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Developers, meet product development: How engineers deliver innovation

Robert Berris VP, Digital Strategy & Marketing, 352 Inc.
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Today in the United States, enterprises collectively spend more than $330 billion annually on corporate innovation and research and development projects. Yet despite access to capital and no shortage of big ideas, corporations are notoriously slow to innovate, often handcuffed by the weight of legacy infrastructure, bureaucracy (corporate inertia) and compliance requirements—the private sector’s version of government “red tape.”

To expedite innovation, some corporations have established “innovation labs,” dedicating full-time software engineers to solve the challenges and inefficiencies of both today and tomorrow. While this newfound emphasis on innovation is exciting, the outcomes and return-on-investment (ROI) of such initiatives are yet to be determined. Maxwell Wessel writes in the Harvard Business Review:

"Big companies are really bad at innovation because they’re designed to be bad at innovation."

During the past few years, forward-thinking corporations have begun to rethink how they approach the development of new products. With an array of startups and solutions providers challenging well-established business models and lines of business, there is an expedience to corporate innovation that’s been absent from the majority of enterprises in years past.

The irony of enterprise innovation meeting product development

Ironically, it’s no secret that many corporations admire lean startup principles and agile methodologies, yet they’re generally very bad at implementing them. Most enterprises simply aren’t structured to support the rapid development of new products, for a number of reasons. In addition, launching an unpolished minimum viable product (MVP) might be unacceptable to the business team; so too might utilizing open-source libraries or cloud technologies be unacceptable within the enterprise IT infrastructure.

This is not to say that IT infrastructure and compliance is a bad thing—far from it. The complexity and depth of enterprise IT is an asset for developers, but it also creates an environment that trends toward inertia, rather than innovation.

Therefore, IT leaders are finding that successful innovation requires moving the development of new products outside the enterprise, developing a product not through an innovation lab, but through the help of a product development agency. For enterprises, this means sourcing product development teams, which are suited to accelerate their internal innovation processes and needs.

This shift away from the corporate IT architecture to development teams with more creative freedom provides a number of new opportunities for developers to flex their creative muscles, work across new tech stacks and actually solve problems instead of patching them with legacy code. For developers, joining an external team may be their ticket to playing a part in innovation that can quickly help solve thorny problems by building smart digital experiences.

The true impact of developers on product

Traditionally, the culture for developers has been one in which coding out of problems is expected, and collaborating with colleagues on strategic solutions is not. An article at Innovation Management notes:

“For innovation to succeed as a corporate objective, the culture must change to accommodate the risk and uncertainty that accompanies an innovation focus.”

That methodology is flipped on its head at development agencies, which most often implement cross-functional development teams that are comprised of backend and frontend developers; designers; user experience; product strategists or scrum masters and a QA analyst. Uniting under this horizontal hierarchy, the collaboration of development teams makes it easier for developers to continuously push out a piece of software for user feedback as it is finished, but without altering any applications. This is a major advantage for developers and also for corporate innovators that perceive speed-to-market as more important than ever before.

Working collaboratively in a cross-functional environment is an interesting proposition for developers, who too often, are asked to solve problems just by executing code, essentially flipping the 1s and 0s it takes to meet a feature spec list. In fact, many clients and employees view developers as output machines, rather than creative problem-solvers with years of experience and insight.

While spec lists are the norm for many digital products, they limit developers in ways most clients wouldn’t expect. After all, developers have much more to offer than code input. As primary catalysts of the "build" experience, developers can play a much larger role in conceptualizing and fine-tuning strategy. Front-end developer Ewa Mitulska-Wójcik argues the importance of developers becoming skilled strategists. 

“Without a plan the smallest project may become a hard-to-maintain monster. Before you go into heads-down code mode, you’ll want to consider cost estimations, sprint planning, architecting schemas, and designing elements such as user flows.”

At first, some developers may balk at thinking strategically about the entirety of a product, but in the end, it will make them better at their jobs. For example, a strategic developer can easily assess that a workflow can be reduced from seven steps to three steps, instead of brute-force coding the workflows as initially assigned. In the event he or she was to do so, the timeframe of the product development lifecycle could be reduced, enabling their corporate innovation or social impact clients to accelerate the delivery of an MVP into the hands of users.

Developers bring more to the table than many clients or employers expect. The skills of many developers working together can spark innovation that transforms the enterprise for decades to come.

Have you seen developers making an impact on product development and moving the needle on innovation? Share your experiences in the comments section.


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