A year in the life of a jet-setting innovator

I've been flying around for the last year in aid of my latest project, and I just realised I hadn't documented any of it, so here goes...

I'm writing this with Trent Reznor's The Social Network soundtrack in the background (it helps me think and just felt apt). Do I feel like a budding entrepreneur on the brink of developing something amazing, sometimes. Do I feel like I'm the only one who understands the true vision of the thing We've been trying to devise, sometimes. Have I been working with a truly awesome and talented team throughout, definitely. Have I lived a great life thus far, no, We've been slogging our guts out, giving up our personal lives for the chance to make our project a success, but there have been smiles along the way. Where to really begin?

I might as well start at the beginning (I guess this is going to end up as another essay rather than a brief post). I love working for who I do, the projects I get given are always interesting, the people I work with are great, and I constantly feel like I'm doing things which make an impact into the products we sell, but the company (like many) has been going through hard times in terms of the recession and an increasingly aggressive industry, and the atmosphere at times is a little tough with people wondering where cuts will be.

In January last year (2010) there was an announcement that an innovation programme would be created, and a selection of people from around the company would be brought to Silicon Valley (Santa Clara, CA) for 2 months and would be given the chance to work on new product concepts around the topic of 'cloud'. There was a test, a set of questions aimed at getting an idea of whether we had the skills and ingenuity needed to make the programme a success. I recall a couple of questions about programming (what does this Go code do, why does this code crash and how would you fix it) along with a few about architecture.

I was forwarded the news item from a few different directions, nudging me to apply, but I didn't know if I wanted to leave my friends and girlfriend for such a long time. The California timezone isn't the most social for communications with Europe. Eventually, after putting a message on Jaiku & Twitter I got the suggestion "why not take Miia with you?"... genius!

So, on the last day of applications I sat down, quickly answered the questions and sent it off. Eventually got notified that I'd got through the first round, then a phone interview, then told I'd made it through, and away we went to California.

Now, The time in San Francisco wasn't the best for Miia, having a hard time to work remotely with the huge time difference, and not having any way to go more than 100m from the hotel room because of busy roads and motorways (bad hotel location), I feel really bad that I couldn't make her time there more exciting.

My initial feeling on arrival was mostly "I'm finally here, where all the companies I admire are", and our first drive down the 101 seeing the Oracle, Cisco and many other huge company office blocks, and the Zynga billboards (still don't 'get' their products) you could tell we were in the right place.

After the first morning of getting acquainted with the area, a little walk to a viewing spot of The Valley and some motivational speeches, we were set to work, with our brand new 15" Macbook Pros... count me happy!

What followed was 9 weeks of obsession... 60 hour weeks (at least), not including weekends, a constant reminder of the time running out thanks to a 'XX days left' countdown near the entrance. Every week having to show progress through the ritual of a 'Friday demo', this was Scrum taken to the extremes. The first week was fun, getting our feet, getting into the spirit of things and starting from scratch several times in terms of our vision. By week 4 we were all noticing how much time we were spending in the office, and how we weren't really experiencing the area at all. By the final week there had been people ill from stress, others falling asleep while eating... We had given our all, both physically and mentally.

That was last March-May, and the result was 6 service prototypes, 4 of which moved to the next phase: Productisation.

At the start of the next phase I was given the chance to be the lead for my project. The last 8 months have been exciting, stressful, irritating, draining, and productive. Sometimes individually, sometimes all at once. My first experience of managing a team (including several people who would usually be considered senior to me) has been very much a case of 'thrown in at the deep end', a team of 10 developers and 3 (then 4) marketing people.

The location for the last 8 months was Berlin. Fairly central, but having to travel every other week for 6 months wears a bit thin, not only personally, but for family and friends who never know where you are. In that time I've made 21 trips - that's 42 flights (a couple for personal trips), spent a total of 92 days in Berlin (while having seen next to nothing of the city's sights), and had approximately 3 weeks where my working hours were less than 45 hours. It's simply unsustainable, but we've done what needed to get the project made.

Splitting my time between the duties I had as Product Owner (in the Scrum sense) for the R&D team and the responsibilities I had in making sure the strategy and marketing message went in the right direction was very tough, and continues to be to this day. Something I have found, however, is that the developers require less management than marketing (at least in my case), even though there are more developers (I guess I'm lucky to have a talented team of developers) the strategy and marketing side of things is somewhat newer to me, so trying to keep the reins tight on those topics was a lot more of a challenge. I also attribute to that the fact that the developers (to some extent) have experience being customers of the kind of service we're trying to create, where the marketing team perhaps didn't, and were more experience with selling traditional products our company makes, which is hard to compare with.

