At FedEx, we considered that problem for about three seconds
March 28, 2015 7:45 PM   Subscribe

The FedEx Problem: In which the author uses Euclidean geometry to determine, based on the US Population, the idea location for FedEx's giant hub in Memphis (spoiler: It's about 315 miles off). Then, the guy who wrote the original scheduling software for FedEx shows up at Hacker News with the real story, and some war stories about the founding of FedEx:
You mean the time FedEx towed one of its airplanes to the other side of a hanger to keep it out of sight of a sheriff with a lock and a chain sent to lock down the airplane as collateral for unpaid fuel bills?

You mean the time two barrels of liquids in the shop got confused and maybe some bad stuff got pumped by mistake into the hydraulic systems of some unknown number of airplanes?

The time Fred, in the Dassault DA-20 Fanjet Falcon he saved as the company executive jet, was flying, kept finding airports closed, kept flying, and finally landed but flamed out from no fuel on the runway?
posted by joshwa (38 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
 
This has some great stuff in it, thanks for posting.
posted by curious nu at 8:18 PM on March 28, 2015


Nice "spherical cow" paper, fantastic real world stories.
posted by RedOrGreen at 8:19 PM on March 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


That was an interesting read, thanks!
posted by arcticseal at 8:19 PM on March 28, 2015


lol, it is the airplane equivalent of putting antifreeze instead of G12/13 in a Volkswagen radiator.
posted by mlis at 9:06 PM on March 28, 2015


They could have saved themselves a lot of trouble just using the Location-Allocation function in a GIS.
posted by Rumple at 9:48 PM on March 28, 2015


He sounds like an interesting guy. Maybe just a little bit nutty.
posted by fivebells at 10:06 PM on March 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


No, I don't believe it. No doubt this guy worked for FedEx. But the few details he gives do not check out. He describes writing PL/I an IBM 360-67 timeshare system that would have been obsolete by the 1970s when FedEx was founded. He says he wrote it in 6 weeks while he was teaching CS classes at Georgetown. By the timing, this guy would be in his late 70s or 80s now. Yeah, these are definitely war stories, in one sense of the word: he told these stories over and over for decades and eventually he even convinced himself he won the war singlehandedly. Like this:

The time I used the differential equation

y'(t) = k y(t) ( b - y(t) )

to please our two representatives of Board Member General Dynamics, have them unpack their bags and stay after all, and, thus, saved the company?


Yeah right.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:30 PM on March 28, 2015


Google searching shows CP67/CMS systems being sold in the 1970s. FedEx was founded in 1971.
posted by eye of newt at 10:46 PM on March 28, 2015


(4) Good labor supply, e.g., for the sort center.

That, along with a lot of really flat land (the Mississippi floodplain) for future expansion. Both of those are also key to growing cotton, Memphis' previous main business.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:50 PM on March 28, 2015


Lived with a number theory grad student when I was in grad school. Fed Ex wanted him bad. They do use math a lot.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:51 PM on March 28, 2015


The last paragraph on page 20 of this article verifies his claims regarding PL/I on an IBM 360-67 timeshare:
Federal Express was renting time on an IBM 360-67 at National CSS timeshare, and Waite wrote the original code for the 360 in PL/I.
posted by fivebells at 11:13 PM on March 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


PL/I, young 'uns, was an unholy union between FORTRAN and COBOL. Yes, it was that bad. I believe this man because no one would voluntarily admit to coding in PL/I.
posted by SPrintF at 11:34 PM on March 28, 2015 [11 favorites]


The article makes it seem even more like amateur hour. They were doing spreadsheets on paper with an HP-35, and upgraded to optimization routines on 1960s IBM software.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:30 AM on March 29, 2015


If they were running deliveries on hacked-up passenger jets they had to hide from repossessors, then why wouldn't they be running business logic on whatever computer time they could get cheap?
posted by ardgedee at 3:35 AM on March 29, 2015 [5 favorites]


Like the "anything goes, chewing gum and bailing wire" startup culture is new?!
posted by wenestvedt at 4:38 AM on March 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


Sheesh - - next thing ya know, somebody's gonna start saying they have a secret arrow in their logo!
posted by fairmettle at 4:46 AM on March 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


I was taught PL/1 on an IBM 370 at Penn State in the mid-eighties, it seems perfectly reasonable that these people were using it ten years earlier.
posted by octothorpe at 5:00 AM on March 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


Be sure not to miss this video, linked to about 3/4 down the ycombinator discussion, of a fully-loaded IL-76 using every centimeter of runway for takeoff. The comment by the cameraman at the end is pretty funny.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:29 AM on March 29, 2015 [7 favorites]


(4) Good labor supply, e.g., for the sort center.

And, more specifically, labor supply in a known anti-union location. Memphis is also where RCA relocated to after its Bloomington and Camden workers successfully unionized (and then later left, once Juarez proved to be even cheaper) and where Firestone selected to set up shop (and participated in then-mayor's "reign of terror").
posted by melissasaurus at 6:59 AM on March 29, 2015 [10 favorites]


The Memphis airport is otherworldly in the early afternoon. Being paranoid about having time to find the right exit, return the rental car, etc. got there way too early for a 5:30 flight out one day. The last of the passenger planes stopped taking off around 2 or so, the airport vitually emptied out (there were maybe 5 people in my whole concourse) the FedEx plane after FedEx plane took off without interruption for the next 2 solid hours.

