Keys to creativity: How devs at 7 Chicago companies stay inspired

by Alton Zenon III
September 26, 2018

Creativity is essential to development teams in looking for solutions to complex problems, but creativity can be a tough thing to maintain. To learn more about where great developers find their inspiration, we asked seven leading Chicago tech companies about how they think outside the box.

 

Reverb.com team photo
image via reverb.com

Reverb.com is a marketplace for new and used musical equipment. The company also operates Reverb LP, which sells physical copies of music. Software Engineer Tam Dang said learning from missteps helps keep her team creative.

 

What inspires you and your team?

Musical instruments are almost always within arm’s reach. If we’re stuck on a problem and need a mental break, we’re encouraged to grab a guitar or put a record on. Music is a great way to get your creative juices flowing, and it enables collaboration across departments. Last month, we had our first Reverb Unplugged happy hour, where employees signed up for 15-minute slots to perform original songs or covers for the entire office.

A team’s ability to allow mistakes is the best way to encourage out-of-the-box thinking.”

 

Can you describe a project or problem that required an outside-the-box solution?

One year, as the busy holiday shopping season started, our team was really feeling the impact of our explosive growth and an influx of new orders. We knew there were several updates we could make to our checkout process that would really improve the customer experience.

We ultimately made the updates, and were successful because we were willing to think outside of the box about how we prepared. By spending more time on prep and getting creative with testing, we avoided downtime and improved our customers’ experience.

 

How does your company encourage creativity?

We don’t point fingers or place blame when something goes wrong. Instead, we all jump in to help quickly fix the issue and take it as a learning experience. Rewarding creativity and successful ideas is great, but a team’s ability to allow mistakes is the best way to encourage out-of-the-box thinking. Because we work in an environment where it’s safe to make mistakes, we’re empowered to try new things, take risks and, ultimately, innovate quicker.

 

Litera Microsystems team at a dinner table
image via litera microsystems

Litera Microsystems’ software lets professionals in the legal, life sciences and corporate worlds draft, edit and proofread documents more efficiently. Rim Yoo, engineering manager, and Brad Matola, software engineer, shared their perspectives on how collaborating with other teams and encountering roadblocks help encourage outside-the-box thinking.

 

What inspires you and your team?

Matola: Seeing people who want to buy what you’ve created because it makes their lives easier. It motivates you to go and create the next big thing. It’s also the people. I’m surrounded by people I look up to. Everyone is a strong contributor and good work gets noticed here.

You have autonomy as a developer here to come up with your own solutions.”

 

How does your company encourage creativity?

Yoo: We’re encouraged to talk to team members who work with our customers about the conversations they are having around our solutions. We even have an awards system for collaboration to encourage this kind of behavior.

Matola: You have the autonomy to come up with your own solutions. There’s freedom here to take risks and to not be afraid to fail. You’re given the freedom to be creative, investigate what works, share with others, get feedback and go from there.

 

Can you describe a project or problem that required an outside-the-box solution?

Yoo: We work within the .Net Framework. Within this space, there are certain problems that cannot be solved using that framework. There are times we’ve had to come up with our own framework, which we’ve done when we’ve worked on document analysis. This can force us to think outside the box and come up with our own solutions

 

Zoro team gathered for meeting
image via zoro

Zoro is an online retailer providing over 2 million industrial tools, equipment and supplies to businesses of all sizes and types. Vice President and Chief Information Officer Andy Goodfellow, Senior Full-stack Developer and Tech Lead Micah Gajewski and Project Management Office Director Brian Craft shared what tactics keep the retailer’s tech team imaginative. 


What inspires you and your team?

Goodfellow: We draw inspiration from each other, first and foremost. We meet regularly to sync in both small peer groups and at the company meeting every Thursday. We also draw inspiration from new hires. Every new technology hire speaks at the Thursday meeting and meets with leaders from across the company. 

Lastly, we draw inspiration from our partners. We perform quarterly business reviews with large technology providers like Oracle and Google. 

We focus on identifying what makes teams effective and apply our learnings to continuously improve internal processes.”

 

Can you describe a project or problem that required an outside-the-box solution?

Gajewski: We recently experienced challenges with how our enterprise resource planning impacts the customer experience. We were advised that specific technology directions were unavailable to us due to the design of the ERP. After much discussion, we came to an agreement regarding how the technology fundamentals should work. From there, we were able to isolate our ERP experience, which made our customers’ lives significantly easier when ordering.

 

How does your company encourage creativity?

Craft: Teams are granted the ability to operate very independently and relatively autonomously. They generate high levels of ownership and complete their initiatives in the most creative and effective ways possible. Teams regularly solicit feedback and communicate progress through demos in our weekly all-company meeting. As leaders, we focus on identifying what makes teams effective and apply our learnings to continuously improve internal processes and morale.

 

Neighborhoods.com team posing on the street
image via Neighborhoods.com

Prospective homeowners use Neighborhoods.com to find their ideal homes in neighborhoods that meet all their needs. Technical Architect Brad Wilson said the tech team’s freedom of choice and high levels of autonomy play key roles in keeping creativity up.

 

What inspires you and your team?

