“Developing a prototype early is the number one goal for our designers, or anyone else who has an idea, for that matter. We don't trust it until we can see it and feel it.”
This article describes a project initiated in the Technology Innovation Management (TIM) program at Carleton University to develop a common development and test environment for entrepreneurs associated with the program. This environment will support a collaborative entrepreneurial community that is building complementary products around a core platform; the goal is to accelerate the quick delivery of projects to market while acknowledging that the community’s resources are limited. As described in this article, the solution that was developed is called the TIM Rapid Prototyping Environment (TIMRPE).
Thee TIMRPE provides a competitive advantage for entrepreneurs in the TIM program. A TIM entrepreneur can quickly jump into the development of their prototype, knowing that timely assistance and support is available. This environment now hosts several entrepreneurial projects, some of which have been described in recent issues of the OSBR, including this one. This article introduces the rapid prototyping approach, provides an overview of the TIMRPE, shares lessons learned from the early experiences with the environment, and outlines the project's next steps.
Rapid product development and prototyping methodologies have been topics of academic study and have been implemented in industry since the early 1980s. The purpose of rapid prototyping is to provide a time-compressed cycle of iterative development, feedback, and design adjustment. By introducing changes early in the design process, the adopters of this process may greatly reduce time to market and avoid costly mistakes. As a result, many large corporations have adapted the methodology to produce their products, associations have been created, journal articles and books have been written, and industry organizations have developed baseline standards requirements.
In recent issues of the OSBR, including this one, there has been an emphasis on ecosystem creation, communities creating complementary products on a common platform, and the sharing of lessons learned by entrepreneurs starting technology businesses. This article complements these efforts by describing the TIM Rapid Prototyping Environment (TIMRPE), an environment that leverages rapid prototyping methods to provide an ecosystem community of entrepreneurs with the ability to quickly develop and go to market with their product offerings.
Overview of the TIMRPE
In early 2011, the TIMRPE was created at Carleton University as a prototype framework to provide a common platform for projects, many of which have been described in recent OSBR articles, such as the BigBlueButton web conferencing system, the Make-a-Deal platform for deal development, the Carleton Entrepreneurs program, and Cornerportal’s new platform.
For entrepreneurs in the TIM program, this environment is a cost-effective means of creating and testing their prototypes. Without this environment, many entrepreneurs would spend considerable time figuring what resources to purchase and what they could get away with in the short term. In prototyping, there is often uncertainty about what resources may be required. The common approach is to “make do” with whatever resources are cheaply available, which often means older, outdated, and underpowered desktop machines or laptops.
The TIMRPE has been built upon the newest available technologies, which provide high performance levels and flexible configuration options for memory and disk space. The environment provides the prototyping entrepreneur with the ability to try different settings to determine the optimal configuration for their offering. As it evolves, the environment is adapted to accommodate variations in the resource requirements of each project and any improvements are shared by all entrepreneurs as the project evolves. This makes it easier and beneficial for additional projects to join and contribute to the collective.
For projects requiring collaboration within an ecosystem of entrepreneurs, the TIMRPE offers greater flexibility and control than can be achieved by “making do” or even by purchasing a server or an off-the-shelf cloud-based solution. The framework is designed such that additional resources can be added when required by a given entrepreneur, even if they are only needed for a short period of time. Also, workspaces can be reset easily, quickly, and often. If two entrepreneurs are working on complementary prototypes, and they want to integrate their products to test functionality, an additional server can be quickly configured to enable a joint-integration effort. As their prototypes become more mature, entrepreneurs eventually require their own production environment. Having used this environment for their prototyping stage, the entrepreneurs will have an accurate understanding of their requirements and can make informed decisions regarding the purchase of servers or cloud space.
Design of the TIMRPE
The architecture of the TIMRPE has two main areas of focus. One area is designed for stable releases and prototype solutions that are nearly ready for deployment or production. The second area is dedicated purely to prototype development. Each of these areas has plenty of disk space and computing horsepower.
