How I Got a Job in Innovation

Once a week, someone asks me “how did you get a job in innovation?” I’ll attempt to spell it out below. My journey is my own, and yours will be different. I arrived here through focused hard work, people willing to take a chance on me, and the right amount of luck.

I started working for Accenture in September of 2008, right when the financial crisis hit. Unlike other aspiring young consultants, I wasn’t interested in weekly travel, hotel points, and airline miles. I’m a fairly introspective person, and had identified my core values.

At the heart of my core values was balance. I believe in excellence at work, and I also believe in having a life. The two aren’t as diametrically opposed as people make them out to be.

When evaluating a project opportunity, my filter evolved to be:

  1. Can I sleep in my own bed every night?
  2. Is the team properly sized and staffed for the work?
  3. Will I learn something important?
  4. Is it interesting?

I spent the first 8 years of my career at Accenture working on local SAP implementations. This scored me an A+ on points 1 and 2, a B+ on point 3, and a C on point 3. My work life balance* was amazing, but the work wasn’t interesting.

*My projects have all had peak periods of activity with intense hours, but have by and large been properly scoped and staffed. I’ve worked Saturdays. I’ve been in the office at 3 AM. But I never felt set up to fail, and crazy hours were always the exception rather than the rule.

What’s in it for me?

While I was less engaged in my day-to-day work, I looked for ways to learn about things that interested me. I started blogging, launched a web development company called MediaSpine, and even landed a side gig managing social media for Fundly, a Silicon Valley startup. Mentor Dave Boyce flew me out to the Silicon Valley to interview at a few companies, and although I left with two offers, didn’t accept any.

In 2012 Accenture launched a social media tool called The Stream, an internal Facebook/Twitter mashup to encourage global sharing. The tool was new and adoption was slow. Naturally, I was interested and began to explore it.

Alongside the launch, an Accenture community of practice I was a part of in Boston hosted a competition to win a free Apple TV if you posted the most in a 3-month period. At the same time, a global group was giving out a $100 gift card for… wait for it… posting the most in a 3-month period. Two birds, one stone. It was a no-brainer.

I started cross-posting blogs from my personal blog. I pulled in interesting articles from my Twitter feed. I rated documents which had been uploaded for relevance. I developed a posting schedule, and stuck to it.

I won the Apple TV. I won the $100 gift card. And then something interesting happened. Casey Solis, who was leading the group, said “Derek, you’re a good example of how this should be done. Do you want to help others do it?” I joined the core team and became a champion for the new sharing tools.

Nerd Night

Fast forward two years. I had done the obvious things, like start a book club*. My next idea was a little less orthodox and requires more explaining.

*The book club has a fun origin story as well: I asked Accenture if they would give me a budget for books, since I spend so much time and money training myself. They said no. I started a book club to get around that. It not only paid for some of my books, but also got 5-20 people discussing some really interesting books each quarter. Win win.

Rather than holding a traditional networking event, where the company buys food and drinks and the employees walk out empty-handed, I proposed we skip the food and drinks and buy the employees interesting technology they could take home and tinker with. I called my idea “Nerd Night”.

We held our first Nerd Night, focused on the Internet of Things, in fall of 2014. Nearly 50 people showed up, and it was a huge success. After an inspiring presentation, everyone got hands-on and built and played with the technology. At the end of the night we raffled off $2,000 of Little Bits Cloud Kits, Raspberry PI’s, Arduino Starter Kits, Chris Anderson’s new book Makers, and a handful of other prizes. (We did end up serving food and drinks, which probably helped.)

Under my watch, the Hub went on to hold Nerd Nights with titles like “Inside the Computer”, “Wearables”, “AI is the New Black”, and “Let’s Go Fly a Drone”. These events took a lot of planning and preparation, and a dedicated and passionate group of friends helped me make them a reality.

At “Inside the Computer”, I scrounged up 15 old computers from Craigslist, bought a bunch of screwdrivers, and told people to start taking them apart. They were hesitant at first, but picked up speed as the cases came open and they gained confidence. It was awesome.

Fortuitous Connection: Someone named Kevin Mintz attended “Inside the Computer”, and we began to chat about innovation and emerging technology. Soon after, he followed his wife to Chicago for her career, and he joined a team within Accenture called the Tech Garage. He later made the connection for me that changed my career.

The Day Job

Back in my less exciting day job an amazing mentor, Steve Aftosmis, took me under his wing. He taught me two main lessons: 1) add in validation logic to double-check all your calculations in Excel spreadsheets and 2) there’s a way to find a “win” in any situation. It’s all in how you frame it.

