The unsung heros of innovation

November 11, 2009: 9:00 AM ET

To stay ahead, companies need to find ways to keep engineers motivated and happy.

By Eva Chen, CEO, Trend Micro

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Chen uses empathy and the occasional pajama party to inspire engineers. Photo: Trend Micro

In the high-tech industry, "innovation" is part of our everyday vocabulary and one of the main reasons why many of us have chosen this field. And innovation is why, even after two decades, I get up every morning, excited about how our ideas can improve the way we live or do business.

I'm constantly asked how I came up with a certain idea for a product or technology, and how I managed to bring them to reality – that is, actual products that someone can purchase.

My answer might seem a little mundane but it's the truth: It happens through the support, intelligence and dedication of my engineers. Ideas are great; vision is priceless but at Trend Micro, our engineers are who take the abstract ideas, visions, dreams and create something real, tangible, usable.

It's for this reason why as CEO (and, I say with pride, former engineer), one of my most important roles is to motivate and inspire the engineering teams to create the best security products available in the industry. My approach is pretty straightforward and I follow three main principles in working with my engineers:

Put yourself in their shoes

Perhaps this is easy for me – you can take me out of the engineering lab, but you'll never take the engineer out of me!  I was one of the first engineers at Trend Micro, 20 years ago. Before that, I worked as a product manager for Acer. And even though I studied philosophy in school, my favorite subject was logic, and that's exactly what most engineers are: Logical.

One of the ways I appeal to my engineers' logical side is to help them gather the information they want about customer needs.

You see, engineers never tackle a project without rhyme or reason – there has to be a specific purpose, a linear need, a definite goal. For this reason, I created the role of product managers – those closest to the customers -- and designed it so that the product managers work directly with the engineering teams, feeding them the types of customer information that drives product innovation. I even started facilitating "Pajama Parties," fun but productive meetings (sometimes held in my own home) between the product managers and the project managers/engineers. These "parties" are meant to motivate discussion and mutual understanding of each function's roles.

Allow them to innovate with freedom and creativity

Years back, we asked the engineers to create their own "Top 10 'No-Nos' for Executives." High on their list was "Do Not Force a Schedule on the Engineers."  I take this to heart; I believe that as a company, we need to give our engineer room to create and the best way to do that is to reduce interference, especially from executives who may have limited understanding of an engineering project.

I encourage creativity through internal programming and solution design contests, which have become popular corporate events. Winners have the opportunity to demonstrate the designs during our annual executives' global summit.

We also host contests on a wider scale throughout the Asia Pacific region, which gives me an opportunity to meet and recruit some of the brightest young student engineers just on the cusp of launching their careers. These contests are a way for engineers to break out of the daily pattern, allowing them to create with freedom, but still have the structure and boundary in which engineers feel most at home.

Give them public recognition and honor

Engineers are not attention-seekers. They are most comfortable within the world of computer codes and programming. This is why I always make it a point to shine the limelight on them whenever we have a major new product launch or upgrade. They deserve the recognition. I also try to include their participation within the launch itself so they can see first-hand the final product.

It's also important for me to give them my personal time and attention, often gathering small, temporary, ad hoc teams of them together for special projects. We have about 1000 engineers and it's impossible to know every name and face. By putting together smaller teams made up of different talent sets, I am able to get to know them better.

Trend Micro over the years has launched many new products in new areas, but our vision has remained consistent: To make the world safe for the exchange of digital information. Thanks to our engineers, we're making it happen.

Chen is co-founder and CEO of Trend Micro, a Tokyo-based company that specializes in Internet content security.

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