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When to Try New Technology
An Interview with Tom Soderstrom, CIO, Jet Propulsion Labs
Tom is IT Chief Technology Officer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Los Angeles, CA, and a member of the Enterprisers Editorial Board. JPL is the lead U.S. center for robotic exploration of the solar system and conducts major programs in space-based Earth sciences, including the Mars Science Laboratory mission with the Curiosity rover. JPL currently has several dozen aircraft and instruments conducting active missions in and outside of our solar system.
How do you know when to try new technology at JPL?
This effort often starts with me but very rapidly involves other people. We look at several factors:
1. What’s coming in consumer technology that we can use in our enterprise?
If you can find a big technology trend coming from the consumer space and know how it works inside your enterprise by the time it becomes popular, everyone will be happy. There’s no training necessary because that’s what people already use in their homes. A really easy example is YouTube. We saw YouTube coming a mile away and built JPL Tube, which looks a lot like YouTube but sits inside our firewall. We did that as a prototype and quickly tested it and went live with it. And in four years, we’ve had three support calls. That’s because it’s instinctive and people know how to use it.
2. What ideas are coming from inside our own organization?
We employ a very active solicitation of ideas. For example, we hold many IT innovation seminars at JPL. We get ideas from the JPL CIO Technology Advisory Board, many working groups, individual engineers, scientists, business people, and much more.
3. What interesting ideas are coming from industries like our own?
We look at aerospace, research institutions, universities, federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs), and NASA. We also talk with startups and our business partners. If we see an idea and or a technology often enough, then it might be time to try that technology.
4. What kind of business problems are we trying to solve where technology can help?
We don’t prototype technology because prototyping is fun (although it is fun). We prototype because it’s will give us new functionality and will help solve a business problems. Our business is Space, so our business problem could be in any domain from engineering to science to business to personal productivity.
5. Finally – and this is perhaps the biggest thing of all when you ask, “When is it time to try a new technology?”
We look for what we call Return on Attention, or ROA. You won’t ever get Return on Investment from a prototype. In fact it’s the opposite: it costs money and you don’t get a financial return. But, if we have a customer or user who is extremely interested (we have their attention), we will prototype a new technology together with them quickly and inexpensively, because it looks likely to get ROA. We will learn something from this prototype. Perhaps it’s that it was a bad idea, and we will take the blame. However, if it works they get the credit. They will demonstrate the prototype to their peers and end users or customers and now it’s a slam-dunk that it will go into pilot mode and become a highly used and successful implementation. That’s the benefit of ROA.
All that being said, we also have to know when to give up on a prototype. Even if it’s my personal favorite, I look at the numbers and if they don’t add up, I drop it like a hot potato and do something else. It’s hard when it’s somebody’s wonderful idea and you have to say, “No, this didn’t really work, and here’s why.” You have to measure it and document it. And if an end user or customer says, “It didn’t really work,” then it’s time to stop it.