Then the airport filled back up with people and returned to being a normal mid-sized regional airport. It's insane how many flights FedEx flew out of there -- over 100?

I guess they all return with the next-day's deliveries in the middle of the night. I'd love to see the action inside the sorting facility some time.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:03 AM on March 29, 2015 [5 favorites]


> I'd love to see the action inside the sorting facility some time.

Here you go.
posted by ardgedee at 7:27 AM on March 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


There are times when I really wish I could talk about my work. Suffice it to say that I am currently involved in the continuation of some of the work described.
posted by grimjeer at 7:41 AM on March 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


Woah. Cinncinnati and Kansas City it could have been YOU!

Your corporate welfare managers must have been snoozing.
posted by bukvich at 7:52 AM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Could've been Little Rock, too--FedEx was founded here, but 'after a lack of support from the Little Rock National Airport' (phrasing from Wikipedia) they moved the 140 miles or so to Memphis.

A lot of people in Little Rock are still mad about this.
posted by box at 8:22 AM on March 29, 2015


And then our darling purple & orange, indomitable manifestation of efficiency, had most unholy union with the Kinkos, and we witnessed the hidden power of recessive alleles.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 8:29 AM on March 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


He certainly says "e.g." when he means "i.e." a lot.
posted by RogerB at 8:35 AM on March 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


He certainly says "e.g." when he means "i.e." a lot.

Well, language is a living thing.
posted by thelonius at 9:36 AM on March 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


A few years back UPS made an offer on Hill Air Force Base.
posted by Oyéah at 9:45 AM on March 29, 2015


Funny, when I lived there, the conventional wisdom was that FedEx (known locally as "the plantation") located there because Fred Smith was from there (effectively, Memphis being the capitol of northern Mississippi).
posted by mmiddle at 10:01 AM on March 29, 2015


mmiddle, that myth is covered in the FPP's second link.

It's a great read ... Search through it for every post by "graycat".

FYI to those that missed it (it took me three tries to find it), in the FPP's first link you click on the "PDF" link in the upper right to get to the actual paper by Dr. Morrison.

Favorited, thanks joshwa!
posted by intermod at 10:15 AM on March 29, 2015


Awesome post, thanks for sharing!
posted by radioamy at 10:52 AM on March 29, 2015


The time I used the differential equation

y'(t) = k y(t) ( b - y(t) )

to please our two representatives of Board Member General Dynamics, have them unpack their bags and stay after all, and, thus, saved the company?


Yeah right.
He expanded on that story later on in the thread if you want to disbelieve in more detail.
posted by dfan at 12:19 PM on March 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


Okay..

So, we know y(0). Let b be the revenue per day with a full system, that is, 33 full airplanes and 90 US cities. That is, we know both y(t) and b.

No, you can assume a fixed value of b, but it's still a variable. Revenue generated by a full plane depends on the items being shipped. Are the planes full of overnight letters, or samples of bricks on their way to architects? Do they have any estimates based on measurements of any completely full flights? I could assume a lot of different values of b to get an answer they like.

I have heard plenty of stories like this, they generally apply a principle that engineers call FM, short for "Fucking Magic."
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:08 PM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've worked there since 1979. I was a 19 year old college student at the time so I wasn't involved in the things he writes about but it was an exciting time. At my level everything ran on testosterone and arrogance. Or so it seemed to me. I had a blast.
posted by Carbolic at 9:16 PM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


What percentage of all those packages going through that "giant hub in Memphis" are printed documents? (Documents that presumably could be transmitted electronically except that it is legally necessary -- or just easier -- to send paper copies of those documents.)
posted by pracowity at 2:00 AM on March 30, 2015


doesn't matter where they are, or what their programming language is. fedex quite simply sucks the big one. since moving to fedex, we have been subject to CONSISTENT overcharges, late or lost deliveries, and total bullshit spewing from the mouths of their reps. they DO bring us good donuts when they stop by to lie about how they are fixing things. i gotta give them that.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 5:30 AM on March 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


charlie don't surf: "I could assume a lot of different values of b to get an answer they like."

Yeah but that's almost always happens when math and OR techniques encounter business problems. You can have the most sophisticated models and the latest and greatest solution techniques but the usual situation is that you have no good idea about the constants, especially when you're talking about future scenarios. You just have to do the best with what you got and try not to get high on your own supply (i.e.: get over-confident about your models).
posted by mhum at 11:32 AM on March 30, 2015


At least from this outsider's perspective, it seems that FedEx has IT systems that were modern enough in the 70s. They just haven't bothered to do much more than jury rig whatever new functionality is required on a mostly add hoc basis.

UPS, on the other hand, has IT that does not date to within a decade of its founding. Good thing, since there was no such thing at the time.

Today, their fundamental problem is the cancer that is eating away at the business community in general: an insane focus on this quarter's numbers. I have seen many examples of them short sightedly refusing to spend a dollar to save ten. But that's pretty much the way of the world in almost every large business, is it not? Unsurprisingly, they are in the midst of a big argument in court about whether or not the Ground/Home Delivery folks are employees or contractors. You'd think they could have spent some of the money they screwed out of their misclassified employees and the IRS to modernize their IT, but no. Stock price is more important.
posted by wierdo at 9:23 PM on March 31, 2015


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