Jack Bauer Day – Spurring Innovation

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“I know what it's like to feel like it's never going to end.” – Jack Bauer

One of the challenges which face many world-class engineering organizations is how to maintain an atmosphere of innovation while still delivering on customer commitments and scheduled releases. During the early stages of a start up innovation is rampant; there are typically no customers to worry about, no backward compatibility issues and no upgrade paths to test.

As a company matures I have seen many engineering teams stagnate, innovation slows down, and morale suffers. As a VP of Engineering I spend time on the lookout for the warning signs, at Voltage we are blessed with a strong highly motivated team.

Recently within the Voltage engineering team we held our first “Jack Bauer Day.” 24 hours of the engineering team doing anything they wanted to do. From 9 am in the morning of February 2nd (2/4 for all us in the USA) until 9 am in the morning of February 3rd the team had free rein with very little direction. The one condition: you had to present what you worked on to the rest of the team.

It was fascinating to watch how ad hoc teams formed; perhaps one of the most interesting was a team of three engineers who took on the task of developing Format Preserving Encryption on regular expressions as described by Bellare, Ristenpart, Rogaway and Stegers in their Format-Preserving Encryption paper.

Within the allocated time period the team was able to demonstrate features such as:

Given a regular expression R describing a regular language and a plaintext p which matches R, then p can be encrypted to a ciphertext c which also matches R and has the same length as p, and c can be decrypted back to p. For example:

Plaintext: jobs@voltage.com

Ciphertext: 3y90zagb@2GMK.com

Decrypted ciphertext: jobs@voltage.com

The team then expanded the initial implementation with some different length encryption. Given regular expressions R1 and R2 (each describing a regular language, with certain restrictions on R2) and a plaintext p which matches R1, then p can be encrypted to a ciphertext c which matches R2 (with varying options for the length of c), and c can be decrypted back to p.

For example:

Plaintext: 4005 Miranda Ave, Palo Alto, CA, 94043

Ciphertext: 8 Bauzvvbuwg Dr, Szptny Oqo, AZ, 25601

It never ceases to amaze me what a small team of focused engineers can achieve if left alone.

Was Jack Bauer day a success? Yes absolutely. We will be holding them on a regular basis.

Acknowledgments: Portions of this post was taken from team rugby’s write up of their Jack Bauer day.

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