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Internal “skunkworks” or innovation teams have been around for a long time. These teams typically push the envelope for established companies by researching and prototyping potential future products. Normally these teams are staffed with members that possess solid technical hands-on ability and industry experience. Although these teams are very knowledgeable, they can become isolated from the current needs of a customer.

To help off-set this isolation and to increase customer empathy, organizations (usually large in size) create customer advisory boards (CABs). The purpose of these groups is to get current customers together to see what they want and need. This approach is most helpful with current product lines and near-term additions. Often, new product ideas that are a significant departure from the current product roadmap are not a result of CAB input.

There has been a lot written about how innovative product ideas are generated, vetted and brought to market. From my colleague Sue Clark’s September blog  “The Journey to Innovation,”  she wrote, “The aspect stressed in both Innovator’s DNA and in Design Thinking is empathy – truly understanding the needs of all the users involved.” Author and speaker Martin Fowler talks about how developers need to be part of small business-oriented teams with a direct path to the customer.

For teams that are helping guide a company’s future roadmap, having direct access to customers and gaining empathy for what customers need is intuitive, but can be logistically challenging. Like many companies, we at Sungard Availability Services (Sungard AS) use multiple methods including CABs, surveys and individual meetings with current and prospective customers to guide our product roadmaps.

For our CTO Labs Team, which is tasked with researching and developing proof-of-concepts (POCs) beyond the current product roadmap, we also use several methods to gain access to customers and to gain empathy for what they want. This includes prototypes, POCs, participating in customer DR events and interacting with customers and users at technology conferences.

For example, at the upcoming AWS re:Invent conference, our CTO Labs team will gather feedback and brainstorm with AWS users on our AWS “availbot”. We encourage you to come by our re:Invent expo booth (#2019) on Tuesday, November 28th between 5:00 and 7:00 p.m., or Wednesday the 29th between 3:30 and 5:30 p.m. to see what we are working on – and more importantly to gain your feedback. For your time and input, we’ll give you a YubiKey courtesy of the Sungard AS CTO Labs team.

We hope to see you at re:Invent!

Todd has over 28 years of IT experience from several perspectives (client side, consulting and the service provider side). Before joining Sungard AS, Todd held several Technical Vice President roles at CenturyLink Technology Services (formerly Savvis) including Storage Architect in the Office of the CTO and Storage and DRaaS Product Owner at Savvis. Prior to Savvis, Todd was a consultant at Maryville Technologies (a Midwest IT consulting firm) and was an architect / platform specialist at SBC (now AT&T). Todd holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from New Mexico State University.

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