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Defining Innovation and Pursuing STEM Education: Collaborative Conversations with Nikki Santoro

In Part Two of this special two-part edition of Collaborative Conversations, PGi VP of Innovation Nikki Santoro discusses product development, her own personal definition of “innovation” and the importance of STEM education in today’s technology-focused society.

When developing new products, what features or characteristics really drive you? What kinds of features do you look for in products you use personally?

In terms of what I like to use, I’ve always loved products and services that are personal and connect me to the things I actually care about. That’s why I enjoy using and designing communication and collaboration products. You actually enjoy using these tools because they connect you with coworkers, family and friends.

In terms of product development, the part of the product cycle I enjoy the most is uncovering key insights into customer problems and pain points. I derive a great deal of satisfaction from coming up with unique solutions to those problems. It’s not about “features” at that point — it’s about problems and solutions. When product development turns into a features game and you’re just trying to keep up with the Joneses, that’s not as exciting to me. The part I love is addressing people’s problems in unique and compelling ways.

As someone who’s been successfully innovative throughout their career, how would you define “innovation” in your own words?

I get asked that question quite a bit, as you can imagine. I like to describe corporate innovation as the implementation of creative ideas in order to add value to the company, through increased revenue, reduced operational costs, or both.

The first pillar, and probably most obvious, is “doing cool stuff;” coming up with creative new ideas. Unfortunately, cool ideas are a dime a dozen. There are real gems to be found, but true innovation involves much more than coming up with a new shiny feature or interface design.

The second pillar is avoiding innovation for innovation’s sake. In other words, how does your innovative idea help drive your company’s bottom line, create or improve existing processes or solve a customer problem so well that they are willing to pay for it?

The third and final pillar is the ability to execute and bring your ideas to life. I find this to be one of the most underrated parts of the process. People tend to assume that you have to fall into one of two camps: either you “do stuff” or you’re innovative, but success requires both.

I’d like to change gears a bit and talk about STEM Education, which PGi supports through groups like GirlStart. Why do you see STEM Education as being so important?

Technology isn’t just an industry anymore; it’s pervasive throughout all industries. Whether you want to build software or hardware, whether you want to be an engineer, a scientist or a salesperson, technology is going to be there. If kids want to be successful when they grow up, they have to learn how to use it. It goes way beyond, “Can you use a computer?” today. That’s just the baseline now. Kids are given laptops and tablets at school — they already know how to use them. They have to acquire a deeper understanding of technology to truly distinguish themselves and excel in a competitive marketplace.

I’m kind of a unique example of this since STEM wasn’t my background at all. For years, bosses told me to “get more technical” but that wasn’t really my strength at the time; my strength was bringing a different perspective to technical projects. But it was definitely a struggle learning things like how long certain projects can or should take, or even just how to talk to developers. These skills are vital, even if your immediate role isn’t technology based.

For kids who maybe don’t have access to STEM education, how would you encourage them to get involved? Where can they go to learn these skills?

I was actually just recently exploring this very thing for my nephews who were up visiting for Spring Break. There are so many great opportunities where tech is becoming so accessible to kids.

An app that my nephew really enjoys (and admittedly I’m hooked on now too) is called Cargo-Bot for the iPad®. It’s a game where you solve puzzles by visually arranging sequential commands that a mechanical arm then follows. At the surface it seems like just a fun puzzle game, but you’re actually learning programming fundamentals and techniques as you go. As it gets more complex, the game introduces ideas like loops and recursion in a fun, visual way. It even grades your solution from one to three stars based on simplicity, so as you chase those three-star completions you’re learning to optimize your code as you go. Another great example is the LEGO® MindStorms® toys, which are kits that allow you to build robots out of Lego pieces and then program commands for them to follow with a visual, icon-based programming language.

Ultimately, that’s the trick — presenting STEM concepts in areas where kids are already interested, like apps, robots and games. If you can tailor the education to the things they’re already interested in, they’ll be teaching themselves without even realizing it.

Interested in learning more about the unique challenges and opportunities in today’s business? Download PGi’s free eBook “The Future of Business Collaboration” today!

Cargo-Bot screenshot courtesy of Two Lives Left.

About Joshua Erwin

Josh is a content creator and strategist with a passion for all things tech, such as the latest gadgets, apps, games and more. Josh loves listening to and playing music and is a big college football fan, especially for his alma mater Georgia Bulldogs. When not writing for PGi, you’ll find him gaming or drumming on Sundays for the Atlanta Falcons.

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