Archive for the ‘innovation’ Category

My former Intuit Innovation Lab boss, Jana Eggers, posted a tweet today about the IBM Watson X Prize. No surprise there since she’s the CEO of Nara Logics, an AI platform company here in Massachusetts. The X Prize is to encourage the use of AI to help solve society’s big problems. I spent a few minutes googling around to see what people were saying were society’s big problems, and some of the ideas around using big data for solving some of these things.

The problems and solutions I read about were interesting, but not related to my own areas of expertise. However, I did realize something that was, and it all goes back to what I learned in the iLab. I know how to approach a problem, even a seemingly insurmountable one, in ways that may have been overlooked.

So I don’t understand AI systems, although I did once write a learning algorithm to solve a magazine’s puzzle – a brute force path approach that remembered bad paths, so was less likely to try it again. (It did solve the puzzle in about 30 seconds on an old PC.) To me, AI is maybe looking for correlations in data? I realized it’s something we humans do all the time, just slowly and with only a little bit of data.

In the iLab, we looked for surprises – things that were wrong in the data. Everybody will choose the bank with the best rates … but they won’t switch. Estimating is about getting the prices correct using the most up-to-date databases … except it’s the data flow that’s hard, not the prices.

It got me to thinking about AI. Could it look for high-certainty conclusions that were wrong in real life? Could it model what we did in the iLab, such as finding “Creative Rainbow” approaches to resolving problems? I’ve taught creativity techniques that can be done by anyone, even us non-creative engineer types. Could those be taught to a system? What solutions do humans try today to solve some of these problems on the small scale? Could those solutions be applied to society at large? Maybe it’s not about finding solutions, but about applying solutions. Perhaps the AI can find analogues in the successes of other societal transformations, and suggest those analogues as methods for applying the small-scale solutions.

Could Pokémon Go solve poverty?

Maybe the X Prize will go to the team that can teach a computer how to look at data with a creative camera.

Sprint I’ve been on a few Scrum teams now, the latest with my current Intuit Hosting Engineering (HE) position. HE is doing Scrum well, implementing almost all of it as far as I can tell. I recently took the training to be a certified Scrum Product Owner – one of the three primary Scrum roles. It seems like this is what was missing from the Innovation Lab (iLab) processes we used – the “what came next” part that was always a challenge for us.

In the iLab, we had an unmatched process for discovering innovative solutions for tough problems, and getting quickly to the minimum viable feature set. What was tough was then transitioning that to a business unit for development and launch. Scrum takes care of that part of the process.

Diminishing detail What we needed was a feature set that was described in terms of User Stories, detailed deeply enough for a development team to estimate in terms of relative development time (story points). The User Stories would be more than just the minimum viable, getting us over the hump of disbelief on the part of the business – disbelief that the product had enough features. The “minimum viable” would simply be the highest priority user stories, and the entire set would be in the “backlog” – all of the known user stories in diminishing detail.

The cost/time of development would be established if you already had a Scrum team, but it only takes about three Sprints – 1 to 4 weeks – to establish a baseline “velocity” for a new team. Velocity is a simple measure that indicates how many story points that a team can accomplish in a given sprint.

Trifecta When a team follows Scrum, they can become hyper-productive: teams that quadruple their velocity compared to their first sprint. There’s apparently two simple things that get a team to this measure – a backlog that has very well-defined user stories and an automated build that includes automated testing.

I think there’s a trifecta here that, when combined, would be a simple but effective way to make a successful idea into a successful business: front end innovation (iLab style), with lean startup-mindset prioritizing of user stories, developed by a Scrum team.

I was recently asked a question that was, essentially, “What is your perfect job?” What is my passion? After a few moments of thought, I knew exactly what to say.

I’m passionate, work-wise, about three things: two of them I’ve always loved, the third has come about only in the past few years (see Transformation). They are related to each other, but separable in terms of job responsibilities and opportunities.

When I was in eighth grade, living in Reno, I had a friend at school – I don’t even remember his name. But his dad owned some 7/11 stores, and he used a Radio Shack TRS-80 to help him manage them. It was my first glimpse of a “personal computer”. I asked how it worked, and he showed me a “code listing” – lines and lines of BASIC. I could even recognize some of the words! I played Dancing Demon on it and started trying to figure out how to get one of those things.

