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Building a Culture of Developer Innovation: A Q&A With Engineering Leaders at HP Enterprise and Bounce

Attracting and hiring the right developers is key to building a high-performing engineering team. But without a culture of innovation, even high-performing teams can grow static. To evolve as an engineering organization—and as a company—leaders have to enable their teams to continuously innovate.

So how can tech leaders tap into the talent, ideas, and creativity of their engineering teams? While short-term events like hackathons can create bursts of new ideas, for most, they’re not a long-term solution. To stay on the cutting edge, teams need to cultivate a culture of innovation where new ideas, experiments, and failures are not only allowed, but embraced.

Our own Aadil Bandukwala hosted Hari Karunanidhi, Pallavi Mahajan (VP & Head of Software Engineering, Compute at Hewlett Packard Enterprise), and Bharath Devanathan (SVP of Growth and Electric Vehicles at Bounce) to learn how they build teams that facilitate continuous innovation. Watch the full Q&A below, or read on for our key takeaways.

How do you balance the need to maintain existing systems with the need to innovate?

According to Pallavi, balancing the existing needs of the business with the need to innovate is a delicate balance. To her, it starts with understanding how you can innovate within the work your team is already doing. Who are your customers, and what do they need? What need is your product fulfilling for their business? By thinking in terms of the customer, she says, you can find incremental, but meaningful ways to innovate on what you’re already working on.

The most important piece, Pallavi says, is to empower your team to come up with new ideas, and to pursue them. She does this by creating a failure-friendly environment. It’s an environment where failure is seen as a natural part of the innovation process, giving developers the confidence to try out new ideas.

And Bharath agrees. He says the goal is to create an environment where developers can “fail first” over and over. It means that the team has room to make mistakes—but encouraged to make new mistakes instead of repeating the same ones. Creating sandbox environments that only affect small pools of users, he says, makes this process even easier.

In addition, Hari says it’s important to think critically about tech debt. To him, it’s a balance of determining which tech debt is (or isn’t) worth repaying. Code that’s old, but perfectly functioning, for example, might not be worth addressing in the immediate. By freeing the team up, he says, you can leave more room for innovation.

What’s the best way to build a culture that invites experimentation?

When it comes to building a culture that invites experimentation, Pallavi advocates for a user-centric, non-hierarchical team. The goal is to expose the team to the problems they’re solving, and to empower them to fail fast, learn, and improve over and over. By creating an environment where hierarchy is limited, she says, it can help ensure the best ideas are the ones that win.

And Bharath’s philosophy is similar. Bringing engineering and product teams closer to business problems, he says, is a great way to spur new ideas. Bharath uses smaller, cross-functional teams or pods—similar to the now famous Spotify model—to tackle specific business problems end-to-end.

Hari also advocates for bringing product and engineering teams closer to the problems of the business. He points out that there’s a false, but powerful idea that because engineers’ time is valuable, they should be insulated from core business problems, and from customers. But on the contrary, he believes that the more exposure they have, the more empowered they’ll be to experiment.

What kinds of talent do you hire to promote innovation at scale?

Creating a culture of innovation is a dream for any technical leader. And that starts with hiring the right developers.

To find developers with a knack for new ideas, Bharath suggests reading resumes from the bottom up. He starts by reading about the candidate’s achievements, interests, and the like. In his experience, it’s candidates that pursue their own passion projects that are most driven to create new solutions at work. But there’s no silver bullet.

Pallavi, however, focuses on two things when constructing a team: attitude and diversity. Aptitude, she says, can be compromised on some level—but a self-starting, problem-solving attitude can’t be replaced. She’s also a strong believer in building highly diverse teams. It’s the mix of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives within the team that help drive new ideas. And once you’ve built that team of diverse, motivated people, word of mouth will naturally begin to attract more talented developers.

Operationally, how do you construct a people model that encourages innovation?

When it comes to building an innovation-centric model, Bharath says that the model you should follow depends on the stage of your company.

The pod-centric approach

In a startup, for example, he says that a pod-centric model can help teams solve difficult problems. By establishing smaller cross-functional teams that are completely dedicated to solving one problem, they’re more likely to come up with innovative solutions. He says the key is to create teams around problem statements, not just functional areas.

The 80/20 model

Pallavi, on the other hand, employs something that she calls the 80/20 model. In it, she says, 80% of her team focuses on addressing customer asks, and executing on the company roadmap. The other 20% of the team, however, invests in re-architecture and prototyping new ideas.

She doesn’t ask developers to multitask, though. Instead, she asks each developer to be either entirely focused on the roadmap, or entirely focused on innovation, depending on which camp they’re sorted into. If the team can be disciplined about dedicating a set amount of effort towards innovation, she says, it’ll pay off in the long run.

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