Sausage-Making: Get Some R&D Satisfaction

Kelly Ford Buckley . July 3, 2014

At our recent CEO Summit “sausage-making” session focused on R&D, three Edison CEOs and “rockstars” led roundtable discussions on recommended practices for product development leadership and effectiveness. Several key points surfaced that can help any CEO work more effectively with R&D, even if they are not of a technical background.

Before becoming an investor, I spent 15 years in development and sales engineering roles as an individual contributor and manager/director. Growing and maintaining a vibrant R&D organization was the life blood that enabled these startups to grow and thrive, so these stories resonated with me. And if you are not a technical CEO, it is even more important to find a great leader for your development efforts. Hence our first topic…

How to Hire a Great CTO. Billtrust CEO and Founder Flint Lane commented that when recruiting and assessing candidates, the title does not matter (be it CTO, CIO or VP R&D) as much as their answers to key questions. Flint advises CEOs to ask candidates the key questions faced by your business, and make sure the answers are business focused. You must hire a development leader who also understands how R&D impacts the business. If the candidate spends time spouting off technical jargon, you have the wrong person.

sausage making 1The second topic we addressed was Off-Shore vs. Local Development. There was consensus among CEOs that larger R&D groups can do off-shore successfully, but smaller companies may have all of the cost savings eaten up by the additional project management overhead. Some have had success with splitting off QA or maintenance into remote groups. As ever, hire someone who has done it before if you are heading in this direction with your development team.

Our third topic was Product Management. Fiberlink President and COO Chris Clark cleverly recommended combining ownership of product management with that of product delivery. This “keeps the roadmap in the money, the customer experience in the center of the roadmap, and a focus on delivering revenue.” To that end, he advises having an operator in product management, and recommends keeping R&D separate from product management and delivery. In his organizations, product management reported in directly to him, in parallel with development
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Finally, we addressed Innovation. All participants acknowledged the criticality of creating a culture of innovation at your company, and the importance of maintaining that culture your company grows. When innovation cultures are at risk of getting squeezed out, Triblio CEO and Edison Director Network member Andre Yee recommends experimenting with a one-day event for innovation each month. Set aside the day for the developers to code their ideas and then demo them at the end of the day for the team (or even the entire company). Make it fun! The demos can then be reviewed and judged by a group based on technical complexity and impact on the business, and the best ones moved into the product roadmap. This not only helps develop a culture of innovation, but also serves as a great R&D employee retention tool. Often times, compensation is not the top priority of your key players, rather working in a company that values and inspires innovation.
invent compete win

I hope these four ideas help you get some “development satisfaction” for your business. I’d love to hear other ideas on these topics. Feel free to leave a comment here or reach out to me directly at csklarin@edisonventure.com .

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