After working a while as a dishwasher, I managed to save enough to buy a Model I Level II 16K TRS-80 for about $700. I was about to turn 15. I spent many nights and weekends in a scary attic space workroom typing in lines of code from SoftSide magazine and learning how to debug my typing errors using just a language reference manual. Fun stuff!

My first passion reared its head when I was 17, working at a skating rink. I became an assistant manager and started calculating payroll for the employees. I used a rate chart and a calculator, and it took me about 4 hours to do the twenty or so employee time cards every week. With a couple of years programming under my belt, I just knew I could create something on the computer to do this payroll thing for me! It took me a couple of weeks, but I wrote my first computer program that solved a customer’s pain. Including unpacking the computer, running the program with its nice summary printouts, and packing the computer back up, my payroll time was cut in half to just two hours. My first passion is simply:

Solving Customer Pains

I like to visit customers, talk to them, discover ways in which I can help them work better, faster, easier, whatever-er. This is why I created QuickBooks Keyword Search. It’s why I took on consulting jobs like my first paying gig for Plaza Diagnostics. That one took a 2+ week billing cycle for a medical diagnostics firm down to 1 night. From a “hand the papers off to a data processing company running a PDP-11” to “enter the night’s stuff into a T1000” and bill the next day! I interviewed that customer, understood his process, turned it into a program that saved him thousands of dollars. And learned to value my time more – I only charged $90 for that program.(!!!!!)

Today, this translates into visiting customers, talking to them, seeing their work, seeing them work, discovering new ways to help. You know I’m visiting customers if I’m applying for patents! There are always new ideas out there.

My second passion is all about playing around. I like to play with new languages, new platforms, new types of customers, new technologies. When I was coding in BASIC and Z-80 Assembly, I was part of Fidonet, answering questions and creating samples for people. When Windows came around, I wrote VB samples (see and helped folks.

When I was stuck on version 12 or so of the accounting system our team created, I thought I’d go bonkers. I asked my boss if I could write articles for magazines, create some shareware, have some fun!! He told me, “Sure, as long as it is non-competitive with our software.” So I wrote maybe 20 or so articles, several shareware applications – one of them highly successful, and dozens and dozens of sample applications… just fiddling around with functionality and learning new things. I created a 3D rotation and transform wireframe app (it’s on the bbvb site). I tried my hand at games, at network communications tools. I even wrote my own HTML web browser!

Nowadays I still experiment with every language and new technology that comes down the pike. In one week last year, I remember that I coded in: 1) Groovy, 2) VB6, 3) Java, 4) PHP, and 5) Objective C. Groovy was for an app at work, VB6 was a quick and dirty card printer, Java and Objective C were for a Droid phone and iPad respectively, and PHP was the app that worked somewhat with the VB6 thing. I latched onto Smartphones when they first appeared, creating Palm apps and even a floating point emulator in C (of sorts – really it was just a very large integer math library) for the early Blackberries. I can’t help myself… I see an RFID reader for $39.95… wow!! Gotta have it and play with it. Cameras and GPS and motion sensors, big touchscreens… I even bypassed a UPS power switch and wired it to a phone-controlled radio transmitter relay system for remote power cycling of a computer and network switch. All that to state my second passion:


I’m usually pretty good at making connections between a need and a solution. The more I learn about new capabilities in the world of computing, about new technologies and devices, the more connections I can make and the more potential solutions. But mostly, it’s fun! It’s fun because I’m curious, I’m a programmer, so I love to find a real challenge and then figure it out. I’m like a little kid with a cube full of odd-shaped holes and a bunch of plastic shapes. I pick up each one and try to hammer it in a hole, crying out with joy when one fits!

Two down, one more passion left: acting as a catalyst. This one is really my least defined, as I haven’t really been “passionate” about it, or recognized it as something I love, until far more recently that the other two. Oh sure, I enjoyed teaching the occasional class on creativity or visiting customers, and I enjoyed participating in or facilitating brainstorming sessions. But it turned out that what I really like is to just be part of a team that wants to be more creative, wants to try more solutions and possibilities. I want to be a catalyst on that team, spurring people to greater creativity of their own. I want them to empathize with the customer the way I do. I hope that my curiosity will rub off on them. I want to instill the ability and desire to be innovative to others. I have tools that I’ve both learned and created for framing problem spaces, conducting customer visits, taking and understanding notes, using qualitative data to determine which direction a project should take.

