by Leon Rosenshein

Context Matters

I’ve talked about contexts before. The contexts of what you and your audience know. The ubiquitous language of bounded contexts. And the shared context of experience. There’s another kind of context that I haven’t talked about. The kind of context that comes with size and environment.

Because size and environment change things. In a company of 10 people it’s possible for everyone to know everyone else. And for everyone to know as much (or as little) as they want about everything else. A company of 100 people can probably do it, if they work hard at it. In a company of 1000 people it won’t work.

When TK started Uber, in one city with a few people, the size of the company was right and the environment he did it in was ready for what he was doing. Trying the same thing today, in this context won’t get you far.

Consider three very large tech companies, Microsoft, founded in 1975, Amazon founded in 1994, and Google founded in 1998. They all have a search product. They all have a large part of their company dedicated to building and selling cloud services. They are all considered successful. But while their product portfolio has a lot of overlap, if you look under the covers no one would mistake one of them for either of the others. And if you tried to transplant a specific process or peice of the tech stack from one to another it wouldn’t work.

There are books by company insiders about how Microsoft and Google do software development. In both cases they’re distillations of hard-won lessons at the respective companies. And they’re different. Because they evolved over time in a specific context. A context that includes things like company processes, number of employees, company wide and org specific tools, and very different leaders at the top.

Which is a long way of saying that while there’s a lot to learn from the successes (and failures) of other companies and the tools and processes they used, we, or any other company for that matter, can’t just blindly apply those lessons and expect them to work as well.

Instead, we should view the experiences of others through the lens of our context and apply those learnings. Building the tools and processes, the culture, that works in our context.