Skip to main content

How to run a research lab

The key premise of running a research lab is that it is a form of investment. There may be many motivations for investing in research, but some of the more common ones include

  • The big payoff

  • This is, in effect, a form of gambling. You put up a lot of money and hope that some of it will lead to a new ground-breaking profit that will allow you to clean up.
  • Insurance

  • You want to reduce your exposure to some long-term risk that might come out of left-field and blow you away.
  • Fill the pipeline

  • You need someone whose skills are developing new products, but not necessarily manufacturing products, to keep the pipeline full.

All of these are legitimate, although the first 2 are for 'hi-rollers' only: research labs are inherently expensive and these uses are particularly unlikely to pay off. When and if they do pay off then the rewards can be immense (think of Xerox Parc). But, like the lottery, you could live and die without seeing the benefit; and think that your money was wasted.

I have already argued that the third option is not really suited to a central research lab. The leader of the Business unit that owns the product family should also lead the development of new products.

There is another option not often considered, but I think critical:

  • Taking care of critical success factors

  • Addressing technologies, marketing, etc. that are critical to the success of the company; but not inherently directly linked to particular products.


The idea is that there are topics in any business that are 'at the heart' of the business but not necessarily contained within a given product.

A great example of a CSF for a software company is security. Security is clearly important: a security failure can destroy a business. Security affects many (all) products but is not easily confined to a single product or technology.

Addressing security is best done from an overall/overarching perspective. Incidentally, as ay security specialist will tell you, security technology is not limited to encryption but includes policy management, architectural considerations and many other factors.

Putting a team to work to 'own' security would be a sound strategy for many companies. That team would take responsibility for ensuring that the company had the best security strategy and execution possible. That team is best placed centrally: for example in a central Corporate research lab.

Another good example CSF for a software company would be usability. Usability is another one of those make-or-break aspects that can lead to riches or disaster. It is also something that applies to all the products and services offered by a company. And so, a usability team may also be a wise investment; again placed in the central lab.

The pattern is that these CSFs often denote important properties that one would like to be associated with all the products and services offered by a company. And this importance is inherently connected to the relationship between the company and its customers.

Viewed this way, it is easy to see how and why a company might invest in a research lab that focuses on critical factors; and for that investment to be sustainable in bad times as well as good.

Popular posts from this blog

Comments Should be Meaningless

This is something of a counterintuitive idea: Comments should be meaningless What, I hear you ask, are you talking about? Comments should communicate to the reader! At least that is the received conventional wisdom handed does over the last few centuries (decades at least). Well, certainly, if you are programming in Assembler, or C, then yes, comments should convey meaning because the programming language cannot So, conversely, as a comment on the programming language itself, anytime the programmer feels the imperative to write a meaningful comment it is because the language is not able to convey the intent of the programmer. I have already noticed that I write far fewer comments in my Java programs than in my C programs.  That is because Java is able to capture more of my meaning and comments would be superfluous. So, if a language were able to capture all of my intentions, I would never need to write a comment. Hence the title of this blog.

Safe and effective software

Someone recently asked me why I was working on the particular topics that I was interested in. I am afraid that in the heat of the moment I had a reasonable but ultimately lame answer (something about reducing friction in the marketplace). In fact, the true answer is simpler and much more powerful. I want to be part of a 'professional' industry, and I believe that we are not really there yet. It is a constant source of amazement to me that there have not been any class action lawsuits against certain high profile software companies. I like the phrase safe and effective , which describes the basic requirements for medicines of course, but should be equally applicable to software. What would the benefits of being able to label a system safe and effective? Primarily it means that someone using the system has some assurance that the software will do what it is supposed to do, and that it wont lead you into trouble. Of course, if you take too many aspirin, or if you misuse a softwar

Concept Oriented Markup

I have long been frustrated with all the different text mark up languages and word processors that I have used. There are many reasons for this; but the biggest issue is that markups (including very powerful ones like TeX) are not targeted at the kind of stuff I write. Nowadays, it seems archaic to still be thinking in terms of sections and chapters. The world is linked and that applies to the kind of technical writing that I do. I believe that the issue is fundamental. A concept like "section" is inherently about the structure of a document. But, what I want to focus on are concepts like "example", "definition", and "function type". A second problem is that, in a complex environment, the range of documentation that is available to an individual reader is actually composed of multiple sources. Javadoc exemplifies this: an individual library may be documented using Javadoc into a single HTML tree. However, most programmers require access to multip