I remember standing at the podium in a standing-room only gallery and holding up a bottle of conditioner I’d grabbed from my hotel room. My first words in that session on Walking in your customer’s shoes were, “How many of you tried to use the conditioner from the hotel?” The room erupted in laughter and people calling out – immediate customer empathy! Those little conditioner bottles were diamond shaped, stiff, filled with thick creamy conditioner. It was almost impossible to squeeze out the stuff. Observation! Empathy! Success! I took a whole room full of people and made them customers on a visit to their own hotel.

That’s something I want to do more of, and I’ve found the best way, so far, is to join with teams on their journey toward solving customer problems – be it with new offerings or old.

Be an innovation catalyst

I steal that term unashamedly from my current company, and although I mean the same thing… I think… I want more than short spurts of innovation engagement, rather I want to be part of the entire journey of investigation, learning and development: to be a real part of lots of teams.

So there’s my perfect job: visiting customers, creating offerings that solve their pains, using a variety of solutions and technologies, and as part of a team of innovators.

One of the innovation challenges in a big company is trying to work within the gravity well of the major revenue generating offerings while needing to obtain hardware, software and services that probably shouldn’t co-exist with those important offerings. You can’t spin up a Facebook app server in the same network topology as TurboTax! You probably can’t order RFID hardware from the same vendors you use for your blade servers and laptop computers.

But you can’t just step outside of the gravity well – there are good reasons for the existence of procurement and hardware exception approval processes.

There are times you can bypass it for small or temporary things, and just act like a startup and put it on your corporate credit card. But then the money might not show up in the proper place on various reports, giving the accounting department a real headache, or you clicked “Agree to terms” when you checked out, but those terms are actually not acceptable to your company.

So you have to work with them and initiate your purchase and exception requests through the system. If it’s a great system, then everything flows smoothly, suppliers are found for your stuff, the prices are the best available, and there’s no email back and forth to resolve problems.

You probably haven’t encountered that nirvana yet. Instead, your odd hardware request can’t be fulfilled, so you start on a journey of discovering the people involved in A) getting a proper request created and B) getting the money to the supplier. There is a huge amount of institutional knowledge inside the heads of people who have been around for a while, and especially in functional groups in a big company. You want to spin up a data center server? Talk to this guy. You need to install non-standard hardware? You’ll need her to grant an exception. Want to order from a new vendor? Talk to these people, oh, and maybe that guy has a locally-stored Word document you’ll need to send to the new vendor.

If you have been in the innovative space for as long as I have, you’ve definitely encountered these scenarios! And I hope that, like me, you’ve documented them for future pioneers. I’ve owned several new, unexplored “routes”, including Intuit Labs, Intuit Experimental Hosting, internal wikis and blogs. Those routes are filled with people who need to know, need to approve, or otherwise have some sort of gating role. Using Intuit QuickBase, I created processes that delight the developers and other folks who are using them.

Bottom line: it’s okay to have knowledge tied up with a PERSON, but you need to create a PROCESS that will get to that person and let them document the knowledge that they provide.

Click here to download the TextyDriver application

If you haven’t already done so, you’ll need to install the free Google Text to Speech service. Click here to install it.

It’s inevitable. You’re driving down the road, and you get a text message. What to do, what to do. You can read it – that takes your eyes off the road briefly. But… what if you need to respond? Can you pick up groceries? Make a quick call? Stop and pick up the kids from the mall?

You can text back a response. Dangerous. Trying to type while driving is a pain. Maybe your text message app accepts voice and transcribes it? That’s a little better, but you still have to click on the text field, then find the tiny microphone icon, speak your message, then read it to see if it was correctly transcribed, then press the send button.

Of course, you’re about out of luck if there was a transcription error. You have to try and delete the message and start over.

You could call. But that means more button pressing, locating the contact, getting to the right phone number, pressing the call button.

Enter Texty Driver. Massachusetts, like many states, has outlawed texting while driving – and for good reason! As I wrote above, it’s distracting. So the Texty Driver app is voice command driven. You can setup 3 frequent texters and with one button press, activate the texting sequence.

First, it states the name of the contact you are about to text and tells you to speak your message. When you are finished, just stop talking. The Android operating system on equipped phones, such as my Motorola Droid, will connect to servers and transcribe the message. It’s very accurate and works well even in road-noise environments.

