You might have heard that EMC held an internal innovation contest back in October of 2007. It was a first for EMC. I was involved.
If you want to know what happens when over 400 innovators from around the world submit ideas, read on.
My idea was accepted for public presentation at a "science fair". My partner in crime was traveling, so it was up to me to do the presentation. The judges were made up of about a dozen high-level executives from within EMC, most of whom I did not know personally. In preparing for the big day I asked myself the age-old question that many software developers struggle with.
Should I wear a tie?
But I'm Jumping Ahead
2007 was the year of the Innovation buzzword. I saw it a lot at EMC and I saw it a lot during television advertisements. EMC was investing internally in "innovation infrastructure", uniting the islands of advanced development teams, documenting the relationships with all academic universities, investing in international research, and the like. Many employees watched these developments in a detached way. Was innovation a fad? Certainly it had been going on already for decades at EMC. Why the sudden focus?
In early summer Jeff Nick and Mark Lewis announced an innovation idea contest. Send a short abstract of your idea by the end of the summer. Thirty ideas would be chosen. Win a free trip to Massachusetts.
I think "shock" would describe the reaction when over 400 ideas flooded in. People were paying attention to the innovation message. And it wasn't just developers submitting product ideas. There were process ideas, marketing ideas, recruitment ideas, and talent development ideas, to name a few.
My co-worker and I had submitted an idea about data lineage, otherwise known as information ancestry, and also known as data provenance. A research team sorted through the ideas and we made the cut. We had to create a poster (interns were assigned to help "certain" nerds draw nice pictures [thank you Danielle]), and in mid-October EMC was poised to host its inaugural Innovation Conference, with the Innovation Contest as the centerpiece.
Which brings us to the aforementioned clothing choice. I went with slacks and a sport coat. The execs came in, the inventors waited, hoping to make a good impression. As the mingling and questions started, it turned into a large number of excellent exchanges. It was less judging and more, "hey, you guys are the smart ones, help me understand what you're proposing". It was down to earth and ended up being a great chance to shoot the breeze with some regular people.
Turns out the judges had to do their homework. They had reviewed all the abstracts and the posters ahead of time. Some visited every presenter to fully understand the idea. Some visited certain posters to get clarification. Some came over just to applaud the idea. My favorite part of the contest, from submission to awards, was the fact that it was a level playing field. The judges, in most cases, had no idea who the inventors were. They were judging based on the merits of the ideas.
Joe Tucci also showed up at the end-of-conference celebration dinner in Boston with the exact same message as the other execs: clearly this company employs smart people.
Back to Work
Our idea ended up coming in third place, which was cool. The conference ended on a very high note, and people were motivated to continue discussing the ideas. But you know how these types of conferences can end up: big talk, big plans, nothing happens. Many adopted a wait-and-see attitude.
Something did happen.
Shortly after the conference I got a call from a co-worker of mine named Fred. Fred and I had a history. Seven years earlier I had researched and launched an idea named StorageScope, and Fred had taken the ball, ran with it, and made it into a very successful product. He was calling to tell me that he was going to lead a team of researchers in Shanghai, China to build a proof-of-concept of our idea. And he wanted to know how much I'd like to be involved.
I was blown away. Literally. It was then that I realized how seriously EMC was taking the whole thing. And while the Shanghai research team is building software, other groups are doing market research on the validity of the idea. All teams constantly monitor the proof-of-concept to determine if it should continue or if the plug should be pulled. I was impressed.
And so onward it goes. I've touched base with the China team and pointed them at some technologies I think are applicable. And while I don't have time to constantly monitor, status is continually being posted on our world-wide EMC social-media platform. I also listened to Fred present the project status to the entire technology community earlier this week.
Should I Have Worn a Tie?
No. Actually the suitcoat and slacks ended up being a mistake. In addition to having the execs judge the ideas, my peers also arrived to vote for the "People's Choice" award. And when they saw me dressed in slacks and a sport coat.... well, I had zero credibility at that point. One person told me that he didn't know I could "clean up nice". Other friends said "who are you?" when I greeted them. Someone else called me a brown-noser. In the end it wasn't worth the grief.
I learned a lesson that I've taken to heart.
It's OK to innovate in jeans.