Posts Tagged ‘Innovation’

Hack Days – Creating New Product Innovation

May 14, 2013

A hack day (also known as hackathon, hackfest or codefest) is an event in which those involved in software development collaborate intensively on software projects over 1 to 5 days to create new product innovation.

Where does the idea come from?

Companies that run hack days include Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, NASA, and many more.  I was convinced that we at QSR International should also be running hack days to empower our talented staff to create more inventions for our customers and employees.

QSR International’s company values are articulated as collaboration, innovation, and celebration.  Our hack day goals supported our company values and were summarized as:

  • Collaborate with Peers
  • Innovate the Platform, Product, or Process
  • Celebrate the Demonstration of Ideas

Choosing a theme

We undertook our first hack day in October 2012 and set the theme ‘Invent the Future’ which was inspired from the quote ‘the best way to predict the future is to invent it’ by Alan Kay. Our second hack day was in March 2013 and set the theme ‘Leadership through Innovation’ which was inspired from the quote ‘innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower’ by Steve Jobs.  We will continue doing more hacks days every six months.

What’s involved in a hack day?

In the lead up to the hack day we created a wiki based charter of ideas originating from customers that had not been explored.  Participants were encouraged to choose one of these ideas or propose new ideas and seek out interested team members.

Our first hack day involved 37 employees working on 15 unique project ideas over 2 days.  Given the success and interest in the first hack day, the second hack day involved 49 employees working on 17 unique project ideas over 2 days.

Each day started with a stand-up meeting to describe each project idea and raise any assistance requests.  On the afternoon of the second day an exhibit was held to demonstrate and celebrate each of the project ideas to the whole company.

Hack_Day_Photo 1

Quality and diversity – how do you judge the best hack?

We assembled a judging panel consisting of the CEO, CTO (that’s me), Senior Project Manager, and an invited customer.  This judging panel had the difficult task of choosing the ‘most innovative’ and ‘most promising’ project idea.

Additionally, everyone in the company was given tokens to vote on the ‘most popular’ project idea.  The quality and diversity of demonstrable project ideas was incredible and exceeded most expectations.

Kevin Burfitt, our Senior Project Manager coordinated the hack days and when asked about his reflection on the hack days he had this to say:

“For two days we remove all the normal reporting structures, meetings and red-tape and just let people concentrate on their own innovative ideas.  Seeing the enthusiasm of so many people working together and bringing their hacks to life is inspiring.”

Hack_Day_Photo 2

Turning hacks into real features: Community Feed and Geovisualization

The NVivo 10 Service Pack 2 released in February 2013 included 2 hack day project ideas from the first hack day.  The first was the Community Feed which facilitated the ability to provide live news, tips, and video tutorials to users of NVivo within NVivo.

Screenshot of Community Feed and Geovisulization

Screenshot of Community Feed and Geovisulization

The second was Geo-visualization which facilitated geospatial visualization of Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter data captured using NCapture (a browser add-in) for analysis within NVivo.

Encouraging creativity and passion

We are proceeding with a half dozen hack day project ideas that will find their way into product releases and company process over the remainder of this year.

Hack days support building an innovative culture which allows experimentation, failure, and learning.  It enables participants to express their creativity and passion outside their day to day work and drives increased innovation within the organization.  The time constraint imposes the need for creative problem solving and early prioritization to ensure a demonstrable idea.

To finish, I quote Thomas Edison, one of world’s most prolific inventors in history:

“The real measure of success is the number of experiments that can be crowded into twenty-four hours”

Note: This blog post also appears at The NVivo blog.

Driving Innovation

October 25, 2010

At QSR International we have core company values of Innovation, Collaboration, and Celebration.   Five years ago we developed an Innovation Strategy that can be summarized as follows: 

Innovation

  • is about collaboration and exploration
  • requires an understanding of technology
  • requires an understanding of business domain
  • must produce deliverables
  • and is not a replacement for customer feedback

to achieve this we must

  • monitor emerging technology and industry trends
  • attend technology and industry conferences
  • undertake surveys and interviews with customers
  • undertake exploratory workshops
  • produce prototypes and whitepapers
  • support innovative ideas during development
  • establish links with universities

We understand that software development teams are led, not managed.  That great new products, outstanding enhancements to existing products, and creative new business initiatives are driven by passion and inspiration.  And foremost that innovation is very much dependent on the quality of the team and therefore it is important to create an environment that will attract the right people and skills.

Recently, I read the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink.  As the CTO at QSR International, I was challenged that we could step-up innovation further by nurturing a culture that provided staff greater autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  The RSA Animate adoption below provides a good overview these aspects of the book.

