Innovation at Axis: An engineer’s perspective
Post by: Shubhabrata Sen
“Innovating for a smarter and safer world.”
As I walk into work every day, I am greeted by these words on the wall of the reception at the Axis headquarters in Lund. To me, they are a constant reminder of the Axis mission. Consciously or not, I often find myself reflecting upon these words and their impact upon me as an engineer working at Axis. Am I contributing sufficiently to this mission? Is my daily work creative enough to be categorized as being innovative? What does innovation mean to me? These are just some of the questions that keep occurring in my head from time to time. In this post, I will try to highlight my experiences of working with innovation in a personal capacity as well as provide some insights towards organizing events to foster innovation.
Engineer or innovator
By the very definition of the words themselves, an engineer is often a person who builds/designs things whereas an innovator is someone who introduces new methods or ideas. An innovator can often be likened to an inventor (Edison and Tesla are some of the names that immediately spring to mind). So, where do these two identities overlap? As a computer engineer with a research background, I have assumed both these identities separately in their respective contexts. However, the point to ponder upon is whether these two identities can coexist.
The journey towards innovation
Before joining Axis as a software engineer, I was working as a researcher at the Faculty of Engineering at Lund University. At Axis, I joined the Core Technologies – Systems group. Core Technologies work with various aspects of technical areas central to Axis products that require long term strategy and development. There are different sub-groups within the Core Technologies umbrella. In the Systems group, the focus is on investigating and developing technologies that contribute to making Axis products more useful and integral within a complete system.
With container technologies on the rise, one of the first tasks I was entrusted with was putting Docker® on the Axis cameras. I remember being completely clueless about it for the first few days and wondered if I had made a mistake in joining Axis. Gradually, with the help of all my talented colleagues, I finally managed to successfully execute the task. There was a lot of learning and definitely a lot of innovation involved in this task. The process of abstracting the Axis cameras as Linux® boxes and finding out the missing dependencies needed to run Docker containers required a good amount of out of the box (perhaps container might be more suitable) thinking. Was I innovating when executing this task? In retrospect, I do not think I was explicitly considering this as an innovation-based task. But I leveraged my research experience and the skills of working with uncertainty to resolve the task. So, even without actively thinking about it, I managed to be innovative in my own little way to accomplish this goal.
This is an important point to ponder upon – in our own minds, do we regard our daily work as innovation? Based on the general perception about innovation, the outcome of being innovative is supposed to result in something tangible and useful. In most of our minds, a platform like Facebook or a functionality like Google Images™ search service – these are the desired outcomes of innovation. Since it is not always possible for everyone to come up with such an idea, we sometimes tend to stifle the creative spark within us by being too self-critical. I remember having a conversation with a colleague here who remarked that he is not very sure about his creativity and the ability to innovate. That is when I realized – while solving a problem in our daily work, we take decisions that seem obvious to us and part of our normal thought process. However, the same thing when viewed from someone else’s perspective, could be considered as an innovation. So, as engineers and problem solvers, we all have that spark of creativity within us to a certain extent. All that remains is for us to nurture it.
Creating a culture of innovation
As part of a growing and forward-looking organization like Axis, we are quite privileged to be able to work in an environment that supports and promotes innovation. In the Technologies department, we have the ‘innovation week’ events organized by different teams to set aside an entire week to work on projects and investigate technologies that are not part of our routine work. We have recently started organizing this event at Core Technologies Systems and I have been part of the organizing committee. I think that it is appreciable that Axis allows us to have these kinds of dedicated events where we can explore and experiment with new technologies and techniques. However, as an organizer, I have noticed that it is challenging to encourage people to be innovative.
While some people are problem solvers and will take bold decisions quite quickly, there are some who prefer to err on the side of caution and evaluate all risks before proceeding. Since there is no right or wrong way of doing things, it is important to strike a balance. For example, the simple question – how are the topics for the innovation week chosen? There are several options: the topics could be pre–decided, the team members can propose and vote on them, or we start with some broad themes and let the topics emerge through discussion.
Again, there is no correct way to do this as we have learnt from our experience. For the first iteration of our innovation week, we invited all the team members to propose ideas for interesting projects. A couple of themes were provided for guidance purposes. Everyone then voted for the projects they would like to work on using a ranked vote approach. These ranked votes were then used to create the project teams. According to the feedback we received after the event, certain members of the team preferred a guided approach whereas the others wanted the topic selection process to be more open-ended. With this in mind, we have kept the topic proposal and team formation strategies more flexible for our upcoming innovation week. Whether that is suitable for us or not is a question that remains to be answered.
Also, according to my observations, the key to organizing events like this is to create an environment where people can have fun and not be bogged down by great expectations. The stress of being more innovative should not take the curiosity aspect out of it. Here are some points that I think could be helpful in this regard:
- Create an environment where it is safe to ‘fail’ – It is important to convey that a negative result is also a result. A comprehensive overview of why something did not work is as important as a working demo.
- Foster the spirit of innovation throughout the year – Apart from the dedicated innovation week, having small events encouraging creativity is instrumental to keep that spark alive. It does not even have to be technical events. For our innovation ‘warm up’ day this year, we had multiple activities. One of them was to find alternative uses for things found in our dumpster and create an advertisement for them. The team really enjoyed this activity, and it is a wonderful way to get into the innovative mindset.
- Listen and learn from the participants – Encourage all the participants to provide feedback for every step of the process – both before and after the actual event. This is quite helpful in understanding what’s working or not working. It also gives all the participants a stake in the process, thereby making them more invested.
The key point which I am trying to stress here is that we should be unafraid of being innovative. Innovation is key for an organization like Axis to be successful in this competitive landscape and we should all strive to achieve that. As engineers and problem solvers working on challenging problems 40 hours a week, all of us have that innovative streak within us. We just need to find a way to nurture those small ideas floating around in our heads and who knows, one of them could lead to the next great product or technology. Think big!
Interested in learning more about innovation at Axis? Check out these links to find out about the innovative solutions Axis has come up with over the years as well as the efforts taken by Axis to foster innovation.
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