by Isabel Nyo

A developer’s guide to becoming an intrapreneur and making a difference


The word “intrapreneur” was defined by Gifford Pinchot in 1984 as:

…dreamers who do. Those who take hands-on responsibility for creating innovation of any kind, within a business.

Developers make great intrapreneurs. Developers are used to analyzing problems, thinking deeply and creatively, designing systems from scratch, and coming up with solutions that solve problems. Good developers go a step further by implementing monitoring and alerting into whatever they have built so they know if their solution is working as intended or not.

Those are exactly the traits that are required for an entrepreneur or an intrapreneur. However, developers aren’t often recognized for their entrepreneurial spirits in an organization, or for being an intrapreneur. Why do you think that is?

Today, I will go through the stages that a developer can follow to become an intrapreneur within their organization.

Stage 1: Find a problem to solve


When you are a developer working for someone else, problems are given to you, either in the form of a user story or a defect that you need to solve.

If you want to be an intrapreneur, you can’t wait for someone to come to you with a problem for you to solve. But trust me, that doesn’t mean problems don’t exist outside of user stories and bugs. A problem doesn’t mean something is broken. Sometimes it is just a matter of making an existing system, process, or service more efficient and effective.

In your role as an intrapreneur, you can introduce new products for customers, new products for internal users, new tools, new processes, or new initiatives to foster a better work environment. Or you can improve any existing one. But don’t start by saying, “I want to introduce a new product.” Instead, start by saying, “I want to solve a problem.

Say, for example, that you want to save your company some money. First, let’s go back to thinking like a developer. What would you do when you want to optimize your system or code so it doesn’t use a lot of memory?

  1. You need to understand the fundamentals of memory management, and
  2. You need to go through your code to figure out where memory may be leaking or if there is an efficient loop or variable assignment.

Likewise, to save your company some money, you need to understand the basics of financial management. You don’t need to go and get a MBA or be a CPA to do that, but you need to understand the basics. Understanding financial terminology, balance statements, and financial reports will all help. Once you know where money goes, you can think about ways to save it.

According to market research, growth companies spend quite a bit of money on recruitment. The cost of recruitment is higher for specific roles that require strong technical skills. It takes longer to fill those roles, and hiring managers need to do assessments like coding tests and multiple interviews to ensure the candidate has the required skill set. If the company decides to use an external agency, this cost could increase even further.

If you are a developer and you work for a company that hires a lot of developers, then this is a good problem for you to solve on your route to becoming an intrapreneur.

Because you are a developer yourself, you probably have an advantage: you know other developers in the market, and you probably have a pretty good understanding of what developers are looking for. From there, you can think about ways you can help your company reduce costs through more effective and targeted recruitment.

Stage 2: Gather data


What kind of data does your company have around the problem that you are trying to solve? This is very important, because if there’s no baseline, there is no way for you to track if you are making a positive difference. Just like an entrepreneur needs to know how her business is performing, you, as an intrapreneur, need to know how to measure the success or progress of your project.

Looking at the example project we picked out earlier (saving money for your company through effective recruitment), you need to know the cost per hire for your company. It is not the total recruitment cost, because total recruitment cost per year will vary depending on how many new hires are made that year. There are also other metrics that you can use which are not direct cost, but indirect cost, such as the length of time it takes to fill a role and the retention rate.

Collect all that baseline data, and then you can decide in which are you would like to make an impact. Gathering and understanding data is a good exercise for a developer, because not everything is black and white. It will also increase your knowledge and awareness of how business works. Additionally, the company will benefit from your critical thinking and problem solving skills.

Stage 3: Form a team


Why do you need a team, I hear you ask? Behind every successful entrepreneur, there are a group of people who are working in a team from the analyst to the investor. Likewise, an intrapreneur in an organization needs a team. These should be people who share a similar goal of being intrapreneurs and who are willing to put extra time and effort into this project with you.

