The Difference Between R and D

Mark Porter

I used to believe that Research and Development (R&D) departments should work in lockstep with Product teams so that they can stay focused on commercially-viable innovations. After all, not every innovation has a market, and not every business has resources to bet on future markets.

All of that changed when I met Dr. Michael Cahill, the head of MongoDB Labs in Australia. Michael came to MongoDB through our acquisition of WiredTiger back in 2014, an open source storage engine company he co-founded with Keith Bostic. He holds a PhD in Computer Science and a history of breakthrough innovation. He also has an enlightened point of view on the role of research in any technology company.

“Researchers need time and space to pursue the theoretical,” he told me. “We want them to come up with crazy ideas, with much longer time horizons.”

Michael is referring to the fundamentally different mindsets required of researchers versus developers. Our developers are focused on new products or features that can make an impact in the next 3-4 quarters. Our researchers are thinking about solving problems that have the potential to reshape entire markets for decades.

Big difference.

Funding this kind of innovation is challenging for the MBA set, and measuring the ROI of basic research is notoriously difficult. Progress can seem slow and difficult to quantify.

Our researchers occupy a space that straddles art and science, industry and academia. They spend a lot of time reading, thinking, and tinkering. Ideas are freely shared, cultivated, iterated, and sometimes abandoned. This is the price of disruptive innovation. In fact, MongoDB would never exist if our founders had set out to simply improve upon relational databases. Instead, they wanted to invent an entirely new way to manage data. It was an ambitious idea that required long-term thinking. An idea that despite MongoDB’s current success, is still only in its infancy. An idea so humongous, Michael Cahill may have even called it “crazy.”

Don’t get me wrong. The work of MongoDB Labs is firmly grounded in MongoDB’s core strategy: to constantly improve the way data is stored, accessed, secured and processed. Document databases are only the first act of this play. And I’m certain the next act is being written as we speak, by Michael and his team.

Have a different approach to R&D? Think my ideas are “crazy”? Let me hear about it on Twitter at @MarkLovesTech