with only a few soft requirements but as we evolved the project and it’s goals, we were able to better define the scope of work, what we would showcase and the technologies that would be needed to accomplish all of this. One of the main aspects of this project was making use of IoT technologies (Arduino, Raspberry Pi and Node-RED) in order to track the snack consumption.
The task seemed simple in theory: build a device that knows when someone removes a snack from a basket; but, in reality, many unexpected problems arose that had to be solved. Setting up custom hardware for this unique task was one of the most rewarding things we worked on, but hardware is not perfect. One of our main challenges was the inaccuracies in the scale hardware itself. Overcoming this challenge required many attempts to reduce noise in the data, handle users attempting to throw off the data collected and optimize many of the algorithms we came up with. In the end, the project consisted of a working prototype, a graphical display to show the data being collected, and a tablet that explained the project in more detail.
SnackTrack started off as a way to learn about different IoT technologies with the goal of being able to track snacks in the PointSource cafe, however, the root concept of the project has many real world business applications. One of the easiest ways this project could be put into practice is via an inventory system to track consumption of an item or items. Load cells can be easily purchased for just about any size project, even offering industrial-sized load cells. As a part of our project, a considerable amount of data is recorded daily and made accessible for later use. While not explored in this current project, it would be very easy to analyze and cross-reference the data that is collected. This analysis could be used in many situations, such as determining whether a bartender is pouring too much of a certain alcohol, how much food is being put on each plate at a restaurant or how quickly a certain item is being consumed. The data collected could also be cross-referenced against other factors such as whether a holiday was near, the temperature outside and many other options. While the scope of the project was small, there are many avenues which could be explored to make the data collected by a system like this more useful for many different businesses.
Throughout the internship, we were faced with challenges and often times we were able to solve them on our own, but in the moments we needed assistance, we were guided by many skilled PointSource developers, always more than happy to help. PointSource gave us valuable experience, expanded knowledge and skills, and gave us a platform to create SnackTrack, a tool with potential real world business applications that was a great learning experience.