To drive this innovative culture, we are launching a program in 2011 that gives our technical staff 20 Development Days per year.  These Development Days can be used for training, research projects, and charitable work.  The program is similar in nature to those in use at Google (20% time), Atlassian (20% time), 3M (15% time), Twitter (Hack Week) and Readify (20 days).

I like this related quote on innovation from David Whelan, CTO, Boeing Space and Communications

The CTO nurtures and cultivates new ideas and innovation in both the technologies and the business processes.

Innovative Use of Technology

September 22, 2009

Today, QSR International was announced the Australian winner of the 2009 Dell Small Business Excellence Award.  There were more than 150 entries for the award and 10 highly innovative finalists.  The award recognizes innovative use of information technology to better serve customers, improve the customer experience, better manage business operations, improve the success of the business, and create a competitive advantage.

Shown: D. Harrigan (Dell), A. Long (QSR International), J. Owen (QSR International), G. Newey (Excom)

Shown Left to Right: D. Harrigan (Dell), A. Long (QSR International), J. Owen (QSR International), G. Newey (EXCOM)

Finalists were invited to submit a 3 minute video for the judges, which can be viewed below.

QSR International develops the world’s leading qualitative data analysis software (NVivo) and uses the software to better understand our customers.  Using NVivo to analyze our customer needs has resulted in direct improvements to our software and how we interact with our customers.  NVivo enables analysis to be undertaken on a range of data types; including rich text, audio, video, and pictures.  This allowed for evidence to be collected, and decisions to be made based on qualitative data (such as interviews, focus groups, and open-ended surveys), rather than relying solely on more traditional quantitative data (such as multi-choice surveys) and personal bias.  I outline below some of the ways we use information technology to better serve our customers.

In 2007, we ran a beta test program for NVivo 8 involving beta testers located in 20 different countries.  The discussions were managed using online discussion forums and interactive webcasts, and the forum threads and digital recordings from the webcasts were analyzed using the beta version of NVivo 8, which provided an evidence based approach to understand and prioritize changes needed within the software prior to release, and ensured our customers were delighted with the final release.  For example, the granularity of audio or video that could be analyzed was reduced from one second to a tenth of a second to facilitate delineation of speech; the format of transcripts that could be imported was made to be more flexible to support other software; and the default view for photos was changed to match customer preference.

In 2008, we conducted an online survey with our existing and potential customers to better understand our market and their perceptions about NVivo 8.  Again, the survey results (predominately open-ended text responses) were analyzed using NVivo 8.  Analysis of the 2008 customer survey revealed that seven of our top 10 customer concerns were not about specific software features, but rather concerns such as increasing the availability of training, extending customer support hours, providing additional user resources, and localizing the software into new languages.  These findings identified business opportunities that were quickly implemented, and greatly assisted in prioritizing the scope for the next major software release.  The customer survey also revealed why our customers enjoy using NVivo; namely the ability to organize, query, and analyze their data; as well as the familiar user interface and flexibility of the software.

In addition, our online discussion forums facilitate regular dialogue between customers, and between us and our customers.  Sub-forums allow interactions amongst specialist groups such as authorized trainers of our software.  Interactive webcasts are also used to facilitate software demonstrations to potential customers across the globe, delivery of comprehensive online training, and personalized live technical support.

The benefit of having our own staff use our software to analyze customer feedback was that they were able to identify feature gaps and usability issues within the software because they were using it in a manner similar to our customers.  Our people were in the best position to ensure that feature gaps and usability issues were addressed by personally advocating their resolution.  For example, staff found transcription of audio or video within the software was frustrating because there was no automatic skip-back option when playing after pausing, or that the software’s auto-save feature would unintentionally disrupt the transcription process and result in the transcriber ‘losing their place’.  These issues were subsequently rectified as part of a service pack release.

The ability to collaborate with customers is paramount to ensure we explore innovative possibilities that result in outstanding software and services.  We’ve accomplished this by interacting with our global customer base through online technologies (forums and webcasts) and using our own software to analyze customer feedback.  This has enabled us to prioritize future software development to address customer desires and expectations.  It does not end here, but rather begins here.

To finish, I quote Michael Dell, Dell Chairman and CEO

Almost 25 years ago, as a small business, we introduced the direct model with a singular focus on listening to customers and working hard to get them exactly what they need. Listening and delivering on behalf of customers has been instrumental in our growth. Our partnerships give us an opportunity to highlight the successes of today’s small businesses around the world.

Next-Gen ICT Professionals in Australia

May 14, 2009

Last month I attended the ICT: Making the Connection Summit 2009 which discussed issues currently facing the ICT industry and the providers of ICT higher education.

