A while ago I came across the concept of innovation tokens. It’s a neat and powerful idea. In short, you have a limited number of times you can innovate in any new project or company. Every time you do something new you spend one token. This can be using new technology or adopting new processes. Or it can even be how you define benefits in your company or going all-in on remote working. Of course, there’s no real limit. But innovation has a cost and you should acknowledge it and make sure you spend it in the right places. Too much innovation can thus cause a project to fail. It can overextend the capabilities of the team implementing it. Or make the project hard to understand for users.

In a similar vein, I’m also coming to the conclusion that there are excellence tokens for companies. This means that a company can’t be good at everything. In the best case, it will be great in a couple of areas. And adequate in most. And bad in a few. Like with innovation tokens, there is a limit to how many things you can be good at. In the end, it is a choice by the leadership team where and how to invest. But of course, other factors play in. The founding team or initial key employees shape things to a great extent. The particular industry also demands some tokens be spent as table stakes. Finally, some tokens are used to steer the company a certain way. That can provide a competitive advantage in the market. Or it can help with defining a more attractive employee value proposition.

For example, Google is well known for its engineering, people ops, and lavish perks. This is an area they have worked on to be great. But their legal and financial teams are good. Enough to handle the mighty task of running such a complex business, but no more. And their customer support is infamously bad. As well as anything involving large groups of people doing manual work.

On the other hand, Amazon has excellent customer support and can mobilize armies of millions. But their engineering and product management is just good enough for their needs. And their people operations is the stuff of Hacker News rants.

Drawing from my own experience, StackOverflow was great working with their community. And they were legendary for the thriftiness of their infrastructure. Business development was not their forte, and I was narrowly missed by a layoff while there.

Of course, it goes without saying that some companies don’t use up any excellence tokens. Good enough will take you a long way.

As a candidate evaluating a company for a potential role, it is well worth it to understand where the company chose to spend its excellence tokens. It’s an extension of the discussion in the anti-patterns post and the taxonomy post. Ideally, everybody in the interview pipeline should be able to answer this question. And all in the same way. But usually, some sort of EM or company elder you meet can best clue you in on how things are. To start the conversation you can ask questions like “What do you think sets this company apart from others?”. Or “What gives you an edge vs your competitors?”. Or even “Out of all the activities your company does, which ones would you say management gives higher priority to?”.

The answers won’t be clearly good or bad here. Not like the profit center vs cost center decision, they do impact your experience at the company. Positively if you are aligned and quite negatively if you’re not. For engineers, in particular, a lot of the “product managers won’t allow us to refactor this codebase to $latestTech” discussions, are in fact “the company has not chosen engineering as a point of excellence”. So purely technical justifications won’t work from the start. Nor will ones showing fuzzy increases in developer performance have much sway. But showing how the proposed improvement can help or enable something the organization has deemed important might. At least you’re coming armed with the same sorts of weapons.

Anyway, that’s it for this post. Stay safe everyone through these dark times!