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Black Pepper Labs allows innovation to spark

Innovation

As we’ve recently introduced Slack here, at Black Pepper, we’ve been thinking how to make use of its full potential. Granted, it’s both fun and useful for quick chats, but we wanted more.

So we came up with this novel concept of doing Q&A sessions with some of the guys and gals here in the team over Slack, so that we can then give you a glimpse into life at Black Pepper. We settled on one question a day, as most of us do tend to focus on programming, not answering questions asked by the nosy marketer.

In today’s interview, we are getting an exclusive insight into the life of an Innovation Manager.

Giles Paterson is our resident Innovation Manager and, while this role can take any number of forms across various companies, we thought it might be useful to explain our take on it.

Sound interesting? Read on to find out more.

How did your story with Black Pepper begin?

Well, I joined Black Pepper in 2013, around spring time. Prior to that I'd spent the past 7 years or so working for the West Midlands Fire Service, in their applications development team.

I joined BP because I was looking for a new challenge, and wanted an environment with more highly skilled and experienced folks - having spent a long time in one place, it's easy to fall into the trap of doing things the same way all the time. So I wanted to join a company that was going to provide me with a variety of experiences and lots of technical challenges - which Black Pepper certainly does.

Now let’s have a bit of fun: if you were a programming language, what would you be and why?

I can't pick just one!

Tough cookie, because you have to :)

Ok, If I absolutely have to pick only one, then I'd go for Python as it's versatile, straightforward, but powerful enough to dive deep into a problem should the need arise. It's also irrationally strict about formatting.

What was your favourite project you worked on at Black Pepper so far?

Again, this is another tricky question but since I know you'll push me for a single answer, then I guess I'd have to pick only one project.

It was a project for which we had to develop the shop infrastructure and services to be used by a multiplayer game that our client were developing.

We developed the shop infrastructure that would integrate with their existing content management (custom in-game assets) tools and their payment gateway. The game client would talk to the shop service so that when a player met a shop keeper in-game, then items available and their prices would come from the shop service. Additionally, there was a shop website that players could access outside of the game, so we had to handle delivering items to the in-game world that had been purchased outside of it.

There were quite a few interesting aspects, one of which was the fact that everything would be purchased using in-game currency, but players (who had used real money to buy the in-game currency via the payment gateway) might try and get refunds for their purchases (or credit card payments might be reversed at some future point etc.). This meant we had to track every item purchased and link in-game currency transactions to the real world currency transactions, so that the game admins would be able to remove purchased items from the game if needed.

The team that worked on this project was small, with only 2 people from Black Pepper, but we worked closely with the client and had daily (remote) stand-ups with their development team, so everything worked really smoothly.

It was interesting to work with a client who was a development house themselves, rather than a typical business customer or IT department. Plus the domain language was much more interesting - it's much more fun talking about Heroic Swords, crafting materials and crystals than employee records or document workflows ;)

Besides the programming, what do you like most about Black Pepper?

Definitely the people. Everyone who works here is passionate about what we do, and they're not short on opinions or experience, which makes for an exciting and stimulating working environment. I think most people here are keen to learn and improve - nobody sits around expecting to do the exact same thing day in day out - so that makes for some extremely interesting and passionate discussions. Everyone's keen to share their knowledge and to learn from others, so things like our Brown Bag talks, stand-ups, company retrospectives and even just conversations in the kitchen are really great. Everyone is open to new ideas and that extends to the company culture as a whole - there's no ponderous hierarchy, anyone can make a suggestion about how to improve things and be taken seriously.

How about we lighten up the mood with a series of quick questions? Pick your favourite without thinking too much, okay?

Sure.

Windows or Linux?

Linux.

Facebook or Twitter?

Twitter.

Android or iOS?

Android.

Xbox or PS4?

Probably PS4, although I don't actually have one. My console collection is limited to a PS2 and Wii - most of my gaming is done on Android or Steam these days.

Batman or Superman?

Batman.

Lord of the Rings or Star Wars?

Lord of the Rings.

Game of Thrones or Doctor Who?

Game of Thrones.

Fish and Chips or Sunday Roast?

Sunday roast.

Lager or ale?

Ale.

Black pepper or salt?

Black pepper - I put it on everything!

Right, back to full sentences now. What does an Innovation Manager do at Black Pepper?