Students enrolling in IT undergraduate courses within Australia have fallen constantly every year since 2001, from 10,560 enrollments (in 2001) to 5,059 enrollments (in 2007), representing a decline of 52% over 6 years.  Worse still, is the number of applicants into these degree places have fallen from 15,130 applicants (in 2001) to 5,146 applicants (in 2007), representing a decline of 66% over 6 years.  Compounding this is that half of these enrolments are from international students.  In general, this equates to both lower quantity and quality of IT graduates entering the workforce each year in Australia.

The employment of ICT professionals has increased from 190,200 (in 2001) to 224,000 (in 2007), representing an increase of 18% over 6 years whilst incorporating the dot com bubble burst period.  Therefore we have growing demand and shrinking supply.  Currently this imbalance is being met through migrant ICT skilled workers, and capping demand through outsourcing ICT overseas. 

Here are my thoughts on why students have lost interest in ICT as a career option:

1. Perception and Image

ICT is still incorrectly considered to be for geeks working in a basement – check out this stereotypical, but great sitcom called The IT Crowd.

2. Outsourcing and Importance

Australian organizations have been aggressively outsourcing aspects of their ICT overseas.  News of this outsourcing is published in the daily papers and incorrectly reinforces the perspective to the Australian community that ICT is unimportant.

3. R&D and Innovation

Australian organizations are great adopters of technology, but are not great inventors of technology.  This is where the most exciting news occurs within ICT and the wider community, and the source of this news is predominately coming from overseas based organizations.

4. Hype cycles

The dot com bubble burst and many ICT professionals were hurt both financially and emotionally.  Many of these ex-ICT professionals share their unfortunate experiences and indirectly influence future students to avoid the ICT industry.

4. Fragmented ICT associations

Australia has numerous and diverse ICT associations which is fantastic.  Unfortunately, it has the side effect of diluting the voice of the ICT community, which is necessary to influence both government policy and community perceptions.

5. High-profile ICT failures

Australia has experienced high-profile ICT failures within both government and industry, though I anticipate that industry conceals these more.  These failures, which are an indictment to ICT, do reduce the appeal of ICT.  People in general want to be associated with success, and the risk adverse culture within Australia does not tolerate failure.

6. Glass-ceiling

The top positions (CEO, Chairman, etc.) of organizations are dominated by those with a business or law degrees.  Too few ICT degree holders ascend to these positions and therefore the influence of ICT is diminished.  ICT should play a more strategic role in business which requires ICT expertise at the top positions.  This is a bit of a chicken and egg situation as it is sometimes difficult to get momentum where like-minded appoint like-minded.

7. K12 curriculum

This is probably the biggest issue.  Computers are now ubiquitous in their usage and 70% of students with high IT ability believe they learn more at home than at school.  For instance, some students are taught Microsoft Excel for two years as part of their computing curriculum – to me, this is like learning how to use a calculator for Maths, or a dictionary for English.  There is confusion by educators between using tools and applying knowledge.  The subject of computing should be removed at the K12 levels and taught as part of other subjects.  For example, students can learn how to develop algorithms in Maths, how to design user interfaces in Art, or learn about the transformational impact of computers within society in History.  The application of computing in other subjects would allow students to appreciate the relevance and practicality of computing.  However, if K12 curriculum must include a computing subject then teach something that can both stimulate and excite students, like Lego Mindstorms or Microsoft Kodu.

There was recently a relevant article in CIO on How to attract Next-Gen IT Workers.  The article advices to use partnerships with schools to attract and shape youth for careers in ICT.  In a similar aspect, QSR International has just started partnering with the Monash University Faculty of IT with its Industry-Based Learning program to help develop the future generation of ICT professionals.

Internationalization

March 16, 2009

Today I presented with Sam Soubra at the Victoria.Net Dev SIG on software internationalization.  Internationalization has two distinct aspects – globalization and localization.  Globalization is the process of developing software whose features and code design are not solely based on a single language or locale; and localization is the process of adapting software for a specific region or language.  We drew on our experiences working at QSR International where we developed our software for both globalization and localization (English, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, and Spanish). The presentation can be viewed below:

QSR International is an independent software vendor (ISV) based in Melbourne (Australia) and derives 90% of its revenue from exports.  This appeared to be in contrast to many Australian companies that I read in the local news who are currently focused on outsourcing their IT overseas.  Therefore, I thought I would look into finding some information to see where Australia is positioned in developing software for the global marketplace.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, exports of non-customised software (including licence fees) in 2006-07 were $347 million (0.16%) of Australia’s $215,850 million in total exports.  This is a very small figure when compared against Australia’s $65,045 million (30.13%) in exports by the mining industry.  At the same time, imports of non-customised software (including licence fees)  in 2006-07 were $1,220 million (0.54%) of Australia’s $227,883 million in total imports.

