Google lists job with a Star Trek-like mission

As with baseball, tech scouts may be widely used, but few firms so boldly advertise for them

Google Inc. is advertising for a "renewable energy technology scout" whose mission will be to "seek-out, analyze, present, and promote new technologies" that are designed to cut energy costs.

Google is seeking an IT and operations worker whose Star Trek-like mission will be to reach out to university labs, R&D organizations and other sources to gather ideas for potential new renewable technologies.

Google is a major data center operator and has tried to control its energy cost by building facilities in hydropower-rich regions, such as the Pacific Northwest, where power costs are low. The company also uses containers, large tractor-trailer sized and self-contained units that house servers, to reduce energy needs.

The "technology scout" position sounds like a cool job, but the right person is hard to find. Few firms appear to advertised for such scouts as boldly or strikingly as Google.

The use of technology scouts, even if they aren't always called that in help wanted ads, may be widespread. Some companies, including Google's Mountain View, Calif. Neighbor, Intuit Inc., have dedicated scouting teams.

Gerald Huff, technology innovation architect at Intuit, heads a team of about six people whose job consists largely of scouting for ideas. The Intuit tech scouts read "tons of blogs," track industry news, attend conferences and work with universities and laboratories to "find the interesting new technologies that are emerging," said Huff.

Intuit's scouts have technical skills -- they are software engineers -- along with creativity, openness and "and ability to make connections and leaps," said Huff.

The Intuit innovation team was created in 2006 to fill a gap, namely the need to create concerted plan to seek out new technologies and to determine how the company could use them, said Huff. "We try to stay very involved in the key problems that the company is trying to solve," he said.

The Intuit team doesn't work in an ivory tower; it builds prototype products using the technology it finds. The hands-on mission means that the team can measure its success by the products it helps bring to market, said Huff.

For instance, the company is now testing a digital pen that was built using technology discovered by a team member. The team built a prototype of the digital pen, evangelized its use within the company, and made sure it supported Intuit's QuickBase online database.

Idea generation is encouraged throughout the company, which uses and internally developed application, called Intuit Brainstorm, to collect and manage the use of ideas generated by employees.

Jay Paap, a consultant who heads Paap Associates Inc., a management consulting firm in Waban, Mass., who has helped companies to set-up scouting programs, said the concept of such teams has been around for decades.

"The primary goal is to look in places that are outside of your normal areas of expertise to get ideas on how to solve problems that you or your customer have," said Papp. An ideal technology scout "is someone who is a quick study and very, very curious and can make linkages that other people can't see," he added.

In Google's case, the company may be trying to identify energy efficiency technologies that are outside its core strength as a consumer company, said Paap.

In a recent paper, Rene Rohrbeck, chair of the Technical University of Berlin, looked at the use of technology scouts in the information technology and communications industry and found the practice is well established. Scouting is needed for many reasons, such as the globalization and specialization of R&D. India, for instance, is specializing in software development, Silicon Valley for services and business models using IT, and Israel for Internet security, Rohrbeck's paper reported.

Another reason for a need to have foresight into the trends is the convergence of technologies. Technology companies "who used to compete entirely on radio frequency and power-management technologies now have to master technologies such as media storage, video streaming, social media, and identity management. They also need to become application developers," wrote Rohrbeck.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, send e-mail to pthibodeau@computerworld.com or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed .

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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