Diving Deep into R&D: Expert Interview
Recent research states that the only way to stay innovative for a big company is to support R&D. However, some companies, even those that have long-term plans for innovation development, still worry whether R&D is worth the investment.
Sigma Software has years of experience mastering innovative approaches and technologies. In 2017, the company`s R&D center was divided into regional hubs, each having own niches to develop. What are the main pitfalls businesses face when it comes to running R&D centers, and does investing in R&D really ensures a company being innovative? We are talking to Maxim Kovtun, Head of West R&D hub and Chief Architect at Sigma Software.
Maxim, many experts believe that in the modern dynamic world it is more likely that innovations will come from the outside rather than from within a given company. Would you agree?
I`d say no. I suppose for majority of people, innovation seems to come "from the outside" all the time. However, where is that "outside"? I mean if every small and big company, every entrepreneur believes there's no reason to innovate, because innovation is born elsewhere, there simply will be no innovation at all.
In your opinion, what innovation means?
We usually think of innovation as something futuristic that never existed before, like first personal computers or SpaceX reusable rockets. But innovation is also about doing usual things better and getting better results. What we do at Sigma Software is actually solving our clients` problems with the help of IT systems and technologies. For us, innovation means finding faster and cheaper solutions, giving our customers greater advantage in their businesses.
Finding these ways must be a non-trivial task, isn’t it?
Well, our company actually has a deep experience working with various verticals and knows specifics and peculiarities of different businesses. Diving deep into customer`s domain gives us an understanding of what is needed. We build strong relations with our clients; we communicate a lot, we ask, and we listen. However, deep understanding doesn't always mean providing exactly what customer requested. As Henry Ford said: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses". When we are sure technology works, we usually start with creating a proof of concept and a prototype before an idea goes into big investments, analyze market reaction, and then decide whether the idea is ready or needs refinements.
It is a widely spread opinion that R&D does not equal innovation. The innovation is about creating new value for the client through a better offer, while R&D is considered as a good way to elaborate best practice within an industry. R&D at Sigma Software is about processes or about business?
We definitely pay attention to both. Actually, it is not that easy to separate one from another. Processes do not exist for their own sake; their goal is to ensure that best result is delivered to the customers. Processes improvement is always of great importance for any business, since they can ensure the increased quality, faster delivery, lower projects' budgets, or bigger transparency. Even improvements of internal things, like corporate culture and company`s facilities, result in a happier team, which means more qualified specialists are attracted to work with us for our customers.
Technology moves so fast, the world sometimes does not keep up with their development. What Sigma Software does in order to be on a roll with adapting trending directions and ensure being among the pioneers?
Well, being among the pioneers does not mean being among the best and being successful. So, it is not a goal for us. There are so many possibilities out there, that only our imagination and creativity is the limit.
The algorithm for mastering new directions is simple: we gather and analyze information and make decisions based on analysis results. On a practical level, it requires various actions: from monitoring internet sources, cultivating a culture of information and knowledge sharing inside the company, visiting professional events as attendees and as speakers, taking part in hackathons to getting hands-on experience and checking how technology works, where it can be applied, and whether it can be of help creating new value to our customers.
How Sigma Software R&D center was established and when? What technologies are mastered within it? Why the decision was made to divide it into regional hubs?
Sigma Software performed R&D activities for many years; there was no official launch, since we believe actual work and results mean more than grand openings. Due to our R&D activities, we became one of the first companies in Ukraine to master AR/VR competence and get field experience. This helped us starting several very challenging commercial projects in the area. Among the directions we take a close look at are Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, Embedded Development and IoT, blockchain and cybersecurity, infotainment and connected cars.
Oftentimes when we hear "R&D center" we think of a team or a department of people dedicated to R&D activities. In Sigma Software, we believe that innovation and creativity is not a limited resource, we are sure it is present in each and every of our colleagues. World experience shows that many solutions to hard problems were found by or due to specialists not in a domain of those problems. Our R&D activities are organized in such a way that everyone can participate. Having regional hubs is just a natural consequence to having people working with R&D in all locations.
The company has launched an equipped R&D lab. What for?
Through the last decade majority of technologies and tools became more friendly and available to a wide audience. That is a clear trend happening not only in software development, but in hardware development as well. Imagine you have an idea of a smart umbrella, which accesses the internet and checks if it will rain in your city today and warns you to take it with you when leaving home? You no longer need a team of programmers, a bunch of connectors, oscilloscopes, etc., to create a working prototype. Creating new hardware nowadays is as simple as creation of new mobile application. To support this trend, to motivate the team for creativity, we have set up a laboratory equipped with everything needed to span, say, a first robot or a smart device, or just experiment and make research to enhance new competences :-).
Instead of summing up, please name the companies you think the most innovative today :-)
Elon Musk and his companies (Tesla, SpaceX, OpenAI, SolarCity) are the perfect examples for me. What they do and how they do that is very inspiring.