Software engineer Snejana Shegheva knew her company had a problem explaining its complicated technology to clients.
She wanted a simpler way to demonstrate how the firm, DataXu, which provides online marketing services, uses mathematical formulas to determine when and where clients should buy advertising on websites. Then, as any good geek does, she was watching a favorite television show, “Spongebob Squarepants,” when inspiration struck.
“Spongebob was teaching Patrick how to blow bubbles. First the bubble was huge and beautiful, but complicated. Then the bubble burst into thousands of smaller, simpler bubbles.”
Shegheva thought, what if DataXu broke out all the information it churns through every day into individual bubbles — and bubbles within bubbles — each a floating, clickable sphere providing an insight into the media-buying decision?
So several weeks ago Shegheva took the idea to DataXu’s semiannual “Innovation Day,” where she and colleagues got a break from work to tinker with new ideas. The result was a new data visualization tool that gave clients and colleagues significantly more information about an advertising campaign.
Time was, companies held the corporate retreat, where the bosses and managers would huddle in some off-site location to noodle over ways to improve the business. But today, especially in the technology sector, companies hold innovation days, or hacking sessions, where employees are given time away from the daily grind to work on projects that excite them. Some sessions are highly structured, tackling an already identified problem; others are more free-form, allowing employees to pursue the more whimsical.
“The question is, how do you create a pipeline of innovation?” said Patrick Supanc, founder of Boston education start-up, Alleyoop, which holds “hackathons” where employees tackle specific problems. “Creating dedicated time is really important. It’s tough to scale innovation when the only time to innovate is on nights and weekends.”
Dedicated innovation days have become popular within the technology industry thanks in part to Google Inc. Early on in its corporate life, the search engine giant introduced the idea of “20 percent time,” where employees were encouraged to devote roughly one-fifth of their time on ideas they dreamed up themselves, said Ryan Tate, author of “20% Doctrine: How Tinkering, Goofing off, and Breaking the Rules at Work Drive Success in Business.”
“Google created the expectation that there will be ‘play time’ at work,” said Tate, pointing out that several major products, including Gmail and Google Reader were born from employees noodling on their 20 percent time.
Backed by publishing giant Pearson Education Inc., Alleyoop provides teens with customized online tutoring in math and science. At its first hackathon this summer one team sought to add game-playing attributes to lesson plans: in this case, to see if competition among students would stimulate learning.
“Six weeks later, we had a leader board in use,” said Supanc, and now Alleyoop clients can compare their performance against other students online. “There are a lot of innovative ideas floating around in people’s heads, but it’s hard to bring them into fruition. That’s what these events can do.”
At Kayak, the online travel site with operations in Concord, executives set aside a whole week for the pursuit of the innovative. Primarily to develop team building, Kayak’s hack week has produced new ideas that benefit customers, such as direct booking, which allows travelers to conduct all their travel business — flights, hotels, and cars — without leaving the website.
“We try not to rule out the most radical ideas, but rather to winnow out some of the weaker concepts,” said Kayak chief architect Bill O’Donnell. “Generally, we’ll let people do what they want if they are passionate about it.”
Brand Networks, a Boston software firm that provides marketing services on Facebook, has 13 projects slated for its next hack day, in December, such as an application based on the antigay bullying campaign, “It Gets Better.”
“We encourage everyone to use 10 percent of their time dreaming up new ideas.’’ said chief executive Jamie Tedford, who said the best results from hack day will be implemented immediately. “The only guidepost is that they need be social by nature and fit with and extend our core offerings.”
Not everyone in the tech world is convinced that dedicating time away from the core business is practical or effective. “I do value structural models that put time and resources behind ideas,” said Guy Podjarny, chief product officer at Akamai Technologies, the Internet services company in Cambridge.
But Akamai doesn’t have a policy that sets specific time aside. Instead, Podjarny said, there is an ongoing culture of innovation that encourages employees to pitch ideas, the best of which are pursued by the company.
At DataXu, Shegheva’s Spongbob bubbles have morphed into a working prototype that will be refined at another session in December. Bill Simmons, DataXu’s chief technology officer, said the innovation day is a chance for his employees to exercise their minds in new areas without rules or hierarchy.
“We have benefited immensely from the ideas generated through innovation day with many of DataXu’s most innovative products resulting from innovation day ideas,’’ Simmons said. “We feel strongly that in order to stay ahead in a competitive market we need to tap into all of our employees’ creativity because our employees are passionate about building the best product for our customers.”
Meanwhile Shegheva is convinced her idea would have languished if she hadn’t had the chance to explore it with colleagues on DataXu’s innovation day.
“It’s important to completely get outside your level of comfort,” Shegheva said. Otherwise, she said, you might fail to notice that “even Spongebob can be an inspiration.”
Correction: Because of an editing error, a quote in an earlier version of this story was misattributed. Bill Simmons, DataXu’s chief technology officer, said, “We have benefited immensely from the ideas generated through innovation day with many of DataXu’s most innovative products resulting from innovation day ideas. We feel strongly that in order to stay ahead in a competitive market we need to tap into all of our employees’ creativity because our employees are passionate about building the best product for our customers.”