Second, your transcribed message is read back to you. That lets you confirm the accuracy of transcription without looking away from the road. You can respond with “Yes”, “No” or “Cancel”. Yes sends the message, with a voice confirmation. No starts the transcription over, letting you speak your message again. Cancel stops the process.

If the app is kept running, there is an option that lets it speak received messages back to you. If one of the selected contacts responds, the app will convert the message to voice and speak it. However, App Inventor doesn’t currently allow applications to run as background processes, so it won’t speak if something else is running, or if the phone is locked.

Click here to download the TextyDriver application

An email today got me thinking: can a person be taught to have a certain mindset?

At Intuit, we work to create a culture of innovation. We have leadership classes, innovation catalyst training, workshops on innovation tools, design for delight, unstructured time and idea jam sessions. Oh, and brainstorms a plenty.

It seems that when a culture, even a business culture, yells loudly enough, and often enough, that people begin to think about that topic, even when they aren’t prompted. So we yell loud and often about innovation, and people think about “innovation” in their projects. And they come talk to the innovators and leaders, get guidance, that sort of thing.

After a while, it does seem that a new mindset can begin to emerge. What you need is a good request/response system, and lots of advertising. And, of course, successes you can point out.

I think I’m rambling on a bit here… but there’s a second method: immersion. If you put an innovative person in a leading role in a project, the others are bound to see the mindset in action. Different ways of thinking about a problem will emerge. New tools will be discovered. Paths to success will never be random again: rather each new button or widget will have an impact on the bigger goal.

This is the best way to shift the mindset – model it from a position of authority, and others will see the benefits and begin to emulate it.

radicalI’m participating in a brainstorming and design session during the first weekend in August for a medical foundation in California. As part of the preparation, the participants were given a disruption exercise.

disruptionI think of disruption in the sense described by Clayton Christensen in his books, “The Innovator’s Dilemma” and “The Innovator’s Solution”.  In brief, the books document research into how large, established businesses are overtaken by a competitor. For instance, he documents how Big Steel was disrupted. The cycle went something like this: 1) Big foundries produced all kinds of steel products, from low-quality commodity items like rebar to high quality auto parts. 2) Electric arc furnaces were created that could melt scrap metal into low quality rebar. 3) Big foundries and their investors were happy to get out of this low-end market and focus on their most profitable products. 4) Arc foundries found themselves in a rebar commodity market, so they invented ways to make higher quality steel. 5) Big foundries were happy to drop the I-Beam commodity market. 6) And so on…

Big Steel was disrupted by their low-end electric arc furnace competitors, because they didn’t expect that relinquishing the customers that they really didn’t want would eventually lead to relinquishing customers that they really did want and need.

The books document the same pattern in other industries such as hard disk drives, business computers, car manufacturers and many others.

google amazon netflix

Our activity was to think of why Google, Amazon and Netflix were disruptors.

1. Characterize why these were disruptive innovations. Why were they successful?

– Google: At first Google didn’t have as much content as the leader (Yahoo). Yahoo’s links were user-categorized, so they were typically well-categorized. Google’s proprietary algorithm used a likely factor in relevancy and usefulness of a link, but it wasn’t very accurate unless it had a lot of pages indexed. Yahoo’s manual categorization of links becomes unwieldy when the number of links is huge, so their links and categories became less relevant as Google’s algorithm gained in accuracy thanks to the number of indexed pages.

– Amazon: Shopping in the real world is typically about making a choice as to which store or shopping center you will go to. Your product selection is fairly meager. Even with Amazon’s initial books offering, they could offer tens of thousands more books than even the largest retail center. Online shopping was also difficult in general, since you had to visit individual company websites to find information about products. Amazon separated the sale and distribution of products from the product manufacturers and made THAT their business. They became the “mall” in online shopping – a mall with a single checkout point where you never have to wait.

– Netflix: Renting and returning movies to a local retail location has never been a great experience. Although browsing for movies is sometimes rewarding, it’s not significantly better than browsing for movies online. The problem with the local center is the similar to that of Amazon – lack of selection. Netflix has such a large movie selection that it immediately surpassed retail outlets. The added convenience of quick delivery as well as a queue for the next movie made it quickly the best solution for renting movies.

