Innovation cannot be 'self-serving'

Having founded his own startup which he later sold to CA Tech where he's now CTO, John Michelsen believes innovation is about understanding customers' problems better than they do.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

newsmaker For John Michelsen, having bright ideas isn't any good if they serve no real purpose.


Having founded his own startup, which he later sold to CA Technologies where he is now chief technology officer (CTO), Michelsen describes himself as "practical" in how he approaches innovation.

"We need innovation that improves people's lives and organizational effectiveness. Innovation with purpose is motivation, not innovation that is self-serving," he said.

A self-professed "chief geek" and entrepreneur, Michelsen in 1999 set up his own startup ITKO which was based in Plano, Texas. There, he created a platform, called "Lisa", which aims to help companies speed up software development while lowering the cost of doing so.

The company was eventually acquired by CA in 2011 for US$330 million.

Michelsen sat down for a chat with ZDNet Asia on a stopover Wednesday in Singapore where he met with customers before flying to Japan to speak at the CA Expo.

Q: You've been on both sides--running a startup you founded for 12 years, and now the CTO of a global IT multinational company. Has your take on innovation changed during this time?
Michelsen: Innovation is all about understanding the customers' problem better than they do, so we can give them the solution they would not know to ask for. Customers ask their vendors questions all the time by describing symptoms and asking to fix those symptoms. But as vendors, we need to understand the root cause of the problem. That's how we produce innovation, the kind that doesn't move the industry incrementally but causes disruption.

Personally, I'm less interested in what we can invent that has no purpose. I struggle to understand pure academic research and innovation to its own end. We need innovation that improves people's lives and organizational effectiveness. Innovation with purpose is motivation, not innovation that is self-serving. I'm practical that way.

Some say innovative ideas are about solving problems or needs that consumers themselves don't know about yet. For instance, who knew broadcasting our daily activities was something people wanted if Facebook hadn't provided that need?
There already existed a problem that was the root cause--and for which Facebook was created--the geek freshmen didn't know any other girls!

You said in a previous interview you considered yourself a technologist, a "chief geek" who is uninterested in sales and marketing. You ran Itko for over a decade before the acquisition by CA last year. Why did you decide on finally taking that route?
My goal was to solve the problem of as many customers as possible, and CA was the best way I knew how to make that happen. Yes, there was a financial component, but I'm still on a mission to change the ways companies operate.

The reality is the only way to measure the success of commercial software is growth and sales. Sales are proof what we do is relevant, and growth is proof we're on the right track. When customers are willing to pay for a piece of software, that's how you know you are solving a problem.

Is being acquired by a larger player the inevitable end-goal for any tech startup to ensure continued growth and success?
Every founder of a startup wants to see his product dominate a market. My goal is still to dominate a market, but it's now just a much bigger market. It's incredibly motivating and I'm energized by that.

Whether it's being acquired, acquiring other companies, or launching an IPO (initial public offering), the important thing is to take your idea, dominate that market, and change the way that market works.

With innovation, comes intellectual property. What's your two cents about the Samsung-Apple IP battle, and its implications in Asia?
In general, I think companies have to find their own way to innovation. We need to learn from each other but not copy each other.

As Asia increasingly innovates, it will have more awareness and respect for IP rights to balance. If Asia is only a consumer of IP, it won't understand the value of IP.

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