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Thoughts On Innovation

I know a thing or two about innovation – my first job out of college was at the leading “eBusiness Systems Innovator.” In a world filled with systems integrators, we were doing something different (or so we had convinced ourselves). In reality, neither our business model nor our output was particularly innovative when looked at as a whole body of work. Our founders and executives were incredibly shrewd businessmen who saw an opportunity to build a large high-priced consulting services firm, and that is what they did. I’m pretty sure that had been done before (in fact, one of the founders had just come from starting a high-priced consulting services firm), and I’m pretty sure that has been done since. Lots of people made a lot of money, but no one invented a whole new class of business. As for our output, we were mostly building web apps for existing businesses that wanted to go online during the dot-com boom. We talked about shifting paradigms and sending tanks through walls (that was supposed to be a metaphor for something), and I am sure that many of the projects had many pieces of innovation, but on the whole, this was not truly innovative work.1

What innovation is

I see innovation breaking down into two forms:2

  1. Conceptualizing new functionality or processes that have not been tried before, and then making them a reality.
  2. Using creative thinking to come up with solutions to business or technical problems that otherwise would not be solvable using the status quo process or tools.

I have been fortunate to see both types of innovation first hand.

The first form of innovation most boldly shows up as a brilliant new product that has never been built before, or a twist on an existing product that opens up wide an entirely new market. It does not have to be an entirely new idea (as if there is such a thing), but it does have to be a novel enough application or extension of an existing idea that it ends up seeming like it is a ground-breaking new idea. I’ve been a part of two of these types of innovations in the past.3 It is a very fulfilling experience to work in a market that your company or product established.

The second form of innovation is arguably more important to engineering at all companies. It shows up in small ways, but it is incredibly important to foster this form within a team of engineers. Through this form of innovation, a company becomes more efficient at its work and sometimes even accomplishes goals it could not have otherwise. At Opower, engineers have extended JUnit and Spring’s use of annotations to build Opower-specific test runners that have made writing tests easier. One of our engineers completely rethought how we organize our Spring context definitions which has led to a more easily understandable and navigable set of files; this does not sound like sexy innovation whatsoever, but if we had continued on the path of adding new context files without much forethought, we would just be slowing ourselves down as time went on. On the front-end of our applications, two engineers built a filter that could display the original message property name of every piece of text in our webapp, so that we could easily identify what needed to change for internationalization. All pretty cool stuff, none of which was required as functionality by the business, but all of which was required for the business.

What innovation is not

There is a dark side to innovation, too, though it is really just a dark side to the word itself. I have unfortunately had engineers on my teams use the term as a means to defend their decisions. For example, I have been accused of stifling innovation, because I have not agreed that we should use a new database technology for a particular solution. In my position, my disagreement meant that we were not going to use the database (that’s just how it is sometimes). The point is that the desire to learn and use a new tool does not equate to innovation. I am fully supportive of learning, but sometimes a thriving business is not the right context in which to take a chance on a technology you have not used before. Regardless, this is not innovation.

In conclusion

Practice innovation, especially as an addition to your daily work. Look at what you can build better and be creative about how you do it. Come up with new solutions to existing problems and improve your company, a little at a time.

  1. Scient was an amazing experience for many other reasons, despite it not really being a center of business innovation. There were a lot of very smart, very dedicated, very talented people who I worked with; the marketing team was absolutely brilliant; the onboarding and cultural teams were amazing. I learned a ton in my brief year and a half there. On top of it all, many of my friends today are friends I made at Scient straight out of college. 

  2. There are many different types of innovation that apply to all areas of a business. Geoffrey Moore writes about innovation across the full spectrum of a business in “Dealing with Darwin”. In this discussion, I am focusing on innovation as it specifically applies to a product-focused software engineer. Hopefully that is a narrow enough focus that I can actually cover the topic. 

  3. At Edusoft, we created a plain paper answer sheet scanning system that improved upon the incumbant standardized test answersheets and hooked up to our analytics webapp that allowed parents, teachers, and school administrators to review how their students were performing. At Opower, we took a small behavioral science experiment run by Professor Robert Cialdini and made it into a global energy savings platform.