Finding Time to Innovate

Innovation is the backbone of any software development effort. If you aren’t doing something new, what’s the point? Without new ideas, you’ll never be first, you’ll never have something that your competitors don’t, and you will never be the best.

I think most people would agree with these statements when talking about a software company or product, but I’m actually talking about developers. You–the developer–need to constantly explore new ideas and learn new skills. Doing things you’ve always done the way you’ve always done them will likely never result in anything more than marginally better than what you have now. (Hey, more = better, right?) In other words, you will need to do new things in new ways in order to produce something significantly better than what you have now.

This is where things get a little less straightforward. How do you learn to do things you haven’t done in ways you haven’t done them before? In my opinion, it’s all about exploration and experimentation. When I read an article about a new tool or language feature, I’ll spend some time playing around with it. I don’t necessarily have a use in mind; I just want to see what it’s about. The result over time is that I have a whole host of things I’ve messed around with that are implementation-detail candidates on future projects. Additionally, when discussing new projects, I can say things like, “This is useful, but it would be really cool if we added X. Here’s how we can do that.”

We can all agree that innovation is essential, and it’s important for developers to spend time learning and exploring to help with the innovating. There are only so many hours in the day, though, and you’ve probably got other, more important things to work on. You’d love to spend time trying new things, but your boss isn’t going let you have free time to do that. After all, there’s money to be made! So what can you do?

I work for a somewhat old-school software company. The senior management overseeing development isn’t likely to institute 20% time any time soon. They aren’t going to designate a percentage of hours as play time, but that doesn’t mean that creativity is forbidden or frowned upon. It just means you have to find the time yourself. I’d venture to say that most software developers are salaried employees obligated to 40 hours per week but expected to work more. What if you spend just one hour each day learning something new? You’ll probably still be giving 40+ hours of effort to the “actual work,” but you’ll also be learning new things that interest you. Fast math shows us that 5 hours represents 11% of a 45-hour week so, by taking 1 hour each day you effectively create “10% time” for yourself.  If one hour is too much time for you, take 30 minutes, or do it every other day. Take the time and stick it on the end of your lunch hour if you need a bigger block.

By allocating “you time” and spending it, you’re going to grow professionally, and that benefits both you and your employer. You’ll be better equipped to tackle complex problems in the future, and you’ll have fresh ideas for how to solve old problems. You’ll also have increased job satisfaction because you get to work on things that interest you in addition to your regular assignments. I believe it’s a true win-win scenario. So stop worrying about the hours you’re “given,” and go learn something!

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