Life at Viam
November 28, 2023

Empowering Viam Software Engineers to Innovate: The 20% Project Program

Written by
Emily Egan
Head of People

At Viam, we believe that building good software starts at home. Our aim is to simplify the building, monitoring and data management of smart machines and robots, and there is no better test ground than our own engineers!

For this reason, we created the 20% Project Program where our own engineers can spend 20% of their time at work tinkering on side projects. The only criterion: that they use Viam to bring them to life.

This hands-on approach allows our developers to better use and understand our product suite, find bugs, fix usability issues, and make Viam a greater platform, all while flexing their creativity. Let’s take a look at some of the participating software engineers, their projects, and learnings below. 

Meet the Innovators - Our Engineers' Projects

Ethan Look's Air Quality Rover

Ethan Look, Ojima Abraham, Zack Porter holding their creation. Project Team Members not pictured: Anjali Nainani, Nat Hartman, and Roxy Farhad.

As a Senior Engineer on the Fleet Management team, Ethan Look’s day-to-day involves enhancing Viam’s app and the Modular Registry, an open-source database for developers to easily access hardware components and algorithms.

While his primary role focuses on updates and improvements, he regularly collaborates on innovative projects with cross-functional teams. That’s where his Air Quality Rover comes in.

“Doing a 20% Project is an opportunity to use the Modular Registry and to see what it’s like to actually deploy code to your robot and package what you built into something that’s reusable.” - Ethan Look

The rover's purpose is straightforward: to autonomously navigate the office, collect data, and create a dashboard on air quality and other environmental metrics, such as temperature, humidity, pressure, and various gasses. 

“I had the opportunity to understand how the system works being the user of Viam, and it is completely different,” Ethan explained. 

Michael Lee's Working Wheel:

Michael Lee standing proudly with his Working Wheel. 

Another standout project coming from a Senior Engineer on the Fleet Management team is Michael Lee's Working Wheel, a tool integrating with Google Calendar to display availability. The wheel lets people know if you are in a meeting, working from home, on vacation, or have an open calendar.

“The goal is really to test the Micro-RDK, which is in Beta"...“I got to write my own Micro-RDK component to support this specific project.” - Michael Lee

The Micro-RDK is a lightweight version of the Robot Development Kit (RDK): a highly-requested feature mainly due to the low-cost of using microcontrollers. By leveraging an ESP32 rather than another board, he is saving roughly 10x the cost. 

For all those interested in building your own Working Wheel, stay tuned. He said, “I plan on making it open source so it can be usable by others.”

Emily Hong and Devin Hilly's Sticker Wizard:

Emily Hong and Devin Hilly showing off their sticker vending machine.

Emily Hong, an Engineer on Fleet Management, and Devin Hilly, a Senior Engineer on the Data & Machine Learning Team, partnered together to create a sticker vending machine called Sticker Wizard. After a user completes a personality test on their app, a relevant sticker designed by Viam’s Head of Brand & Design, Cristina Gomez, will be dispensed.

Devin arranging the stickers within Sticker Wizard.

“I was pleasantly surprised by how little I had to learn about hardware to do the project,” said Devin. “You don’t have to write any specialized software [by using Viam] at all, which is cool.”

Impact of the 20% Project Program

Uncovering and Solving Real Challenges

Through these projects, our engineers have identified and resolved numerous platform issues, preemptively addressing potential customer challenges.

“Some of the bugs I have found I feel like customers [might have] eventually encountered, so I’m glad to have found it before it blocks someone.”- Michael Lee

Enhancing Engineer Expertise

Participants have reported significant growth in their understanding and skills, translating to better predictions and integrations in their professional roles.

“It’s so helpful to really understand our full product when I don’t have hardware experience"...“I'm able to predict things better and understand how things fit together.” - Emily Hong

Ethan agrees. “I’ve never learned about how SLAM works [before], but I get the chance to get my hands dirty with it [now] and learn a lot about how building maps and localization works. I wouldn’t get that opportunity otherwise.”

Cultivating Team Spirit and Innovation

The program fosters a strong team dynamic, with teams deciding how and when they meet: from weekly meetings to company-wide happy hours. These sessions not only serve as progress checkpoints but also as a platform for team building and fun trivia games related to the projects.

Check out some of the Happy Hour trivia below.

Three of the questions asked to the entire Viam team before Happy Hour.

Embracing Our Core Value: Lead with Curiosity

At Viam, curiosity is at the heart of innovation. The 20% Project Program embodies this principle, encouraging engineers to explore and improve our platform, ultimately benefiting our entire company. 

“We are always working on building the best platform we can, and the more that every engineer gets the opportunity to engage with it, the better the platform will be.” - Ethan Look

Interested in learning more about Viam and our projects? Visit our website and follow our journey as we redefine smart machine and robot management. And, if you’d like to join this innovative team, head to our careers page.

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