On the Telephone!?

In the Future, Everything Will Be Glue

The entry title is from Weird Science, by the way:

Gary: I was crazy for this little eighth grade bitch.
Wyatt: Crazy, Insane!
Gary: I was dedicated to this girl, I called her every damn night!
Old Pimp Dude in the Bar: You called her every night? On the telephone?
Gary: On the telephone? What's he mean on the telephone, course it was on the telephone!

In my work life, the team I'm on has been working for quite some time fixing the architecture for an existing product. One of the things we've been doing while we've been fixing things is to add a REST API. You can save the REST vs WS-* debate for some other time and place.

Meet the New Product, Same as the Old Product

Unfortunately, there was a distinct lack of excitement about the new stuff we'd been doing from other areas of the company. Programmers seem to immediately "get" why exposing all of the CRUD functionality of your system through a web API is the sheer sweetness in terms of application integration. Sales and executive staff don't always see the possibilities. They saw the new version as architecture changes that improved performance and scalability while maintaining functional parity with the shipping version. That didn't scream sexy.

The programmers, ever fearing being a cost center with a very killable project, decided to start creating proof of concept integration examples that would create internal demand for the nearly finished version.

Pretty State Machine

As background, our system has an operational state that changes the way almost everything behaves. The change in this state is typically user driven. Someone using the software would decide to change the operational state due to an external event such as a Martian invasion. The software has a web interface but we had the idea that it'd be much cooler to change the operational state via a telephone.

We can change our operational state via the REST API by putting (as in HTTP PUT) an XML document representing the system status to the server. The system status has an element that represents the operational state. Now, our IT guy is always telling me the crazy stuff he can do with his home VOIP system. He runs a virtual machine with Asterisk and other assorted software an combination with an IP phone. I ran the idea of executing a shell script from a phone menu by him and he assured me it should be easy to do.

I was working under a deadline (of course) so I created three versions of the XML (one for each state I would be changing to) and got a copy of cURL installed in the Asterisk VM to PUT each document to our server, hopefully in response to someone pressing a button on a phone. After hitting a very serious dead end and wasting several hours trying to get an IVR working (that's what phone people call those voice menus) I finally found an example of an Asterisk iTunes controller. To use it you dial an extension, hear a beep, then press a button to do something. The script in Asterisk then calls a shell script in response to your button press. Five minutes after finding it I had a working example of changing operational state in our product via a telephone (actually a softphone but who's really keeping score at this point). Booyah! Sure it only took me 10 hours discover how to do an hour or so worth of work but then that's the plight of the knowledge worker.

Demo Day

The next day we invited additional people to our iteration demo meeting (really it's just the people that were supposed to be going all along but weren't) and showed the phone demo as our finale. Suddenly, people seemed as interested in our new version of the product as the developers are. There was a palpable sense of excitement. There were tears of joy. The developers were hoisted up onto the shoulders of sales and management and carried out into the streets (think about the scene in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story).

I'm exaggerating a little bit perhaps. Of course there are all sorts of negatives preceding and following this event, but can't we just bask in the glory of this one little success for just a few moments? On the telephone.

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