It's a varied job and there's isn't a concise definition as the role is still evolving, particularly as I and the company learn and better understand what our needs are, in terms of innovation.

Initially the role was to manage our Labs programme, which is an effort to encourage people to come up with product and service ideas and to allow us to quickly evaluate and try them out, in the spirit of failing fast and learning from our experiences. However, the role has grown from that to encompass the wider remit of fostering innovation throughout the company. For example, I've trained in facilitation methods to help run our workshops better and am encouraging others within the company to develop similar skills as this helps us not only run better meetings but to better help our customers.

I'm currently looking at ways we can offer some of our innovation skills and experience to our customers as a service, particularly in areas such as identifying and solving their business problems, rather than them just coming to us once they have a solution in mind - the aim being to ensure our customers are solving the right problem in the right way.

You’re very much involved with our Black Pepper Labs initiative. Tell us more about that – you can start with the colour of your lab coat.

The only Lab coat I have ever possessed is my one from A-Level chemistry. In the tradition of school boy japes, it had various slogans burnt into it with dangerous chemicals, so it was mostly grey and brown.

Black Pepper Labs is our main scheme to foster innovation within the company. It has quite a broad remit, but it allows anyone to submit an idea for a new product, service or internal improvement. The ideas are available to everyone in the company, so that feedback can be given or the ideas can be remixed with other suggestions to improve them. Successful ideas can be picked up to be worked on and further feedback gained, fuelling further iterations of the idea. Everyone in the company gets at least a week of Labs time each year that they can book to work on ideas or new technologies & tools that are in the ‘Assess’ ring of our Tech Radar; this gives everyone the opportunity to do something new and interesting and to make Black Pepper a better place to work.

If an idea is larger or would require more effort to evaluate it, such as an idea from the Sales team based on customer needs, then they get scheduled and run as a mini internal project. A recent example of this was an app to investigate and demonstrate beacon based technologies, such as iBeacons and Google Eddystone, as location based technologies were something several of our customers have expressed an interest in.

Labs is essentially our R&D process and it provides a straightforward way for anyone in the company to suggest an innovation and get it quickly evaluated. We're always refining the process and looking for ways to make innovating easier and quicker but the key point of it is that we want to make Black Pepper a better place to work and to improve the services we provide to our customers.

What additional skills does a software developer need to be a good Innovation Manager?

This is a really interesting question and it's probably one that doesn't have a single answer. I think the best way I can answer it is by listing some of the skills and characteristics that I think I bring to the role.

  1. An interest in new things. The ability to keep abreast of developments and trends is a key skill. This doesn't mean that the Innovation Manager should be coming up with all the ideas, but you need to be able to help guide people and their ideas in promising directions. It's really about having a general awareness of industry trends (and trends from other industries too, to help with cross-pollination). A related skill is the ability to process and summarise a large amount of information quickly, but I think that's something most software developers do anyway - it's just applying it to a different area.
  2. Facilitation skills. To get the best out of limited time and resources, workshops and discussions need to be facilitated to prevent them going round in circles or off on tangents. I've done some training in the Technology of Participation methods and would recommend those as practical skills you can apply. I was after practical skills rather than more psychological based courses, being a software engineer ;) I'm naturally introverted so getting up in front of a group of people to talk and lead them through a process doesn't come naturally to me, however it's a skill you can easily acquire through practice - you don't need to be an extrovert to do this job.
  3. The ability to let go is also important. It's tempting to think that I can solve all the problems and come up with all the ideas myself but that's not true – nor is it required. As much as I'd like to be trying out cool new things all the time, my colleagues are super smart and full of ideas and experiences of their own, so I need to be able to let them innovate. The group can come up with better, more robust ideas and innovations than an individual would, and helping them combine ideas and knowledge to produce something better, rather than settling for the lowest common denominator, is where I come in and can provide the most benefit.

This isn't an exhaustive list, but hopefully it's indicative of the kind of skills and views that go into being an Innovation Manager. I'm still developing my skills and am constantly refining the role as well, so maybe the most important skills are a desire to learn and the ability to apply what you learn to yourself.

Because we like to be transparent and take pride in how business as usual goes on in our office, we’ll post more of these interviews, trying to offer you a rounded view of how our team see Black Pepper and feel about coming to work every day. You can read our previous interviews here and look out for the next one!