How to Find Success Within an IT Sandbox

Experimental IT “sandboxes” aren’t for everyone, but for those who use them, they can produce breakthrough gains in IT.

Mary E. Shacklett, President of Transworld Data

October 24, 2023

6 Min Read
Closeup of plastic toys in a sandbox - conceptual sandbox level
olandsfokus via Alamy Stock

Most of us remember the backyard sandboxes we played in as children. We built roads and bridges, created castles, launched battles. Then, with the stroke of a hand, we swept it all away and began again.

In IT, sandboxes perform a similar function. They enable IT professionals to imagine and create new IT initiatives and to kick the tires. If a concept works and can be implemented into day-to-day IT, it’s a value-added addition. If it fails in the sandbox, it gets swept away.

The beauty of the sandbox is that affords IT staff the opportunity to experiment and be creative. This can spark innovations that turn into IT breakthroughs for the company, and it can provide a real incentive for top-level performers. Because the sandbox is sequestered from the production and test environments, there is no risk of sandbox experimentation compromising live enterprise IT.

It has been argued that sandbox IT is no longer needed because of the agility and the ability to rapidly effect change in applications that development methodologies like Agile bring. However, even if one argues that Agile can be a type of sandbox, there are other areas of IT that Agile doesn’t really touch. Those include what IT does in operations, or in infrastructure, or in networks, or when IT decides to create an entire application module that bundles in top-level apps and underlying IT infrastructure.

Related:Looking to Cut Your Budget? Don’t Skimp on Innovation

Here is an example:

A senior member of my staff once successfully developed an extension module to a financial application that our financial software vendor didn’t have. This new application module extended the vendor’s offerings and offered a new capability that most of the vendor’s clients wanted. The vendor wanted our module, so it agreed to license it from us, with the two of us sharing in revenues from sales. It turned out that our sandbox work ended up being valuable for us internally and as a revenue generator. The vendor also benefited, as did other clients of the vendor.

Of course, not all sandbox work turns out like this. Sandbox experiments often blow up and fail. This is why many IT departments can find it difficult to justify sandbox work.

The caveat is this: If you have a sandbox, you can’t let everyone play in that sandbox at once, nor can you let individuals dally there for indeterminate periods of time. Sandboxers must still do their daily work, and limits must be set for how long any one sandbox experiment can run.

Who Gets to Play in the Sandbox?

The sandbox is most often utilized by senior staff who have proven skills and innovative ideas of how to make IT run better. They normally don’t get the opportunity to try out new concepts in their daily work, and the sandbox gives them an outlet in which they can experiment.

Related:Manage Risk to Foster Innovation in IT

I have seen operations personnel use the sandbox to try out new ways to streamline batch jobs, to perform system backups and to purge data. I have seen senior applications and systems personnel develop innovative solutions for our industry that vendors didn’t have, and that made our company more competitive.

In all cases, the goal is to afford a sandbox opportunity to your brightest and most innovative stars, which gives them a chance to experiment with ideas that can transform the company and its IT into something better.

How Do You Run the Sandbox?

Here are several guidelines that are helpful if you’re running a sandbox:

1. Sell management on the sandbox concept. IT departments are already overloaded, and there are many management teams that will be less than enthusiastic about taking IT’s highest achievers and giving them chances to experiment when they could working on production issues that are deemed more critical.

It’s important to pay attention to this issue!

If you operate lean or are a small organization, or if your corporate culture is very conservative and traditional, the sandbox might not be a fit for your situation.

Related:Eliminate Enterprise IT Oversights with Digital Twins

Conversely, if your company is very technology-oriented in its end business and it feels constant pressure to be a technology innovator, it is more likely to endorse the idea of an idea incubator sandbox in its IT department.

There even are cases where historically conservative companies, such as those you might find in insurance or finance, can embrace the sandbox.  I know of one situation where a payment processor wanted to create a sandbox in IT because it believed some of IT’s personnel could innovate new digital products that the company could bring to market.

The bottom line is that you must first take stock of your company and the value it places on innovation. Secondly, you need to look at your top-level staff. Do they have the ability to innovate if given the opportunity? You need both ingredients to make a sandbox work.

2. Develop a ruleset for the sandbox. Sandbox experiments are “free form” and there are few rules that govern how they are innovated and developed. This is purposely so because you want sandboxers to have maximum creative license.

However, after that, you need some governing rules around sandbox projects.

The first is that there should be a defined process for interested sandbox participants to submit their ideas, along with a committee that reviews and approves sandbox ideas.

The second rule is that for sandbox projects that are approved, there should be limits. 

For instance, a large west coast analytics company allocates a certain amount of time for each sandbox project. If a project fails to show promise at the end of that timeframe, the plug is pulled. “We have gotten breakthrough innovations out of this process,” the manager told me, “But we’ve also experienced failures. In these cases, our intent is to pull the plug as soon as we see the project isn’t going to work.”

What You Should Expect from the Sandbox

If you are an innovative and technology-oriented company, you should reasonably expect some successes to emerge from the sandbox. To improve the likelihood of success, the IT sandbox review committee should evaluate project proposals for likelihood of success and for the value each project potentially can deliver.

Of course, not all sandbox projects will work, so you should be ready to accept failures as part of the process.

The optimal guidance for running a sandbox is to have rules of operation in place that everyone understands and abides by; to have on staff personnel who are capable of innovating great ideas; and to have a management team above and beyond IT that enthusiastically supports the sandbox concept.

I have worked in organizations that have both supported and not supported sandboxes. Overall, the successes I have seen from sandboxes outweigh not being able to try innovative projects at all.

About the Author(s)

Mary E. Shacklett

President of Transworld Data

Mary E. Shacklett is an internationally recognized technology commentator and President of Transworld Data, a marketing and technology services firm. Prior to founding her own company, she was Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturer in the semiconductor industry.

Mary has business experience in Europe, Japan, and the Pacific Rim. She has a BS degree from the University of Wisconsin and an MA from the University of Southern California, where she taught for several years. She is listed in Who's Who Worldwide and in Who's Who in the Computer Industry.

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