The result of the last 8 months is what I would call a good beta product release. I mean that as a compliment, I think the amount of progress in such a short time (compared with our company's usual time-scales) with a pretty small team is incredible. I think we have a viable product that's competitive in our market, and has the potential for greatness. In short, I think we've caught up with our competitors in technical terms. We still have a little way to go with the marketing side, but the progress in that area has been amazing, considering the traditional background of the team.

So, that's a lot of build-up, and a quick overview of my time so far. I may go into more details about certain aspects in different posts.

My advice for innovation programme managers

Your primary duty is to remove obstacles of any kind from the people who are creating the valuable assets. Remember that in such a big business things get slow from additional processes put in place to ensure people don't take advantage of resources because things can't be micro-managed so easily from higher-levels. Contrast that to the fast-paced world of a startup, where financial, resource and strategy decisions can happen overnight, and frequently. One example to make you think... how long in your organisation would it take to get a bank account and Paypal account set up? Startups would take 10 minutes, but add in SAP, SOX and layers of legal and finance & control personnel and the inevitable delays happen.

Don't micro-manage over each team's strategy until it's mature. Be an advisor, by all means, but do not for one moment pretend that you have all the answers or that you know the ultimate direction any one of the projects should be aiming for. This, to me, is a key element of a startup, the [usually] fresh talent sees opportunities in some strange places, and sees a path to riches that can't always be grasped by others. Take for instance the latest startup Colour/Color. The investment by Sequoia Capital of $41M was made not on the current product or one of their visions, but that of the people that have that vision, there is a lot of trust in that relationship, and that trust is the same thing you have to have for your budding startups, don't smother them.

Give your investment time to find it's feet. There's a great quote in The Social Network, said both by the Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker characters in response to the Eduardo Saverin character's comment/question about monetising the site (Facebook).

"We don't even know what it is yet. We don't know what it is. We don't know what it can be, we don't know what it will be, we know that it is cool."

You have to find a way... and don't think I have an answer to how, but you have to have find a way for the projects you start to live long enough to be successful. In businesses that are in a lull or a panic stage of trying to reinvigorate the company, it's tempting to make harsh judgements on short-term performance and usually based around the revenues and profits. If the majority of today's successful startups had been started in such a culture, they would have been culled before ever making it to the stage where money actually begins to flow. This is, in my opinion, the area which needs the most consideration before the innovation programme gets started... make sure you set the expectations of the investors (whether internal or external) that things aren't going to be instant... No-one likes a rushed product, and when that's a service it'll be dead in the water, with other competitor startups picking at it like vultures for the novel features they wish to implement later.

Be as open as possible... publicly. Open the gates for the teams to be public about their projects as much as they want to be. Allow them to blog about issues they're having, or things they're thinking about. Getting outside opinions early is always a good thing. Of course there's a risk your competitors, but that's more incentive to be quick... in most cases you're probably catching up to the market rather than being innovative (in one way or another), and you need to get your visibility to the same state as your competitors by the time you get to the same level of maturity as they are, so it's a gamble. If you think you have unique features leave them for the big launch day, but for the 'table-stakes' features, be open and get the word out.

Open source stuff if you can, or at least contribute to other open source projects. This is easy when concerning fundamental infrastructure that you rely on but doesn't perform any particular 'business logic' for you in itself. Just look at Twitter's open source page for examples of things you could release. Yes it could help your competitors, but the chances of you running the same architecture as your direct competitors is minimal, and on the plus side it'll get your name into the development community as a good contributor, and in the long run I think that'll pay dividends when you reach the limits of some of the components you come to rely on.

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About the author

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On weekdays I'm a Technical Lead at Comparethemarket.com, having previously been a Solution Architect at Nokia & Nokia Siemens Networks, creating creative software solutions for mobile operators around the world.

In my spare time I'm an avid new technology fan, and constantly strive to find innovative uses for the new gadgets I manage to get my hands on. Most recently I've been investigating Mobile Codes, RFID and Home automation (mainly Z-Wave). With a keen eye for usability I'm attempting to create some cost-effective, DIY technology solutions which would rival even high-end retail products. The software I develop is usually released as Open Source.

I have a Finnish geek partner, so have begun the difficult task of learning Finnish.

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November 2022

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