We look to tech industry giants a lot. There is a rich history of smart people and ideas in software engineering, and it’s been increasing over time. We also have the advantage of having a good representation of several engineering disciplines in our organization. This lets us cross-pollinate great ideas from many communities.

Teams can move independently from one another and this freedom is fertile earth for creativity.”

 

Can you describe a project or problem that required an outside-the-box solution?

The most important exercise I have ever been a part of was the creation of our engineering values. It became evident we needed to empower our engineers to be able to design and build things independently, and we needed something to set them up for success and help them make the right decisions.

This was a long, non-trivial process and involved many people from all of our engineering disciplines. We started with the abstract need to give our engineers a compass and had no idea what the end result was going to be.

 

How does your company encourage creativity?

We recently switched to product teams and it’s been pretty wonderful. We took this idea to its strongest implementation and decided that software products should be isolated from one another. If one product needs to interact with another, they need to do so as if they were external to each other.

This gives teams the freedom to use whatever they need to accomplish their missions in the best way possible because we avoid coupling and, by virtue, complexity. Teams can move independently from one another, and this freedom provides fertile earth for creativity.

 

Punchkick Interactive team members chatting
image via Punchkick Interactive

Punchkick Interactive is a digital consultancy that helps companies develop mobile strategies, apps and responsive sites. Naseem Abuzalata, senior web developer, said keeping the client first helps his team keep its creativity on point.

 

What inspires you and your team?

We inspire each other by advancing the various talents of our team members and supporting each other in learning new technologies. Our developers have a passion for open source and utilizing technology to help our clients in the best way possible.

We encourage developers to participate in dev meetups and conferences to learn new technologies.”

 

Can you describe a project or problem that required an outside-the-box solution?

We recently faced a challenge with an integration for a client. The service we were integrating with couldn’t respond to some of the parameters we were using, and everything was done according to that service’s documentation. We applied best practices and our expertise to research and understand the service outside of what was mentioned in the documentation. We found a better way to achieve our goals and helped the client understand the change and the effect that it might have on the integration and the project.

 

How does your company encourage creativity?

We encourage developers to participate in dev meetups and conferences to learn new technologies and meet other brilliant people. Internally, we have a weekly forum where developers from each discipline share ideas and demo new and exciting technology.

 

Adage Technologies team working
image via Adage Technologies

Adage Technologies is a web design and development firm that specializes in creating engaging e-commerce experiences. Lead Front End Developer Patrick Cicere, Developer Manager Andrew Paul and Talent Operations Manager Victoria Deresz explained the keys to Adage’s creativity. 

 

What inspires you and your team?

Cicere: I enjoy seeing the work that my colleagues on other teams have completed. It’s an easy way to draw inspiration and adapt solutions to solve complex problems for our websites. It’s also an opportunity to engage with other team members and learn from each other.

Adage leads book clubs and guru groups to learn new things together.”

 

Can you describe a project or problem that required an outside-the-box solution?

Paul: We had to decouple an entire library from its legacy Episerver 6 references and dependencies. This was due to Episerver 7+ versions having newer frameworks and ways of doing things and also deprecated Episerver 6 methods. We brainstormed what would take the least amount of time and involve the least amount of risk. We decided to dependency inject a content service to provide the same functionality while allowing the library to be CMS agnostic.

 

How does your company encourage creativity? 

Deresz: We get inspiration from one another. We have quarterly launch celebrations where we demo our work to the company, lunch and learns and department confabs. Adage also leads book clubs and guru groups, which enables us to learn new things together. And we hold hackathons and innovation workshops to give employees the chance to share and explore ideas outside of their regular projects.

 

Lightstream developer Hudson Kelly
image via lightstream

Lightstream is a cloud-based, in-browser video recording and streaming platform. Hudson Kelly, senior engineer, said his team draws a lot of creative inspiration from the platform’s users.

 

What inspires you and your team?

Everyone on the team feeds off the energy our streamers generate. When we see someone fully utilizing the tools we’ve made or coming up with a particularly clever workaround to a limitation we haven’t been able to address yet, it inspires us to find new ways to be resourceful. Seeing someone struggle also spurs us to action. What is going wrong? How can we prevent it in the future? Our users are a constant source of inspiration and creativity.

A single developer here can spearhead a technological shift.”

 

Can you describe a project or problem that required an outside-the-box solution?

One unique problem we faced was synchronizing the appearance of complex media sources between what the user sees in their browser against what is produced on the servers creating the final video. The browser and server have very different ideas about how these media layers should be interpreted. We continuously monitor and leverage emerging technologies like WebRTC and WebGL to bridge this divide, employing creative solutions to invent functionality not supported natively by a web browser. Taking time to research and experiment is crucial to making this happen. 

 

How does your company encourage creativity?

There is a mutual respect between leadership and developers, and an understanding that if a developer believes an idea is worth exploring, then they should be afforded the space to investigate. A single developer here can spearhead a technological shift, and this sense of ownership does a lot to empower the creative process. We subscribe to the “strong ideas, loosely held” mentality. Each developer’s innate excitement to build and learn, and the freedom afforded to us to explore new ideas, creates an environment that encourages creative solutions.

 

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