Let’s face it, having fun while engaged in a startup, or even a day-to-day regular job, is fulfilling on many levels. From tangibles to intangibles, from laughter and intrinsic value to external recognition and money-making, or just simply hanging out with your friends to feel better or having dreams to change the world for the better. With certainty, the big tech founders who started in a dorm or a garage had fun trying to make something new and create a sense of a self-directed future.
Such innovation, in general, is essential for fueling optimism and eventually creating benefits for society and the environment, which is often overlooked. Beyond the fun element, innovation may save time, effort, money, resources, and energy while creating new ways of doing things that may be more enjoyable and stress-free than past practices.
Even though IT has many specializations, an abundance of development tools and platforms, and its vast reach spans diverse industries, the innovation process for IT graduates – or even some entrepreneurs and industry professionals, may be daunting and not obvious. What is proposed here is a simple framework, with some glaring applications, to provide an alternative perspective for the IT community on approaching innovation, having fun, and making a positive difference.
Innovation and invention
OK. Let’s get this out of the way. Innovation is not invention. With innovation, you are not trying to create something entirely new that did not exist before. Your goal with innovation is to improve an existing process, product, or service. That simple! Consider, for example, the energy wasted on data transfer and storage of an ongoing tsunami of non-critical emails and texts and their impact on the environment. What could be done to reduce that energy footprint? A pause for reflection… A change in communication protocols, storage methodology, human behavior? Consolidating chirps into roars? Who knows, but certainly worth a look.
Find your environment
From your place of 9-5 work or school to a favorite hangout, there is no shortage of places to pause, think, and rally some friends and mentors to start innovating. Businesses look for ways to improve efficiency, productivity, growth, profitability, and talent retention, and clearly, those five areas present an opportunity for you to apply your IT skills and innovate. Also, colleges and universities have applied research departments, industry-sponsored capstone course projects, and student clubs, not to mention internal improvement projects – some great venues for getting started. And, of course, your basement! But, I will leave that for your imagination and the Next Big Thing.
Observe. Does anyone remember high school science or art classes?
Who would have thought that your retro high school science or art class would make a timely but unexpected comeback to help you innovate in IT! Well, having some training on how to systematically observe what is happening around you gives you a clear advantage to start innovating. Look systematically at news, business processes, data and information flow, advances in IT development tools, demographics, societal trends, appearance and form of existing gadgets. Need I say more? Yes, I do need to say that you should spend time in nature and observe the environment.
Immersion. Go deep!
Alright, you keenly observed, found your innovation environment, got your friends together or not, and are keen to get started. You will quickly discover that you need to have or develop some technical skills and insights to start innovating. Of course, you may think you can outsource all that and supervise. Though that is possible, the quality and end results may not be what you expected. So, take time and interest to develop some core skills in either programming, system analysis, operating systems, databases, or whatever technical domain you are interested in. There is no correct answer. Also, take a keen interest in one aspect of some business enterprise, whatever it may be, to study it and deeply understand how it fully works. Having both will help you understand where changes are needed so that you can technically contribute and innovate.
Small goals and the Next Big Thing
What if you want to create the Next Big Thing right away, get rich, and retire? That’s OK if you don’t mind the high probability of failure. To mitigate chances of failure, it might be worthwhile to start small, build up your skillset, and actually make a technical contribution in one area that moves the innovation needle forward. Such an approach will build your confidence and give you recognition as you keep working on that Next Big Thing. Remember that the process of “build, implement, test, succeed or fail, learn, and repeat” should be considered regardless of your dream size!
Have fun, get involved, and don’t forget your science or art classes! If you didn’t take those, consider how you were taught to observe. Observe systematically and keep immersed in technical skill development and the business you find yourself in. Remember that you are not burdened to create something that did not exist. Instead, you are aiming to improve a process or a product. Small gains and innovation achievements will pay off in the short run and help with that big idea. Who knows, all this small and humble innovation may also lead to an invention or the Next Big Thing!
About the Author
Dr. Predrag Pešikan an electrical engineer and business professional with management and leadership experience in both public and private higher education sector. He has served in executive roles as CIO, VP-IT, and Dean, and recently led the development of industry relevant programs including AI, Cybersecurity, and IoT. His research interest is in IT, leadership, and profitability of tech startups.
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