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Sunday, January 18, 2009
The History of RealSkydiving
By RealSkydiving @ 4:20 PM :: 7416 Views :: 0 Comments ::
 

Since I have started to spread the word about RealDropzone™ I have had a number of email inquiries about who I am and what my background is in the Skydiving world, as well as how RealSkydiving came to be.

I began by responding with the ‘short story’, but realized that I would be better off writing up the ‘long story’, and posting it here for all.

My name is Matt Christenson.  In 2004 I was working as a chief software architect at a software firm that I had been with since 1999, Plantware Incorporated.  I had grown quickly with them and loved my job.  We wrote business applications for the horticulture industry, our primary product supported manufacturing facilities that would ship many millions of young plants a day to ‘mid growers’.  We also had a number of Business-to-Business applications that allowed the electronic submission of documents between businesses, and a few e-commerce websites for Business-to-Consumer transactions.  Wrapping my head around the complexities of managing the information required to grow millions of plants of thousands of species being sold to hundreds of clients on a monthly basis was thrilling to me, but not as thrilling as what was to come…

In June of 2004 I received a call from Shawn, a childhood a friend of mine. Shawn had moved away to college and we had not talked very often, I was surprised to hear from him.  He asked me if I remembered the conversation we had a long while back about how it would be exciting to jump out of an airplane.  Shawn was putting a group of people together to go to Skydive Chicago to make Tandem Skydives.

Skydiving was something that I had always wanted to try once, to overcome a fear and to say that it is something I had done…   So I agreed to go, and started looking for some friends locally to join our group.

Before our scheduled jump date, Shawn called me back to say that he had lost his job, and so that he and his girlfriend were going to be unable to attend, and that the other friends he had talked into going were backing out as well.  They were no longer going to go.

I had already gotten a group of 4 of us together locally and we decided that we would go anyway.  On August 1st of 2004, I rode my recently purchased 1979 Kawasaki motorcycle out to Skydive Chicago in Ottawa Illinois, thinking that this would be a one-time adventure of a lifetime…  Boy was I wrong.

When we arrived at Skydive Chicago, they were in the middle of Summerfest, an event which later became known to me as a boogie.  The number of people and planes was overwhelming.  I was expecting a rundown hangar and a couple of World War II pilots.

I jumped.  I was hooked.  I couldn’t wait to do it again.  I went out again about a month later and made my second jump, a few weeks after I entered into their Advanced Freefall Program, and completed my first 5 training jumps.  By then it was starting to get cold out and I was going to have to park my new interests until the spring.

During the winter of 2004-2005 my mind started going to work with how I could combine my long term love for software development, with my newly found love for Skydiving.  I also had to figure out how I was going to afford this new hobby.  I started thinking about things that I could do for Skydive Chicago that I could trade for the rest of my training.

At this time SDC had used a white board in the area where tandem students would wait to be paired up with instructors.  Once every 20 minutes or so a manifest employee would come out to the hangar with a hand written piece of paper, erase the white board, and write a new set of group numbers, student names, instructor names, and load numbers.  It was clearly a time-consuming task.

I made an offer to Rook and Melissa Nelson of Skydive Chicago to create an application that would allow manifest employees to enter this information on a computer inside the office, and have it automatically appear on a television monitor by the check-in area.  They agreed to trade me the rest of my student training plus a few extra gear rentals and jumps in exchange for this application.

I took a week off work and wrote “Jump Monitor”.  It was a very basic application, manifest employees would enter data one line at a time, click a publish button, and information would be displayed out in the hangar.  Despite its simplicity, it was saving a lot of time.

That year I went on to break the 100 jump mark.  I did another side project for Rook and Melissa to help fund the cost of my jump tickets, a research project to find a software product capable of handling the management of their on-site campground, one that would allow them to keep track of who was in which slots, and to allow full time residents to pay rent online.

During the winter of 2005-2006, I started brainstorming about how I could put more of my knowledge to work in the Skydiving Industry, and called a meeting between Kevin Moser the owner of Plantware, and Rook Nelson of Skydive Chicago.  The three of us talked about the possibility of creating a new online brokerage system for selling Skydiving tickets for a number of different dropzones nationally, using online advertising and sales as the backbone of the business.

Our talks led us to realize that such a project was not going to be financially feasible at the time.  We had two things going against us:

  1. The overhead cost of establishing partnerships with Dropzones would have been too high.
  2. A company by the name of Skyride, the only “successful” national skydiving ticket sales broker had been establishing a bad name in the industry for ticket brokering by participating in unscrupulous activities that was leaving both customers and dropzones very unsatisfied.

Unless we could discover a way to both reduced overhead costs AND gain the trust from that industry that we would be following a strict set of rules in the way that we advertised our services nationally there was no way this was going to happen.  The project was parked.