2. What has been required to keep them successful?

– Google: The pay-per-click ad model introduced by Google was directly related to their algorithm’s ability to find relevant links, and thus the advertisements in Google were almost always relevant to the search, while Yahoo’s was a banner advertisement system that wasn’t tied to a good algorithm. They’ve also expanded their ad revenue into spaces only tangentially related to search, such as email and other Apps, and other content providers such as blogs.

– Amazon: They seem to have recognized that although an online product selection is far better than retail, it still doesn’t ultimately scale to the maximum possible variety, as there are still niche and new items that cannot be stocked. The Amazon Stores concept effectively allows any seller to have a “place in the mall”.

– Netflix: The real trick for Netflix is in the numbers. It isn’t financially viable if every Netflix customer continually rented and watched the maximum number of movies – it would cost more money to ship and receive movies than they charge to customers. However, the actual behavior of customers in renting only a few movies per month makes the business viable.

3. What are the biggest threats to their future success? What/who might disrupt them?

– Google: Social networks are getting better at providing link and revenue opportunities and may surpass Search as the primary way of discovering online content. Facebook in particular has more information about the searcher than Google and can potentially serve up content that is more relative. Google’s PageRank algorithm patent expires in 2017.

– Amazon: I believe that Amazon will be harder to disrupt as they have a network effect advantage, Yahoo Stores attempted to compete with them but hasn’t been able to match their product selection. eBay is probably the closest competitor, with their eBay stores, and will likely continue to dominate the collector/used market. One place they likely need to keep abreast is with smart phone shopping paradigms that are emerging, such as a retail browsing with competitive online pricing and comparisons, and with incentive purchases. If an online retailer can figure out how to give purchasing that “personal” touch like you get in an Apple store, they might give people a great reason to switch from Amazon.

– Netflix: Streaming content delivery will almost certainly eliminate the Netflix DVD rental business, but Netflix seems to be fairly well positioned to take advantage of it. Their most likely disruptor is YouTube and other free content providers. YouTube is already disrupting some types of media such as comedy television and music videos.


I was recently added to a team that is trying to come up with some tools that will help facilitate innovation training. It got me to thinking about what software I’ve created that was “delightful” in the spirit of Intuit’s d4D practices – Design for Delight.

searchI quickly came up with at least three things that I had developed end-to-end, from customer problem to delightful solution: Keyword Search, Intuit unstructured time hosting and (actually its predecessor, Keyword Search brought full text search to QuickBooks back in 2005 as an add-on. It’s being released inside of QuickBooks proper for 2011. Hosting is an offering internal to Intuit, giving teams the ability to rapidly launch applications while still complying with Intuit privacy, security, etc. stuff. Intuit Labs, originally “”, showcases Intuit innovation.

fast So what made these offerings delightful? I was able to come up with two common factors that are repeated by customers. The first is speed. All three radically changed how quickly the task could be accomplished. Keyword Search became invaluable to small business owners, causing some to eliminate multiple methods of filing. One of the early Alpha testers, after running a search, exclaimed simply, “Wow!”

With hosting, the time to get a working instance that complied with Intuit security and privacy went from months to just hours. A team could spin up a LAMP or Tomcat stack and have it in front of customers, without going through the traditional data center processes that existed to protect our larger applications and sensitive customer data. A new, isolated zone let them experiment without risking customer information.

Intuit Labs is part of that experiment zone, enabling the security, legal and privacy issues to be addressed within a single, rapid, standardized process.

impossibleThe next factor is enabling the impossible. Before Keyword Search, there was no way to search for text within certain fields of QuickBooks, such as a memo field or line item descriptions. Many small businesses use these locations for critical information such as item serial numbers, but finding them meant having to know something else about the transaction, then visually scanning through potentially years worth of data.

With hosting, teams were limited to public applications that used only the default hosting environments, This prevented rapid experimentation using new platforms such as Facebook or Google Apps. Intuit Labs gave experimenters a place to connect with customers and application users. The only place for this in the past was on the larger Intuit offering websites – not the best place for, say, a Facebook experiment!

So what I have now is at least some kind of framework for creating delightful offerings:

Is the offering so much faster than any other choice, that you can’t imagine going back to the old way?

Is the offering enabling something that was previously impossible?

Those are two questions I’m going to be answering in any future offering.

I came up with at least 3 things – 2 of which I developed end-to-end, from customer problem to delightful solution. The third is back when I was working as accounting software lead for TAASC. I re-wrote the payroll module for EasyACCT, and it was many times faster than before as well as much easier to update.