As required, additional hardware is added to keep up with the growing demand from entrepreneurs in the TIM program. At the time of writing, the TIMRPE serves 12 major projects with 36 server resources, and more projects are in the pipeline.
In their initial configuration, individual workspaces are securely segregated. However, each entrepreneur has the option of opening their environment for collaboration. If integrated prototyping is desired, then additional resources can be shared to accommodate everyone’s needs. If problems arise, their workspace can be easily reset. Also, community members can have separate server instances if they are developing multiple projects that are in varying degrees of product maturity.
Through the early stages of the operation of the TIMRPE, the environment has itself been in a prototyping phase; improvements and changes have been made in response to demand and ongoing learning. This section describes three important lessons that were learned based on the author's own observations and interactions with members of the community that has been using the TIMRPE.
1. Project diversity increases the productivity of the environment. The initial prototype of the environment was designed to grow through the development of add-on products or improvements to a base platform. Each new issue provided a learning opportunity for iterative improvement of not only the base platform but the prototyping environment as a whole. Additionally, supporting products emerged which increased overall performance when applied to all project servers. As new projects joined the environment, differences in requirements became a source of lessons that turned into performance improvements to the overall system. So, the positive impact of diversity was twofold. Each new project benefits from solutions to earlier issues, and they each in turn contribute to further improvement of the environment for the present and future.
2. A simplified process makes it easier for new project teams to join. As the TIMRPE increased in popularity, it became clear that the project needed to reduce the barriers to joining the ecosystem. While working with groups that have varying degrees of technical expertise, the process usually began with discussion with the project leads to understand the nature of the project, how the space will be used, and of any special considerations must be taken into account. Following this discussion, a work environment is configured with user accounts, dedicated server space, and disk storage. Once the environment is set up, the project lead is given access to the workspace is and provided with walkthrough of the basic environment.
3. The infrastructure needs ongoing support and maintenance. Members have ongoing collaboration opportunities and technical support is made available to all members. Assistance is made available to the members of TIMRPE to ensure that any issues with the environment, network connectivity, or account access are dealt with quickly. Optimizations that are identified by the community, are assessed, tested, and applied to project workspaces. Ongoing support of the server and network environment is also provided. Software upgrades and security patches not only improve overall performance, but provide necessary protection against possible exploitation of vulnerabilities. The TIMRPE is regularly updated to minimize exposure to these risks. Together, all of these activities provide benefits to individual entrepreneurs and the ecosystem as a whole.
The initial focus has been on the development, configuration, and refinement of the physical environment. Aside from continuously improving and expanding the capabilities of the TIMRPE, the following next steps are being considered:
A discussion forum will be added to supplement existing communication channels, which have largely been informal email exchanges and face-to-face conversations. This will not only make it easier for members to share ideas, experiences, and suggestions, but it will provide a record of these exchanges for others and provide a basis for new documentation.
Several projects are beginning to informally share development and testing resources to accomplish similar tasks. A mechanism will be put into place to help members share common test cases, scripts, and other digital resources, but the project also aims to provide a common pool of software developers and testers to share their expertise with TIMRPE members.
Several initiatives are currently underway to promote entrepreneurial programs at Carleton University and in the wider Capital Region (i.e., Ottawa, Gatineau, and surrounding communities). Examples include Lead to Win and the Carleton Entrepreneurs program. The project team is currently assessing how the TIMRPE can be expanded to support these wider groups of entrepreneurs.
Monitoring capabilities will be added to gather additional information about how the environment is being used and can be further refined.
Rapid prototyping methodologies have helped projects accelerate their time to market since the 1980s and provide the basis for the TIMRPE. As described in this article, this environment provides a competitive advantage to a collective of entrepreneurs enrolled in the TIM program at Carleton University and future plans are to expand to a larger number of organizations. The TIMRPE helps entrepreneurs overcome the uncertainties that are commonly encountered when turning ideas into products, and it supports their efforts to bring these products to market quickly.