More generous tax credits for product research and the government's creation of Enterprise Zones stand to encourage IT research and development activity. We spoke to some IT pros working at the bleeding edge to find out what a career in R&D is like from the inside.
The iPhone gamer
Mark Allen is technical director at Neon Play, a gaming company.
How do you test whether a product is technically viable?
If we are unsure, we will sometimes create a little prototype to help answer the question. We’re hands on so we don’t sit around theorising – instead we pull our sleeves up and try it out.
What technical skills do you need?
Objective C is the primary iPhone programming language. Objective C was created by Next Computing, the company set-up and run by Steve Jobs. It is similar to Java. This is the key technical skill for any iPhone games programmer. In fact there is a bit of a shortage. We’ve worked with our local Cirencester College to design an iPhone programming module for the ICT course, which is proving successful. Search for Objective C jobs and Java jobs.
What other qualities are desirable?
Neon Play is a games studio, so we’re after people who can have fun. It helps bring the technical skills alive and make them relevant. Creativity is clearly important and we expect it in anyone we recruit. There is no science in creating fun. It can be the difference between an OK app and a really addictive app.
What’s the best thing about product research?
A well-stocked beer fridge, some switched on creative people and a willingness to work out the detail. iPhone games and apps are two a penny at the moment so producing something that can stand out needs people who understand the true nature of iPhone gaming.
And the worst?
Blank faces and tumbleweed.
The master inventor
Bharat Bedi, master inventor and Dave Braines, project champion, work at IBM Hursley, the biggest software lab in Europe.
What was your first job?
We both arrived at research programmes via consultancy and services respectively. You don’t have to be a boffin or have a PhD to work in research for a blue chip company.
What’s the different between research and product development?
The blue sky research people tend to have doctorates and are pushing the boundaries of science, such as quantum physics and technologies. At the development end you’re working out new ways to apply new technologies, such as mobile, sensors and artificial intelligence, to build customer solutions. We work somewhere in the middle.
What sort of projects do you work on?
There are some wonderful examples, especially those under the Smarter Planet programme, such as an intelligent system that helps care for the elderly. Or it might be a mobile dashboard for a large customer, plus we collaborate on international initiatives.
How can you move into research?
The most important thing is a strong track record of exposure to many ‘first of a kind’ projects, such as prototypes. The ability to deal with an environment of uncertainty and to build solid components from that is crucial too.
What are the highlights of corporate research?
The sheer variety of projects, plus we have the opportunity to work on things that are unique and can have a beneficial impact on the environment.
What are the lowlights?
There are so many interesting things to learn and participate it, it can be hard to learn to say no and to get technology delivery done. Balancing the research and the development components can be difficult.
• Employs over 3,000 scientists and engineers in eight research labs in six countries.
• Has more than 25,000 technology developers in more than 60 major development labs around the world.
• Invested $5.8 billion in R&D in 2009 and has increased its R&D investment by 21% since 2002
Search for IBM jobs.
The app developer
Giacomo Biggiero, is chief product officer at Masabi, developer of the personal train ticket machine app.
Why did you choose to work in a start-up?
I was attracted to the dynamic environment and possibilities for getting involved in a whole range of different business areas beyond just programming. Since joining Masabi, I’ve been involved in everything from R&D to assisting with the development of corporate strategy.
What technical skills/languages do you use?
What other skills do you need?
I come from a traditional programming background and as the company and development team have grown, I’ve had to learn about managing teams, projects and relationships with customers.
What’s good about product development?
Technology is constantly evolving, particularly in mobile, so you are constantly working with new products and facing new challenges. This means that the job is always fresh and exciting. You also get to develop interesting new things.
What’s the worst bit?
Sometimes it can be challenging working in a fast-paced and continuously evolving environment, but it’s always fun and exciting!
The research fellow
Dr Frank Stajano, senior lecturer, University of Cambridge, was a research fellow for two years in a Toshiba R&D laboratory in Japan.
Why did you choose a fellowship programme?
I had always been interested in Japan so I attended a presentation in London to find out more. Former fellows were very enthusiastic about their experiences and the salary on offer was generous. I was a mature student at Cambridge, having returned to academia after an electronic engineering degree followed by several years in industrial research. I had just started the third year of my PhD in computer science.
What research did you work on?
I worked on security for ubiquitous computing, applying the research work of my doctorate to the industrial reality of Toshiba. Among other things, I worked on short-range connectivity with Bluetooth for a programme about contactless payment systems. I produced two patent applications, one about a personalised wireless reminder service and another about secure remote software upgrades.
What was the highlight?
The highlight of my experience was living in Japan. I learned some Japanese, got to know the fascinating culture and made many lifelong friends. I also had the opportunity to train every day in Japanese swordsmanship (kendo), which was a fantastic experience.
The Toshiba Fellowship Programme was set up 27 years ago and is based at the R&D Centre (RDC) is based in Kawasaki, Japan's prosperous 'Silicon Valley',
Read more about the Toshiba Fellowship Programme.
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