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How to promote innovation in a non big tech company?

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Senior Software Developer (APS6) at Department of Employment and Workplacea month ago

I've been working as a software developer in federal government for the last 5 years with the last 2 being primarily within an innovation division.

Over those years I solo developed many internal projects; initially during downtime/upskilling time and later on doing it fulltime.

Each one of these I believe could of had a profound impact on internal processes and ways of working which would then have a positive knock-on effect to the general public.

However these projects never saw a big enough audience that could have that sort of positive impact.

No matter how much the users or executive would love the product/s - the endorsement would only ever go as far as a good CV piece or getting to work on what I wanted.

From what I've heard this is different in big tech. (ala Paul Buchheit w/ gmail)

But is it really like that and if so, how can you encourage institutions that are not known for risk taking and innovation to change?

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(2 comments)
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    Tech Lead @ Robinhood, Meta, Course Hero
    a month ago

    This is a bit sneaky, but could you just... ship it? The catch here is that you wrap it in an A/B test. If it doesn't work, then you can kill it, but if it does and value added to the end-user is crystal clear through the metrics, I feel like it's hard to revert.

    This was actually a trick the most talented engineer I've ever worked with used (they went from junior to staff in 3 years at Instagram). Here was their process:

    • In their spare time, hack together an ambitious prototype
    • Record a very nice video demo of the prototype and share it with the team, which included senior leadership + product/design
    • Say that they were just going to run a 2% A/B test with it (1% control, 1% test), and if things didn't work, they would kill the experiment immediately
    • People say yes because the code is already written (the non-technical people didn't realize that their code was super hacky and not production ready), and it feels bad to waste it
    • Engineer runs the A/B test, it succeeds (they had incredible product intuition), they ship the feature
    • Do this again and again to get promoted at light speed

    In general, biasing towards action is incredibly powerful. You can learn more about how to do this and build product intuition here: [Taro Top 10] Product Management For Engineers

    On a side note, I actually think Big Tech is not innovative, at least not anymore. Of course, these companies are huge and there's tons of engineers working on cutting edge tech, but I would say most engineers are working on:

    1. Infra optimization for cost reduction (latency reduction, data compression, bug fixing)
    2. Features that are taken from scrappier startups, where most of the innovation truly lies
    3. Effectively nothing (they're just mired in bureaucracy)

    If you want to learn more about how Big Tech truly functions, check this out: [Masterclass] Should You Work At FAANG? - What Big Tech Is Like For Software Engineers

  • 2
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    Tech Lead/Manager at Meta, Pinterest, Kosei
    a month ago

    One big difference between Big Tech and government work: Big Tech has effectively infinite money.

    I'm being tongue-in-cheek here, but companies like Google, Amazon, and Meta make tens of billions of dollars a year in revenue, so spending tens of millions on R&D projects that are explicitly designed to foster innovation is much easier.

    In fact, most engineers, designers, and product managers in Big Tech don't worry at all about revenue. They simply try to publish a paper, create a demo, or increase engagement. This separation of concerns is good for innovation.

    One thing worth considering for you: what criteria is your manager or your organization using to make investment decisions?

    • Can you frame your project with the vocabulary and metrics of what the government cares about?
    • Instead of going for a "home run" (a greenfield innovation project), can you make a more incremental change on an existing project?

    I highly recommend going through this question from an Apple engineer about innovation as well: "How do I come up with innovative, impactful ideas and bring them to my team?"