In the spring of 2006, I was approached again by Rook Nelson to help solve some information management problems in the office.  Tandem Reservations were being managed in too many different places.  Phone reservations were being hand written into log books, and the online reservation system they were using, TandemRS, was an online-only solution…  In order to make sure they were keeping good numbers, they had to login to TandemRS on a daily basis and copy all reservations that had been made into the hand written log books they created.  They would then need to calculate what new availability would be and update availability on the website.  This entire process was taking a lot of time, and because the end result was a hand-written log, it was time consuming to make summaries of how many students were coming in at different times.  Rook wanted me to come up with a solution that would eliminate the hand written tandem student logs.

I did a great amount of research on how SDC was using Tandem RS and JumpRun for flight manifesting, and hand written logs… I also looked for other solutions already on the marketplace that would already provide him what he was looking for.  After finding that nothing already existed I started to think about how I could solve the problem as cost effectively as possible with a new software product.

My initial idea was to create a product that would integrate with the databases of each product to tie all of the information together in one place.  I came up with a couple of prototype ideas and presented them late spring of 2006.  I began working on the program on my evenings and weekends through the summer of 2006, and took a week off of work during August during summer-fest where I ended up spending most of my time in my trailer working on the application…

It was during this time that I was starting to come to a number of realizations… 

  • I underestimated the amount of work that was going to need to go into integrating with the back ends of Tandem RS and JumpRun…  I was now essentially working for half the hourly rate I originally quoted in order to get the project done in the time I promised.
  • There is no way that I would be able to sell the solution to other dropzones because it relied on having both Tandem RS and JumpRun.  If I was ever going to be able to resell this solution (which would be adding a great amount of value to a lot of businesses) I would need to entirely replace Tandem RS and Jump Run, and that would mean a LOT of development time.
  • If I could completely replace the functionality of Tandem RS, JumpRun, and JumpMonitor with a single solution, then I would have a means to reduce the overhead required to sell tickets nationally through a national brokerage service – by allowing transactions to happen electronically through my software.   Any dropzone running the product would be able to voluntarily participate in these services with almost no administrative overhead.
  • I was enjoying my responsibilities at Plantware less and less.  We had gone through a number of staff changes and the developers I had working under me were resources that I had a hard time managing, or new hires to the company.  My heart wasn’t in the work like it used to be.

I had been able to put quite a bit of money away in the last year because I was able to lower my expenses back at home by not spending money on ‘old hobbies’, and all of the money that was going to my skydiving hobby was coming from the side work that I was doing for Skydive Chicago…  I had enough in savings that I would be able to live humbling for a year without any additional income, which would mean that I would have just enough time to complete a fully featured stand-alone application for dropzones that would not rely on other software products.

I called a meeting with Rook and shared my intentions with him.  I explained that before I pulled the trigger that because I would be on such a small budget that I may need some further financial support.  Rook agreed and set me up with not only health insurance, but also a line of credit that would last through the 2007 jump season.  In return I would spend the time that I wasn’t developing my new product to help him out with other technical responsibilities at his dropzone.

I returned from my vacation in August and gave Plantware a 6 week notice that I would be leaving the company to start my own.
In September of 2006, RealSkydiving Incorporated officially became a business, and I began architecting a product which I named RealDropzone™.

The rest of the year I spend researching architectures, and building the basic structures that would contain all of the information necessary for the product, as well as choosing a website architecture that would provide for the most flexibility, and the ability to have information synchronized between the web server and the office in such a way that if the office internet connection went down for a short period of time, that both systems remained operational.

I needed to have the online Event Registration capabilities of RealDropzone™ in place by the first of the year so that I could support registration for the 2007 National Skydiving Competition, which Skydive Chicago would be hosting.

I incorporated a service which I named “Skydive Secure”, which was going to serve as a single sign-on service to allow skydivers to use the same username and password to log into any dropzones website, so that skydiver profile information could be shared easily from one organization to another with a skydiver’s permission.  This was to be the basis of a future “online jump log and social networking site” which would automatically add any new jumps made at a dropzone running RealDropzone™ to the online jump log of a skydiver, and allow them to upload pictures and videos taken on that jump, as well as describe the jump.  I felt it important to implement this service first so that we did not run into username conflicts trying to implement it later.  The Skydive Secure service did not go over well because of a mix of privacy paranoia and cross browser technical difficulties.  The idea was eventually scrapped and removed from the product.  It was hard to let it go because of the months of time that I put into it, however I did make some longer term plans to return a similar service as an optional capability which may be returned to the product at some point if I am able to enlist the support of an organization like the USPA to demonstrate the benefit that could come from an online skydiving profile system.

In February of 2007, I attended the 2007 PIA Symposium in Reno, NV to start making some industry contacts and to get more ideas about how to build the functionality of the product.  At that time I was hoping for a late 2007 release date for the full product, and talked about it as such.

In March of 2007 Skydive Chicago’s website was already live and taking reservations for the 2007 national championships, and we begun implementing the Tandem Reservation capabilities of RealDropzone by accepting reservations online and over the phone.

