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Matt Netkow
Matt Netkow

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Top 4 Professional Lessons of 2019

2019 was an intense year of professional growth. Working at a startup challenged me to improve across many areas.

Here are my top 4 lessons learned:

1) Move fast. Then go faster.

I've traditionally had a methodical work style - taking my time to polish my work and ensuring all the details are just right. While quality work is essential, I've learned that you can deliver it while moving fast. The key is to identify what truly matters, then ship that. Often, 80% effort is good enough.

It wasn't until I joined a startup that I came to understand this after being challenged (and inspired!) by my peers. My new guiding principle: "What's the most complete, highest quality work that I can ship as soon as possible?"

Here are some concrete examples inspired by my Developer Relations work:

Documenting how to use a product

Ideal: Create a working code repository, a video walkthrough, and a complete written guide.

Instead: Publish a high-level guide in the docs that references the working code repo. Ultimately, code is the source of truth, so developers will be able to figure out how to use the product - even if a written guide is missing.

New product announcement blog

Ideal: Outline all the new features in-depth, add code examples for all supported technologies, and create a video or GIFs.

Instead: Nail the messaging behind why the new product is exciting, teasing it just enough to build excitement and save the rest for the launch blog post.

Demo video

Ideal: Record a professionally edited video with transition animations, crisp audio, and without mistakes.

Instead: Ensure you know the material by practicing a bit upfront, then just present! Stream it live, or record then publish later. As long as the video delivers value to the audience, they won't notice a few "ums" and "uhs."

Summary: Place lots of little bets, analyze the impact, then invest more time into projects that are moving the needle.

2) Outcome, not output

(Borrowed from Marty Cagan's incredible product management book "Inspired")

The number of blog posts written, podcast episodes recorded, or webinars presented aren't important. Ultimately, business results matter most. Better to have one webinar that brought in three new Sales opportunities, then four webinars that covered some fun topics but didn't result in new business or teach your audience anything that improves their work.

That means we have to Move Fast as well as Pivot Fast. In practice, this is challenging, because sometimes this means abandoning in-progress work. It's a tough pill to swallow if you've been working on a project for days, weeks, or months. But, when you identify that something isn't working, cut your losses. The key is not to get emotionally attached to the work, which includes not letting ego get in the way of progress.

Summary: Ship quickly, gather feedback and data, adjust your strategy, then move forward.

3) Renewed Empathy: Give others the benefit of the doubt

Moving fast and focusing on outcome over output are great goals to strive for. However, you have to be careful not to become impatient or let your ego get the best of you.

Summary: Assume that everyone is trying their best. Trust your peers to work hard and deliver quality work, and they will.

4) Writing is Thinking

"Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That's why it's so hard." - David McCullough

(Learn more about this concept here and here.)

This is my favorite lesson and by far the most impactful. In the middle of 2019, I was promoted to the first "official" leadership position of my career. While exciting, I was quickly overwhelmed. Suddenly I was asked to do things I'd never done before, including gathering than analyzing metrics and defining my team's strategy for the remainder of the year.

For the metrics requirement, I gathered data and put it into a nice-looking PowerPoint presentation. While presenting that data to management, however, I got my ass kicked.

"What's the cause of that growth trend?" Uhh…

"Why is X area of focus more important than Y area?" Hmm...

"What are the main takeaways we should know?" I'm not sure...

Ouch. I was completely unprepared because I didn't take the time to sit and think through what the data was telling me. I approached the new tasks as I did previous work: "Pick a task, do the work, begin next task."

Since that rough start, I've purposely blocked off time to think and write. In one to two-hour chunks each month and quarterly, I reflect on what's working and what's not, plan my team's next strategic moves, and evaluate my personal goals. Additionally, before I deliver product feedback I create a written document that begins with the background of the situation, my theory on what should change, and data to back it up. Once that's complete, I review it. If I identify gaps in my arguments, that shows it's time to rethink, ask more questions, or even recognize that it's not worth sharing!

Summary: Practicing "writing as thinking" will have an incredible impact on your work. Ideas become clearer, which means your ability to communicate them vastly improves. With the value of those ideas increasing too, it's easier to lead with intention, focus, and clarity of direction.

These lessons are still fresh, so I'm looking forward to doubling down and expanding upon them in 2020.

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