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As I sit at my bright red modular desk that can be wheeled to any area of our newly created, open-concept WatHaus, I am reminded that with any new beginning you should take some time to reflect on what has past.  So I will take this opportunity to reflect on my life as the onsite program manager of a radical challenge taken up by our next generation workforce, sharing what we have learned and what we will continue to build-upon in our new year. 

Have you ever had to create a mobile application from start to finish in less than 90 days using Design Thinking and a cool in-memory database called HANA?  Well that is what we asked 12 co-ops/interns from the University of Waterloo and University of Guelph to accomplish during the last semester of 2012. 

With Design Thinking in mind, we purposefully recruited students with various backgrounds to form multi-disciplinary development teams.  These teams were to sit together in a brand new space at our SAP Waterloo Labs’ site to facilitate collaboration and innovation, now officially coined the WatHaus.  

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What the students may have lacked in experience, they picked up with enthusiasm and quickly went to task with learning iOS 6 and HANA, while soaking up methodologies employed by SAP such as Agile software development and Design Thinking (with help and support from SAP technical mentors and product management).  The positive energy emanating from the WatHaus on any given day was truly inspiring.  Not to say everything was always rainbows and lollipops.  We of course did have our challenges but we learned along the way.

It cannot be said enough that Interaction and Visual Design is critical to any mobile application, consumer or enterprise, and our students quickly learned this lesson via gathering user feedback throughout development.  Sometimes students would be frustrated that users didn’t grasp certain features of their apps right away and were hesitant to refactor code.  The payoff to any refactoring was made evident when the apps were reshown to new users and those same features were finally more intuitively grasped.

The pride of ownership that the students had for their finished mobile apps (and yes — they successfully completed their challenge) was immense and just goes to show how having ownership over something from start to finish can go a long way with innovation (hello startup culture?) and productivity efficiencies.
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Does this mean we should cast out our experienced programmers and embrace new young guns?  Not so fast. Looking back over the entire semester, I believe the key to success with this program lay with the reciprocal nature of the relationship between the students and the experienced SAP employees (including myself).  While the students brought fresh eyes to existing processes and youthful enthusiasm, they also needed mentorship and support to get them past development roadblocks and experience to help them achieve deadlines. Design Thinking advocates multi-disciplinary teams for a reason as innovation comes from the collision of different perspectives from all kinds of diverse backgrounds.  If anything I would argue what we need is more mixing of older with newer and I must agree with Hasso Plattner after my last year– working with younger people does make you younger!

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