In 2013 my first son was born. I took 3 weeks off and didn’t check email once. Steve and our amazing team helped make that happen.

In 2014 I also interviewed for jobs out west, and again received two job offers, but elected to stay put.

In 2016 my second son was born. I took 16 weeks off in an amazing sabbatical. Again, Steve helped make that happen.

Mayday, Mayday!

Coming back refreshed and renewed after a long sabbatical (and to a promotion that I hoped for but didn’t expect), I jumped headlong into what turned out to be the most challenging project of my career. Within two weeks of my starting as project lead at a client, the COO and the CFO left the company. This led to a domino effect of company politics, landgrabbing, and increased workload on already stretched resources.

I lost 20 lbs on that project, and I’m a fairly skinny person. I would wake up all throughout the night thinking of new things that needed to be done. For 5 months, I was putting out fire after fire. I worked all Christmas break. My team was disastrously close to breaking. I was a nervous wreck.

We pulled it off, although not as cleanly as I would have liked. I was exhausted, disheartened, and ready to quit. The client wanted me to continue on to the next phase of the project. I knew I didn’t want that.

I can’t reflect on those times without thanking Renita Reddy, who joined the project to provide air cover, took me under her wing, and coached me through the worst of it. I could not have made it through without her.

Remember my priorities from earlier in the post?

  1. Can I sleep in my own bed every night? Does it matter if I’m waking up every night with anxiety?
  2. Is the team properly sized and staffed for the work? No
  3. Will I learn something important? Yes
  4. Is it interesting? No

#2 had changed from a Yes to a No, and that was my breaking point. I was unwilling to do work that was not interesting while also working long and stressful hours. That was not in line with my core values.

The Long Shot

Lucky Timing: Near project go-live, Kevin reached out to tell me that a position was available on his team. Was I interested in moving home* to Chicago? We had spoken about this twice before, and I was in a different mental space now. I said yes. We scheduled a phone interview with the team lead, then I flew out to spend a day and a half with the team leads.

*I grew up north of Chicago in a town called Wilmette, and graduated from New Trier Township High School (go Trevians!) My love of the mountains had always disqualified Chicago from my “places I want to live” list, but I was willing to overlook that if it meant my dream job.

A week or two after my in-person interview, Melanie Cutlan, the visionary and amazing team lead, called me to say “You’re not quite what we’re looking for. I know that’s not what you wanted to hear. But we’re willing to try you out for 4 months in a slightly different role, working remotely.” I was disappointed but also excited, and said yes.

The only reason Melanie was willing to take a chance on me was because my time leading the community of practice had exposed me to so many new and emerging technologies. I had built an Alexa skill, built a chatbot, tinkered on IFTTT with simple IOT devices, read TechCrunch religiously, spun up EC2 instances on AWS and Droplets on Digital Ocean. None of that was part of my day job.

One month into my trial run, Melanie called me and said “We want you. You’re in.”

That was the start of my full-time career in an innovation capability.

The Tech Garage was an amazing, inspirational, visionary, fast-paced experience. I went deep into AI and blockchain, immersed myself in The Lean Startup, Business Model Canvas, Value Proposition Design, Bold, Exponential Organizations, and other great frameworks. We built and designed impactful products and prototypes. The team was amazing.

In addition, I got to try working remotely, which I had wanted to do for a long time and was a valuable experience for me. I saw a lot more of my wife and kids and loved when my 1-year old would crawl to the door and start scratching it until I went out and picked him up.

One more thing. The Tech Garage sits within Accenture Operations, one of Accenture’s five business. Of the five, it’s the least prestigious. Most people generally try to increase the prestige of their group, yet I did the opposite. I realized that what matters is the work you are doing, not what group you sit in. I’d rather be working on AI and blockchain in the least prestigious business than SAP in a more prestigious business.

Decisions, Decisions…

The same month I joined the Tech Garage full time, Accenture announced that they would launch a Liquid Studio in Boston. This piqued my interest, as I’d seen launch videos of the other Liquid Studios, and it was another one of those dream places I wanted to work.

I asked everyone I knew who was in charge of building the Liquid Studio, and no one had the answer. Finally, Steve told me to reach out to Max Furmanov, the global lead, to find out. I was hesitant, because Max was important and I felt a little sheepish bothering him*. My fear was unfounded, because he replied within the hour.