In 2007, the World Bank listed the population of Australia as 21 million (0.32%) of the world’s population of 6,612 million.  Combining these population figures with the earlier figures, Australia imported $58.10 of non-customised software (including licence fees) for every Australian, yet Australia exported $0.05 of non-customised software (including licence fees) and $9.87 of mining goods to every non-Australian globally.  This would imply that Australia is a net consumer of non-customised software and is not a significant global player.

However, last year the Economist Intelligence Unit reported on global IT industry competitiveness and found that Australia was ranked 7th globally, behind the United States, Taiwan, United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark, and Canada.  The rankings were based on six categories, which are listed below with Australia’s associated global rank:

  • Overall business environment – #7
  • IT infrastructure – #8
  • Human capital – #6
  • Legal environment – #2
  • R&D environment – #20
  • Support for IT industry development – #6

This poses the question – why do we have an IT industry that is considered to be globally competitive, but fails to leverage the global marketplace for software?  It is a lot cheaper and easier to produce another copy of software than it is to produce another ounce of gold.  Why does a single American company export more software into Australia than Australia can export to the entire world?  Looking at these rankings, it is evident that Australia is least competitive in its R&D environment.  Incredibly, the Rudd Government closed the Commercial Ready program in its May 2008 budget, which was a major innovation program provided by the Federal Government of Australia.  Additionally, the Australian Bureau of Statistics had to cancel its planned 2008-09 ICT industries survey due to budgetary constraints imposed in May 2008.  This does not bode well for Australia being the so called “Clever Country” as originally coined by Bob Hawke in the early 1990’s.

Nevertheless, I encourage software developers in Australia to have a more globally focused perspective.  With a greater emphasis on Research and Development (innovation) and increased entrepreneurship, we can greatly improve these national statistics.  There are great examples of Australian developers taking their software globally.  For instance, we recently changed our design software at QSR International to Enterprise Architect which is developed in Creswick (Australia) and exported worldwide.

To finish, I quote Barak Obama from the first presidential debate in 2008

We can’t just focus on preserving existing industries. We have to be in the business of encouraging new ones–and that means science, research and technology. For two centuries, America led the world in innovation. But this Administration’s hostility to science has taken a toll. At a time when technology is shaping our future, we devote a smaller and smaller share of our national resources to Research and Development. I’ll double federal funding for basic research, and make the R&D tax credit permanent.

Innovation and Outsourcing

March 1, 2009

Every week I receive unsolicited emails from IT outsourcing companies, predominately from India, who all promote their software development and IT support services on the basis of cheaper labour, broader competencies, and extensive processes.  Yet at the same time, I continue to read about Satyam’s Meltdown.  Does this imply that the lower costs or extensive processes are merely a mirage?  Do we understand the true cost of IT outsourcing on our organisations over the longer term?

From my idealistic viewpoint, IT goals should be focused on innovation, quality, and agility foremost.  IT should be of strategic importance within an organisation, a joint partner in revenue generation that builds competitive advantage.  IT must understand the business environment and be an proactive contributor within the business – meaning it requires a culture of innovation and ownership.

Software development is fundamentally about innovation, creating value for the business and delighting end-users.  Innovation requires collaboration and exploration with an understanding of both users and technology.  Why would you outsource software development when the premise and driver of outsourcing is focused around cheaper cost rather than improved innovation?

I have previously outsourced IT support functions, and found that the outsourcer’s promises far exceeded their ability to deliver on them.  In effect, they hamstrung the business through conflicting cultures where they valued process over product, control over change, and contract over outcome.  In effect they missed the mark by a country mile.   Since back-sourcing the IT support function, we have achieved significantly better results (through improved quality and agility) without an associated increase in cost.

Where I have found outsourcing works best is when working with specialist companies, that have premium resources, niche competencies, and defined outcomes.  In the traditional sense this would be considered consulting services rather than outsourcing services.  Three specialist companies that I have used successfully and would recommend are Planit (test specialist), Readify (.NET specialist), and SDL (translation specialist).  In my experience, it is worth paying the premium for a specialist; rather than the discount for a jack of all trades.

It was interesting to read this month that the down economy fuels IT outsourcing with further drive to slash fixed costs and deliver services with smaller staff numbers.  According to Gartner’s annual survey of CIOs, their business priorities in 2009 are 1. Improving business processes; 2. Reducing enterprise costs; and 3. Improving enterprise workforce effectiveness.  This contrasts with their anticipated business priorities for 2012 of 1. Creating new products and services (innovation); 2. Improving business processes; and 3. Attracting and retaining new customers.  I wonder where this outsourcing trend will leave many companies when the economic outlook improves and the focus returns to innovation rather than cost.

To finish, I quote Peter Drucker (1909-2005), writer and management consultant

Innovation is the specific instrument of entrepreneurship.  The act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth.