Innovation is not a Linear Phenomenon: The Faraday FF Zero 1 Example

Innovation ‘R’ Us

Every company is trying to “innovate” these days… no matter how large or small. Some of the bigger ones are virtually pleading with their multinational workforce through challenges, awards and incentives to come up with the magic pill that will help the company sail through stormy waters (As Alf Rehn summarized it [1], “in April we innovate, in May we fire people”) .

The smaller ones… well, there are companies based entirely on nothing else but “an innovative solution” to do something you could already do before (but this time in a Javascript framework). Looking at it from the Lean Startup perspective, I find it a bit weak when a whole business is based on the USP of “innovative”. Your solution could be based on quality attributes [2] that make it faster, scalable, interoperable, customizable, streamlined, or really 100 other ways that could maximize value… the means to achieve these better be innovative, because that’s the very least your customer expects from you!

Have you ever heard a Formula 1 driver call himself fast? Or a firefighter call him/herself brave? Or a surgeon boast about how precise she is? No, because these are attributes that are inherently expected of them. If they weren’t fast or brave or precise, they wouldn’t last very long in their line of work. Similarly, today all technology companies are expected to be innovative in order to survive. You know who boosts their own ego publicly? Pop stars:

 

Innovation is… Not Where You Think it is

Now, about Faraday. Earlier this year at CES I picked up this leaflet from the Faraday FF Zero 1 booth. Since then, I have thought often of the part marked in red below:

Faraday-3

“SVP of R&D … spotted a drawing of a racecar on a designer’s desk and thought …”

BOOM. Innovation happened. Did the designer have a mandate to come up with a supercar? No. Was the SVP in an in offsite innovation workshop, brainstorming with other employees? No. Was there an innovation competition or challenge going on in the company, with an award at the end of it? Probably not. This is possibly the best example that innovation does not happen in an institutionalized manner. When successful innovation happens, it comes from the most unexpected places, more often than not driven by synergy, and it opens up a non-linear value proposition:

innovation_graph2

Original image credit: [3]

 

An Indicator of Innovation

These days some people are solving more problems with a Raspberry Pi over a weekend, than during a whole week of work in front of a corporate laptop. What can leaders do to harness this immense creative potential? I think the answer is to build an organization conducive to innovation, geared up to quickly change course when an innovation potential appears on the horizon, and… basically get out of the way. Easier said than done, you say… there are risks, budgets, stakeholders, possibly even (shudder) committees… no way this is going to work.

Which brings me to the final point: how deeply is trust rooted in the company’s culture? In Faraday’s example, the SVP trusted that something produced by one of his designers was potentially a big deal. It did not come up through a chain of committees and approvals. It happened through synergy. And while structure can stifle synergy, trust can help it thrive.

I therefore argue that the amount of trust in a company is a solid indicator of innovation potential. How much employees trust the leadership’s direction, how much coworkers trust each other (even across borders and timezones) and how much the leadership believes in the people they hired: these factors determine how likely synergistic events will be recognized, and nurtured into products or solutions that are called “innovative” by customers and competition, not just by the companies themselves.


[1] Alf Rehn, “How to Save Innovation From Itself”. Craft Conf 2016 talk.

[2] George Fairbanks, “Just Enough Software Architecture: A Risk-Driven Approach”. InfoQ interview and excerpt.

[3] MintViz.

CES 2016: From the Fringes

The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is the premier trade show for tech product previews and release announcements, going as far back as the VCR in 1970 to Driverless Cars in 2013*. This year the CES featured about 3800 exhibitors, spanning 2.47 million sq. ft. spread out over 3 locations** visited by 170,000 media and industry professionals — and I was privileged to count myself amongst them. Featuring keynote addresses from Intel, Netflix, IBM, Samsung, nVidia, Volkswagen and other big names, a lot has been written, presented and shared on mainstream as well as social media about the 4 day event. This chart sums it up the hype pretty well:

Source: BuzzRadar.com

Source: BuzzRadar, CTA

I decided to share some of my views from the fringes, rather than the trenches — there is no point in rinsing and repeating what is already out there, nor do I have any delusions about the value of my personal opinion about tech that enables your car to count how many oranges are left in your fridge (yes, it was demoed, with voice control).

Oculus_c

The Oculus Rift demo was by far the hardest to get into — there was a line, a line to get in the line, and a third holding area. Eventually I made it on the last day, and it took me about 20 min to recover from the simulator sickness caused by piloting EVE Valkyrie’s spacecraft from a living room chair. I still felt there were rough edges and the HTC Vive was by far a more refined, immersive and truly flawless experience. The new Sony PlayStation 4 VR was quite impressive as well: I could lean out of a moving car and look behind me, and the granularity of control was so good I could rotate knobs on the car stereo. OSVR.org based devices were quite popular too, and some others that caught my eye were Virtuix Omni active VR platform, AntVR’s Holodeck concept and ICAROS‘ EUR 10,000 gym equipment that lets you fly around in a virtual world powered by your own body. Certainly beats playing first person shooters wearing VR googles on a treadmill, or riding a virtual horse on a exercycle.

There were tons of clones (mostly based on Gear VR) and drones. Augmented Reality seems to be gaining ground, but despite solutions like the Sony SmartEyeglass and Daqri Smart Helmet, VR seems to be more popular of the two. It’s worth noting that virtually every VR or AR demo was running on Unity3D content, including those at NASA and IEEE’s booths.

I also tried my hand at racing simulators of various scales: from small VR setups, to actual cars mounted on motion platforms, to a massive 4×4 grid of 55″ OLEDs in front of a force feedback seat rig. There were several interesting display technologies on show: 3D without glasses, transparent (scaling up to entire walls), curved and Samsung’s modular, edge-blending display tech straight out of a sci-fi movie. Avegant’s Glyph might turn the display industry on it’s head, though, much like the way it’s worn.

SamsungModular_c

 

On the automotive side, voice, gesture and intent based user interfaces seem to be gaining ground. Also making an appearance were adaptive user interfaces and improvements in sensor fusion, self-learning and self-driving techniques. There were tons of wearables, 3D printing and home automation booths. The two core themes seemed to be a maturing of the ecosystem (just about everything built on top of something else, not too many technologies solving problems from scratch) and apps for doing things that don’t need apps, like locking your front door. You’d think we would stop there, but no:

On the social innovation side, I found GrandPad, Casio’s 2.5D printing and the Genworth R70i Aging Experience very thoughtful. Besides these, I liked Mixfader‘s idea of an MVP slider for mobile DJs: after all, the crossfader is the main thing that requires precise tactile control, everything else can be relegated to the screen. Also impressive was Sony’s line of 409,600 ISO see-completely-in-the-dark cameras. And this is now a thing:

LifeSpaceUX_c

You’d also probably be able to find a lot of beautiful photos of Las Vegas on the Internet, so let me leave you with this video of a not-so-common Las Vegas activity that I squeezed in on the last day, courtesy of DreamRacing.com (very fringe-y because I picked a Nissan over a Ferrari). Thanks for reading!

* Apple, Google and Microsoft have their own tech events and despite the Xbox (2001) and Android devices (2010) being unveiled at CES, these companies tend to keep their product announcements exclusive to their own events. So no Hololens at CES.

** „Tech East (Las Vegas Convention Center), Tech West (Sands/Expo at the Venetian,  The Palazzo, Wynn and Encore) and Tech South (Aria and Vdara)

Craft Conf 2015, Day 2

I had the privilege of attending the second year of CRAFT, a tech conference in Budapest focused on software craftsmanship. The last year (which was the first time it was held) had completely blown my mind. A year later I still keep referring back to the talks and haven’t finished fully absorbing them and putting all those inspiring ideas into practice.

IMG_3467

In short…

Craft Conf 2014 was better. The speakers came from a more diverse background, the talks spanned a multitude of unrelated topics and I remember it being very, very hard to choose from talks happening in parallel. Each minute spent there was a revelation.

This year, though, many of the talks seemed to be plug for a company or a product, in disguise. Certainly there were brilliant takeaways, but not at the same scale as the previous year.

In my opinion, 2014 was also held in a better venue, although the 2015 venue was outstanding too, as far as tech conference venues go. But the rooms were too far spread out (the map was inaccurate), the acoustics were bad everywhere except the Main Room and unlike 2014, the WiFi was not flawless. Lastly, there were far fewer food choices, longer queues, no bottled water (even for the speakers) and therefore a lot of glasses clanking.

On the positive side, the schedule was followed down to the minute, the live video streaming was smooth and considering the scale of the event (1300 attendees), everything was beautifully organized. I’m not complaining – it’s just that the first CRAFT had set a pretty high standard.

(Video and Slides links will be updated by next weekend, when they become available)

Agile Engineering in a Safety-Critical World

By Nancy Van Schooenderwoert | Video | Slides

“Instead of freezing the ocean, learn to ride the waves” – Nancy’s talk was mainly about how our need for predictability for effective coordination is at odds with our need for fast learning to handle unknowns. She pointed out that in the agile context, “Architecture is any design decision that you cannot easily change”.

There was the customary reference to WikiSpeed to dispel the myth that hardware changes can’t fit within 2-4 week iterations. And an interesting one to a paper called TIR45 from AAMI: Guidance on the use of AGILE practices in the development of medical device software.

Coding Culture

By Sven Peters | Video | Slides

Sven’s talk was both informative and inspiring. Some of the key takeaways:

  • Innovation needs time
  • Stop and celebrate wins, however small they may be
  • Balance your passion for code with your passion for customers
  • Turn your passion into product
  • Value trust, autonomy and transparency (Atlassian achieves this by using chat over other communication means)
  • Products come and go, culture stays

Take a look at Atlassian’s Mood App and Stash Reviewer Suggester.

Building Reliable Distributed Data Systems

By Jeremy Edberg | Video | Slides

This one was good, until we went deep diving into the NetFlix Simian Army, which was also good but could have been summarized in just one slide. One thing that stood out from Jeremy’s advice was to “build for three”, because if you can overcome problems there then the solution can be [more] easily scaled up to n.

Don’t forget to check out NetFlix Open Source Software Center.

Oh! You Pretty Tools

By Andrew Bayer | Video | Slides

Andrew gave an interesting talk about the role of internal tools and their developers in the organization, covering both the pros and the cons. For example while making the build or buy decision, consider the fact that people are more expensive than software. And some thoughtful insights, like how Integration Tests can double-up as the roadmap to your tool’s usage. He also revealed that Cloudera runs ~2000 Jenkins CI builds every day(!)

The rest of it was basically about, and lessons learned from, CloudCat.

Testing and Integration (The Remix)

By Ines Sombra | Video | Slides

Ines entertainingly summarized everything we know so far, and topped it off with new insights for a good measure.  She emphasized:

  • The importance of lightweight short-lived branches so that CI is not overlooked
  • The more likely a test is to fail, the sooner you should run it
  • The testing of provisioning systems, such as Chef Recipes, too
  • How test setup time and parallelization are the key factors in minimizing the testing cycle time

She recommended this talk about the Google Build System.

Her punchline was that CI is a predictor of professional maturity at the organizational and individual level, and she ended with a “rantifesto” about building a culture of quality.

Beyond Features: Rethinking Agile Planning and Tracking

By Dan North | Video | Slides

From Cutting to Curing: Dan presented the powerful and inspiring idea that maybe software engineering is more like surgery than the civil engineering principles that we currently use to manage it. Agile methodologies essentially optimize for predictability, and this not necessarily a good thing. He mused on how a 2-week sprint is just enough time for a mini-waterfall, and thus we are all basically whitewater rafting.

After reviewing where the Agile Manifesto has brought us, he set an ambitious new goal to sustainably minimize the lead time to business impact. 

He ended with:

  • The role of Features, Delivery and Kaizen
  • Schedule, Measure, Track, Showcase
  • How Value Stream Mapping can reveal surprises like typically a piece of work spends upto 90% of it’s time waiting for dependencies

How To Save Innovation From Itself

By Alf Rehn | Video | Slides

For me, Alf’s talk was the highlight of the event. It was so good and so inspiring that I won’t even summarize it here. Go watch it!

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The day ended with a party thrown by EPAM, which included free beer, a DJ-saxophone duo and a surprise flashmob.

You may also want to read my review of Day 3 of Craft Conf 2015.