When recruiting for your team, don’t worry about job titles, worry about what they are willing to offer. You may be a developer, but your coding skills may not be required in your role as an intrapreneur. The more valuable skills are critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity. So think about them when you are choosing team members. And don’t make the mistake of choosing too many people, because it’s all about quality and not quantity.

At this stage, you also want to get buy-in and support from a few people at the senior/executive level. These people will become your sponsors if they support your idea.

This is the main difference between being an entrepreneur and being an intrapreneur. When you are an entrepreneur, you work for yourself and you make the calls. Whereas when you are an intrapreneur, you need to go through the appropriate channels to get a buy-in first, as you work within a company and its policies.

It is also important to keep your sponsors informed of your progress whenever there are major events, such as when you are testing a new idea, when you have gotten results from your idea, and so on.

Stage 4: Put together a business plan


You have got the what, and now you’re ready to tackle the who and the how. Who are your customers, how are you going to solve the problem that you have identified earlier, and how will you know you have solved the problem?

By customers, I don’t mean people who will buy from you. Customers, in this case, are people who will benefit from this project that you’re working on. So say, for example, you’re going to save your company money through effective recruitment. Your customers are, of course, the hiring managers within the company, because money will be saved and operation cost will decrease. You will ease their burden and you will address their pain point, which could be “difficulty in finding suitable candidates” or “having to deal with too many recruitment agencies.”

Your business plan will outline, at the very least, three things:

  • the problem
  • the solution
  • the success criteria

Depending on the type of project, you may include other things like a business model, financial summary, and so on. Because you are an intrapreneur within an organization, you will find that a lot of your projects are not exactly about making money directly. They’ll usually be more about reducing cost and improving efficiencies. Here’s a sample business plan template and guide that you can download and use.

Stage 5: Test your idea


If you’ve read “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries, you know about the principles he discussed. In particular, I’m talking about the three step feedback loop: Build, Measure, and Learn.

Build-Measure-Learn is a framework for successfully measuring, and continuously improving, the effectiveness of new products for startups.

Being an intrapreneur is a bit like building your own startup in many ways. You have a problem and an idea but you are not sure if your idea is going to solve the problem.

So, you need to test your ideas, using as few resources as possible.

In a startup world, this is called a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). As a developer, you are probably already familiar with all this startup terminology.

What is your MVP for your effective recruitment project? You could think about introducing an internal referral program or designing an online test that screens candidates out effectively. Regardless of what you decide to do, keep it simple to start. Using the Build-Measure-Learn approach, you can increment and iterate your solution to become better with feedback and learning.

Stage 6: Measure


Once your idea has been tested out in the wild for a certain period of time, you want look at how it performed against the metrics that you are measuring.

So, if your solution was to use an internal referral program, did you see an improvement in time to hire? Were the candidates more suitable, in terms of skill set, experience, and cultural-fit? This is where the work you did in stage 2, collecting data and having a baseline, comes in handy.

Stage 7: Learn


With the results you received, you are now in a position to make an informed decision on what to do next.

If the result shows that you have significantly improved metrics through your MVP, then the next logical step is to scale it up. This is called “persevere,” where you grow your idea with maximum acceleration.

As a developer, scaling is something you are probably already familiar with. Developers often scale their systems when there is an increase in usage, to make them faster and more efficient. Scaling your solution as an intrapreneur is a little different.

In our example, as an intrapreneur for an internal referral program, you want to increase the usage, or adoption, of this program. That way, more hiring managers can realize the benefits of the program, and more money and time can be saved, which was your main objective. This is similar to what an entrepreneur would do for her product.

On the other hand, if the result shows no significant improvement, you need to take a different approach. Eric calls this a “pivot” in “The Lean Startup.” When you have to pivot, it does not feel great because you have probably invested your time and possibly your emotions. Even though, as an intrapreneur, you are not working on your own business, it is normal that you still want your idea to be successful.

However, the good thing with the Build-Measure-Learn approach is that your loss as an intrapreneur, in terms of time and effort, should be minimal. You get to go back to the drawing board and come up with new ideas and look at things from a different perspective, as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Thank you for reading!

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