At Fastmail, we believe in helping people live a connected and enriching life. Our workplace culture is one where everyone can contribute their diverse interests and talents, like Joe, a Fastmail developer whose Vestaboard project brings joy to our global team.
One day, Fastmail CTO Ricardo Signes came to me and said, “If you can be sworn to secrecy, I may have a fun skunkworks project for you.” In the tech world, skunkworks projects are a slang term for the type of secret, fun work that tends to produce innovation.
At the time, I didn’t know what Rik was referring to, but I immediately said yes.
After this exchange, Rik told me three exciting things: that he just bought a Vestaboard for the Philly office, that we’d be able to write code for it, and that he already had some project ideas.
Vestaboard is a company that creates split-flap displays. These are large signs that look like the kind of information you’d see at, say, a train station: it’s a grid of individual cells, each of which contains a single letter. These boards have a unique, industrial feel to them while still making the physical space you put them in feel welcoming and creative.
The first problem we tackled was creating a way for Fastmail team members to use the Vestaboard easily.
Rik’s idea was to give each employee “tokens” to allow them to change the Vestaboard over time, and to lock the board from being changed for a little while after someone posts their design to prevent the board from immediately being overwritten. This meant that we couldn’t just use the existing Vestaboard app to edit designs to put on the board; we had to create something ourselves.
At Fastmail, we have common platforms that everyone who works here uses, one of which is Slack. We have a Slack bot, Synergy, that we’ve developed over time to help us get stuff done. Synergy allows us to talk about support tickets, our working hours and availability, and now gives us the ability to create and edit Vestaboard designs in a small web application.
I was lightly inspired by the New York Times Crossword app and, at Rik’s suggestion, I added a mode to allow you to type numbers to add colors to your design.
This was immediately a hit—even our colleagues in Australia and other locations loved making a quick design and posting it to our Vestaboard in our Philadelphia office. However, we soon realized that we wanted a way for everyone to see what was on the Vestaboard, not just the people in Fastmail’s Philly HQ.
I took two pictures of the Vestaboard: one with no characters displayed and one depicting each possible character. Then, I edited these to turn them into images that could be combined together and wrote a small image server that takes the state of the Vestaboard and returns an image. This image is composed on-the-fly, representing what people are seeing in real life.
Any Fastmail employee around the world can ask our Slack bot to show them the current state of the Vestaboard, and the bot will use the image server to display the board in Slack. Instant delight!
If you look closely at that image of the board above, you’ll see that the characters don’t all have the same lighting, but I feel like that slight uncanny edge makes you realize each time that this is a “real” digital representation of what’s going on in our space in real life.
We’re all having a lot of fun with the Vestaboard—we love welcoming new people into our office with a greeting that everyone can see when they walk in the door. It feels great when there’s a message for you on your birthday or your work anniversary. And it’s a nice way for all of us to be reminded of important things coming up, like all-hands meetings or other important information. But it’s not always serious—those small memes that tend to spiral out of control are ten times funnier when printed nearly two feet tall. Some of the designs that people have put together are seriously impressive, too.
I’m delighted to have been able to build something that gives everyone in the office this unique space to be creative.
If you or someone you know might be a good fit for the Fastmail team, check out our jobs page for information about our current job openings.
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