*I told this story to someone in a mentoring session recently, and she said “that’s how I felt reaching out to you!” It’s good that we both got past that initial fear.

I called Chris Scott, in charge of launching the Boston Liquid Studio, and offered to help. What still surprises me to this day is the no one else reached out to him. We have well over a thousand people in Boston, and everyone knew a Liquid Studio was being launched. Yet I was the only one who successfully got in touch.

Plan A was to move to Chicago to work with the Tech Garage, and the Liquid Studio would be Plan B (only if my wife refused to move). I flew to Chicago with my family, we looked at neighborhoods, we put down an offer on a house (and unfortunately didn’t get it). Accenture offered an amazing relocation package. Things looked great.

Suddenly, a structure change in the Tech Garage (splintering into two groups to pursue one of our ideas) led to a leadership change in the group (Melanie wouldn’t be my boss anymore). In the new structure, my route to career advancement would be slower and less clear. At that same time, the Liquid Studio asked if I was interested in being the director in Boston.

The decision was agonizing. I felt fierce loyalty to Melanie and the Tech Garage team, who took a chance on me, taught me, developed me, and inspired me. At the same time, that team was changing in a big way, and wasn’t going to be the same group with the same vision.

I flip-flopped, telling the Liquid Studio no, then telling them yes. After 9 life-changing months with the Tech Garage, I moved on to launch the Boston Liquid Studio.

Building a Liquid Team

The first thing to address is that I’m not a software developer. A Liquid Studio needs to be able to build cutting-edge solutions on the latest and greatest technologies. To do that successfully, you’ve got to have the best software developers around.

I pulled in Kent Cseh, an Accenture veteran with an AI background and the go-to person for any Accenture custom software development in Boston. He took on the Liquid Studio Director position. I then recruited several people who had worked with me in the community of practice and spoken at or helped organize Nerd Nights.

I fought endlessly with HR, muddled through confusing procurement processes, and managed to build a team of some of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with.

My focus turned to hosting our C-level clients for innovation workshops and design thinking sessions. I had familiarity with design thinking, but needed an expert. After a long interview process, I found Adriane*, who took our capabilities to a whole new level.

*I’m not writing her last name because if you try to hire her I’ll have to go all Tonya Harding on you and break your knee cap.

In Summary

There are dozens more stories to tell and people to thank for the roles they’ve played in the last two years of my life. This wasn’t intended to be an Oscar acceptance speech so much as an outline of the path I followed.

Here are my key takeaways:

  • It was my passion projects on nights and weekends (social media, web development, virtual agents, IOT, Nerd Nights, etc.) that gave me enough exposure and experience to eventually turn innovation into a full-time job.
  • Asking for the things I wanted (book budget, Nerd Night, Tech Garage role, Liquid Studio info) was the first step in getting them, but I rarely got the answer I wanted the first time.
  • Along the way I created several things that didn’t exist previously (book club, Nerd Night, Liquid Studio), and that’s incredibly valuable.
  • I had a list of talented people in the back of my mind, and when it came time to build a team, several of them became the first members. In life, you rarely start from scratch.
  • I had phenomenal mentors who guided me and played pivotal roles in every step of my career.
  • I had great friends who helped me turn ideas into reality.
  • I got lucky along the way.

You Might Also Like

  • Briggum March 25, 2019 at 11:18 pm

    oooh, and got a sweet pic from the prud to show for it.
    thanks for sharing your story. pretty amazing

  • Brooke March 27, 2019 at 6:05 pm

    What an amazing journey and I’m excited to see the next 10 years!

  • Paul Carlson March 29, 2019 at 2:25 pm

    Derek – it is great to see how successful you are. I enjoyed working with you but I hope we were not too boring! I wish you continued success and I hope we cross paths in the near future!.

    • Derek March 30, 2019 at 10:05 am

      Thank you, Paul. I learned a lot of incredible things about program and project and team management during those years, so overall incredibly valuable.

  • Marty Ferguson April 1, 2019 at 7:04 am

    Derek – what a great story! I loved reading it and am proud of you!!

    • derek April 1, 2019 at 2:19 pm

      Marty! Great to hear from you. I’d love to catch up some time and learn what you’re up to these days.

  • Melanie Cutlan April 1, 2019 at 8:02 am

    Such a well written story… your journey is an amazing one. I agree with all of your summaries – but would add one that makes you successful- define your core values and don’t forget to evaluate how you are doing against them, and don’t be afraid to make a change when they are out of whack. You are a great innovator and our team still misses you!