The product at this point only supported tandem reservations and event management, and it was not without its problems.  The Skydive Secure service let to a lot of confusion and was not removed completely from the product until August of 2007.  Also, my online user interfaces were a little bit clunky and needed to be reworked based on feedback from customers.

The summer and fall of 2007 was spent refining the tandem reservation, accounting, and event registration capabilities of RealDropzone™.  A lot of effort also went into improving back end online marketing and search engine capabilities.

By September of 2007, I was supposed to have the product finished, but it was still lacking the most important capability of all – flight manifesting.  At this point my savings account was suffering and reached the limit on the line of credit that Rook had offered me, and so I was going to need to find some work outside of the industry to get me by.

As soon as I went on the market for part-time contract work, the response was overwhelming.  I thought it was going to be difficult and eventually lead to a bust for the product, but I found a number of organizations that were really interested in having me help out with their own software architecture issues on a part-time basis.  This eventually led to a long-term relationship with an IT training company named Hands-On-Technology-Transfer.  I began flying around the US teaching 1 week long courses in software development 1-2 weeks per month, and spending the rest of my time continuing product development for RealDropzone™.  Even now I continue to provide instructor service to HOTT on a monthly basis.

Now that I was receiving a steady income again, and in such a way that I still had 40 hours a week to spend on product development (There isn’t much else to do sitting in a hotel room at night in foreign cities)  my confidence was restored and I started to think about how I was going to be able to support the product long-term after I went live with it. 

I had remained in touch with Kevin Moser of Plantware.  Plantware had been going through some changes.  Ownership changes caused a re-organization of the company and the firm was renamed to “The Corymb Group”, additionally, the company would no longer be focusing entirely on the Horticulture industry, but had started to pick up work in other industries.  Kevin and I decided to work together once again, this time as partners, which would allow me to use the resources of TCG to help with technical support issues, service hosting, and implementations.  I now had a full support team backing the product.

With this new partnership I only had one thing left to do before the product could be released to the public… finish it!

Over the winter of 2007-2008, I was added flight manifesting capabilities to the product and reworked the Jump Monitor application that I wrote back in 2005 into the RealDropzone™ core, this time as a website based service that would allow anyone with a wireless laptop or iPhone the ability to view flight manifest information.  In the future this will be extended to allow organizers to manifest customers who have already paid for tickets and checked in for the day – using their wireless laptops in the hangar.

In spring of 2008 we implemented flight manifesting capabilities for Tandem Skydivers at Skydive Chicago…  The flight manifest portion was working great, with an easy-to-use drag and drop interface, and manifests immediately being displayed on the monitor by the Tandem waiting area…  Unfortunately, my tandem check-in capability was still lacking all of the capabilities that it needed; card-present credit card transactions, an easier ways to handle refunds and manage who has attended the tandem instructional classes

At this point we stopped using the product for Manifesting until I was able to make the tandem check-in process easier and incorporate all of the capabilities that it needed.

Over the spring and summer of 2008, I added even more capabilities to the accounting / transactions area of RealDropzone to include Gift Certificate management, Card-Present transactions, receipt printing, cash drawer integration, easier handling of refunds and account transfers, and the creation of a “to do list” based tandem check-in module to streamline the checking in of students.

In the fall of 2008 I added the capability to work with Videographers a little bit better as well.  Video sales used to be independent from Skydive Chicago and done by a separate company, but they are now being done within the same organization and so the ability to accept payment for video services was added to the product.

Additionally with anticipation of going live with the product at my second beta site, Skydive Hawaii, I began enhancing the ability to edit prices (a task which I previously had to do manually in the database) and to configure the product easily for a new installation.

As soon as business slowed down at Skydive Chicago after summer fest, we began implementing these features.  While manifesting was happening for students, instructors, and videographers, I began testing scenarios for fun jumper manifesting incorporating team manifesting (using separate team accounts), and the ability to create manifest groups, as well as the ability to check in fun jumpers before their first jump of the day to be sure that they have waivered, are licensed, and have a reserve repack that has not expired.  This is the last of the functionality that needed to be added to the product to completely replace the last application other than RealDropzone which was being used – JumpRun.

With these last pieces in place, the product is ready to go public so that dropzones all around the US (and eventually the world) can begin to start using all of the time saving capabilities of RealDropzone and benefiting from the marketing advantages of using the product.

In January of 2009, in preparation for going public with the product at the 2009 PIA Symposium in Reno, NV – I have begun creating training material which I have been posting at www.RealDropzone.com.  The bulk of this material is available in the form of training videos, which can be used to demonstrate the products capabilities in addition to quickly teaching staff how to use the product for day-to-day tasks.

My plans for 2009 are to implement the product at as many dropzones as possible, and to train support staff at The Corymb Group in supporting and implementing the product on their own, after which I will go back into development mode to begin providing new functionality beyond what the product is already capable of.

Of course if you have any other questions, feel free to contact us through one of the methods listed on the Contact Us page of our website.

Blue Skies,

Matt Christenson
 

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