What about R&D in web agencies ?

June 30, 2008

Be productive. The more productive you are, the better. No kidding. That’s business 101. Never been told to get something out of the door, no matter what ? That’s right, quality doesn’t stand a chance against productivity. That’s sad. But we have to deal with it. How did we get there ? No idea. All I know is that it started with a pretty good idea : Focus on what you do best, forget about the rest. I do realize that this sentence sums up pretty badly over 200 years of economics, but hopefully, you get the point.

Principle of the comparative advantage in web agencies

If my one-liner didn’t cut it for you, or if you’re not familiar with Ricardo and the principle of the comparative advantage I’d recommend reading it up on Wikipedia.

I don’t know about your company, but the internal organization of a medium-sized web agency is tightly based on this principle, and, IMO, it makes perfect sense.

Of course, it’s not about rice, food or manufactured products, but skills. Yup, skills. Programming skills, creative skills, organization skills & every skill that’s required to the manufacturing of a web product.

You get the idea, creative people do creative stuff better than programming people, so it makes sense for them to focus exclusively on the creative side of the project and letting other people, whose skills are more appropriate, handle the rest. It’s all for the best, really. And you’ve no idea how happy I am to focus on programming and not having to deal with invoicing!

For a second, forget about innate skills. As of today, nobody was born knowing how to write Python code nor adding a gradient overlay in Photoshop CS3. It’s something we had to learn.

We’ve been hired because our skills matched the job requirements. Because we knew something that is valuable. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that our company would love to get the most out of this. That’s the deal. They pay us, we work for them, and we produce something that has more value that the sum of all the costs involved in the manufacturing. That’s still business 101. Enough about business, now comes web stuff.

The constant evolution of web technologies

As you know, the technologies we use undergo constant evolution. Since 1990, Adobe released 10 major versions of Photoshop, we can now do real programming in Flash (private joke) & there are more programming languages than spoken languages in the world (okay, I made this one up, but you get the point). Things have changed, and most of them, for the better.

And there’s no need to go all the way back to 1990 to notice some drastic changes. Remember when Actionscript 1 was all the rage ? Now take a look at Actionscript 3, and tell me if there’s anything in common between these two languages ? The stop(); function maybe ?

Joking aside, our tools get more and more sophisticated/powerful. They should make things simpler for us, reduce tedious work and make us more productive. But we have to learn how to use these new or updated tools. How can you use something you don’t even know it exists ? Being up-to-date can take quite some time. There’s only so many hours in the day, and we rarely get the chance to try something new, because deadlines were set based on what we did before. To be read with a dramatic tone : The benefits are not always immediate, and in a world ruled by ROI & where immediacy often prevails over long-term benefits, we’re not really given the choice.

The long-term costs of outdated skills

No need to be a genius to understand that if you don’t keep up with recent evolutions in web technologies, you’re already one step behind. So what about those skills you had 5 years ago ? They’re totally out. HTML table-based layouts anyone ? You need to keep track of what’s new, one step at a time, or you’ll have it bad. Frontpage expertise doesn’t make you a rock star these days.

Now think about it when everyone in the company needs to upgrade his/her skills. Ouch. What was hot (read very valuable), is falling out of flavor in no time. And if you’ve made this expertise the core business of your company, you’re in troubles, seriously.

The magic solution: Research & Development

I used to think about R&D as white labs with mad scientists making some weird experiments with viscous green lava. While reality isn’t as entertaining, R&D is becoming one of the most powerful competitive advantage. Enough with business jargon, you’ve now successfully passed Business 101. Congratulations.

Experiments are not something that are actively encouraged in most web agencies. It’s all about being productive remember? So why should we care for experimental projects ? Well, while some might never make it past the experiment stage, some could turn out to be real productivity boost and thus generate more revenues. Greedy shareholders will appreciate! Google is famous for it’s R&D policy, each engineer is encouraged to spend up to 20% of his time working on experimental projects. You all know the story about Gmail, don’t you ?

Of course, R&D has a cost. Allocating 20% of your resources to something that could never see the light of the day implies some risks and is not suited for the faint-hearted. But after all, isn’t running a company an exercise in risk management ?

Bonus: Intangible outcomes

By encouraging your employees to broaden or improve their skills on company time, you’re not only keeping the motivation high, you’re also building trust, and giving them personal satisfaction.

Everyone’s happy to be friend with the new cool kid on the block. I promise.

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Hi, I’m Tim. I’m a Software Engineer at Formspring.me. You can read more about me or follow @pims on Twitter or ask me almost anything on Formspring.me