Top CTOs on the keys to innovation

Remaining technologically creative over time isn’t only a matter of smarts, talent or intuition. The three most recent recipients of the Northern Virginia Technology Council-Washington Technology CTO Innovator Awards say that they rely on structured approaches and strategies to stay on top of technology and market trends. They reason their way through the hype and come up with effective solutions to the most pressing problems currently facing both industry and government.

Tim Hoechst, co-founder and CTO of Agilex, H. Gilbert Miller, corporate vice president and CTO of Noblis, and Neil Siegel, vice president and chief engineer of Northrop Grumman’s Technical and Engineering Group, recently talked to Washington Technology about the challenges their customers are facing and how they innovate to meet unique and ever-changing requirements.

Sprinting to Success

Being innovative for innovation’s sake is just as potentially adverse as deploying technology for technology’s sake, said Hoechst, who leads Agilex’s internal research and product development organization and is the executive sponsor and point man for most strategic client engagements.

“We are definitely not in the business of sending people into labs to invent things just in case somebody needs them,” he said. “The innovation that we do is in the context of a customer problem, so we try and get invited by our customers to help solve their hardest problems.”

Agilex, though, steers away from long-standing industry norms for proposal development. Instead of coming back to the table with a singular, long-term solution, the Agilex team will suggest two or three different approaches that they believe will work and then ask agency personnel for the chance to test them out.

As a result, almost all of Agilex’ projects now start with a proof phase wherein small teams of senior IT specialists and engineers will work through each solution to make sure the approach lends itself well to the agency’s data environment, doesn’t falter when put to the test and improves the user’s ability to meet their mission requirements.

“As obvious as this sounds, the idea of testing different solutions before you actually fully invest in one has been really refreshing to our government customers,” Hoechst said. “We have no qualms then to go back them and say, ‘This first approach is not the right one because our testing has shown us that you should do this other approach.’ Agencies are pleased that we’re taking time to be certain, rather than just barreling along without first making sure that it’s the absolute right solution for their situation.”

Agilex’ strategy, which relies on agile software development methodologies, is also iterative, whereby solution teams work in short, incremental time periods, or what Hoechst refers to as “sprints.”

“Everybody is engaged very actively during those periods and involved at the end of the two weeks when we review for progress and innovation successes,” Hoechst said. “Even if we find that we’re going down a wrong path, that’s perfectly fine because it means that we’ll fail quickly, learn from it and adjust our course appropriately.”

After two, three, even eight of these “sprints,” he said, “we usually end up in a place that’s very different than where we started because we learned and innovated along the way to create the right solution.”

Miller agreed with the philosophy that failure is not always a bad thing—“as long as it means we’re learning something new and advancing a solution.”

He strongly encourages “persistent experimentation” at the Noblis Innovation and Collaboration Center (NICC), a facility he helped launched in 2010 to provide a shared space for Noblis personnel and clients to work together to prototype, analyze and model and simulate ideas and solutions. That same philosophy will also be embraced at Noblis’ new Center for Applied High Performance Computing (CAHPC), which opened in early February in Danville, Va., and is home to a Cray XMT2 supercomputer. Both facilities are designed to get supercomputers out of the labs and into the field to accelerate the development and commercialization of applications.

“The speed at which we’re able to operate because we’re able to do many things faster allows us to do some interesting innovation—and that’s because we can experiment much more rapidly,” Miller said.

Singular Vision

Neil Siegel, vice president and chief engineer of Northrop Grumman’s Technical and Engineering Group, demands that he and his senior engineers always be of two minds, one focused on technology and the other on the customer’s problems. “I don’t want to have a meeting where on one side of the table I have the people who understand the customer and on the other side I have the people who understand the technology,” he said. “I want all of that knowledge in one brain, because in my view, having it all in one place with no friction between is where the innovations come from.”

Siegel, who oversees 14,000-plus engineering professionals, runs Northrop Grumman’s $200 million-plus research portfolio and leads the development of engineering solutions for the most complex and important problems faced by the Defense Department, the intelligence community and other agencies, said that this approach not only allows him to come up with creative solutions to customer problems but also elevates the offerings to a price-performance level that will allow the company to succeed in a more financially austere environment.

He said that a key to innovating effectively for his customers is to study the commercial industry and understand what problems they’re addressing and—more importantly—what problems they’re not addressing. “I have a set of people that are engaged on that side of the aisle, trying to understand what technology trends are coming out of the private sector, how we can use what they’re doing and determine what critical technology gaps they’re leaving unfilled,” he said. “There’s no point in our spending money to duplicate the work that’s being done by commercial industry, so this helps us understand what we’ll need to address in our research.”

Evolution of the Mind

Keeping up with technology trends and who’s doing what is a critical part of successful innovation, and each of the three award winning CTOs said it can’t be done willy-nilly. The most important step is for CTOs to take the time to seek out and talk to senior executives within customer organizations, Hoechst said. He also makes it a point to read industry-specific research and hold knowledge-sharing get-togethers with his team to make sure everyone is in the know on how customer problems and industry trends are affecting the company’s core competencies and customers.

Miller said that the real key to system engineering is evolution. “Delivering static solutions, point solutions in time, is useless,” he said. “You’ve got to be looking to the future of how things are changing over time and how technologies that are currently bleeding edge will in five years be near commodity, and you need to be talking about what is happening in the marketplace and what is happening in terms of the culture and the adoption of new technologies.”

Noblis takes a structured approach to keeping up with technology. Miller has long used a full-time staffer to put together the “Noblis Daily Brief,” which reports on the very latest happenings in technologies that the company is focused on, and also brings in recently published experts for a speakers series known as “Technology Tuesdays.”

“We do lots of reading and talking among ourselves inside the company to develop ideas, of course, but we also proactively look to sources outside the company and get a good look at the horizon of what is coming down the pike,” Miller said. “We then take all the ideas generated from those approaches and roll them into our R&D programs. It’s a continual cycle and it is critical to discovering new ideas and applying them in a way that enables innovative breakthroughs.”

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