Hidden Businesses   by Lorien

There’s a new business hiding in your development team…

Do you have a group of smart, dynamic and hard working developers and engineers at your company? If the answer is no or not really, then you have larger problems that aren’t addressable here.

The answer should be yes, but that also carries a challenge. There’s a good chance that one or all of the following is happening at this moment:

  1. A good many of those developers and engineers may not be completely fulfilled by working on the same project day after day;
  2. Most, if not all, have ideas for a piece of software, an app, a different process, or maybe even a full start-up business;
  3. In their spare time, they’ve written some code to play around with and test a few of those ideas;
  4. Some are considering leaving to pursue their idea or work on something new;
  5. One or two of those ideas is actually a great idea for the existing business or as an entirely new business;

As a manager or executive, what should you do?

You’re probably aware of how Google and 3M encourage their engineers to work on company-related side projects. NPR is now experimenting with something called Serendipity Day where all of their engineers forget their day to day jobs and work on… whatever they want.

Joel Spolsky over at Fog Creek Software has written extensively about the need to keep developers excited and motivated year after year.

Bugrocket was the result of Ryan, a developer at pingg.com, being unsatisfied with the complication and time required to use Bugzilla. I suspect he was also filling a personal need to be creative and solve a different set of problems. In his spare time, he built a lightweight bug tracking tool to make life easier for himself and the other developers at pingg. Ryan brought the idea of switching over to his home built tool to the development team and they embraced it.

It wasn’t until a few months later that the idea evolved into a new business. We happened to be talking about new startups in the lean development and productivity space. Matt, our CTO, mentioned that Ryan had created this bug tracking tool that the team had been using.

Light finally dawned. Someone asked, “Well, if the tool is effective for us, are other small teams like ours dealing with this same problem? Could we share it and address that need?” We approached Ryan about turning the app into a small business on the side. He would be the founder in his spare time and we could help him execute. Thus, Bugrocket was born.

There’s no guarantee Bugrocket will be a successful commercial venture. But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe it’s more about encouraging your team to solve problems that are interesting to them. Maybe there’s value in empowering people’s ideas.

The net result is certainly positive. Pingg has a tool that drives efficiency for our development team. A team member feels acknowledged that his tool was useful and feels empowered that we supported him to take it to the next level. We all are having a bit of fun expanding our learning of lean development, project management and bug tracking.

My recommendation — don’t wait for the ideas to come to you. Be more proactive with your development team. Ask your engineers what ideas they are thinking about that have nothing to do with your core business. Encourage and support them in pursuing new ideas outside the scope of their daily tasks.

At minimum, you’ll learn more about your team. I would guess they’ll feel acknowledged simply to have their ideas heard. You’ll probably end up with happier, more engaged developers and maybe you’ll find a nice cash flow business or even the next big start-up.