Welcome to episode 193 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_), two Pre-Sales Technical Engineers who are hoping to bring you the IT career advice that we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we share part 1 of an interview with Neil Thompson, discussing his early career as a biomedical researcher and engineer, his move to patent agent, and the birth of his business Teach the Geek that focuses on helping technical people improve their communication and presentation skills.
Original Recording Date: 10-06-2022
Topics – Meet Neil Thompson, Seniority and Communication, Showing Your Work and Community, Education and Engineers across Industries, The Nuances of Patents, Joining a Startup, Birth of Teach the Geek, Specializing Past Toastmasters
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3:29 – Meet Neil Thompson
- Neil Thompson started a business called Teach the Geek several years ago, and this stemmed from his struggles having to give presentations in front of management.
- When Neil’s career began, he started as a research associate working in a lab. This involved a lot of writing of protocols and reports, and Neil’s boss was the one who spoke to most other people about the results Neil had generated.
- When Neil progressed to product development engineer (his second job), he had to take on this responsibility (which he did not realize when taking the job).
- At first the job was very similar until Neil was asked to take on the task of project management in addition to what he had been doing. This meant every month Neil had to give project status updates in front of senior management (C-level executives like CEO and others).
- Neil mentions the first few presentations were horrendous. He would often get questions after the presentation that he thought he had answered during the presentation.
- Neil had not communicated what he wanted in a way his audience could understand, and these additional questions put more stress and pressure on him.
- Eventually his project was cancelled (the project he was brought to the company to do), which was the wake up call Neil needed to realize improvements in presentation skills were needed.
- Neil decided to join Toastmasters, an organization whose mission is to help people with public speaking. Participation gives you the space to practice giving presentations.
- After participating, Neil sought out more opportunities to practice and improve his public speaking.
- He decided to take the lessons he had learned along the way and about 4 years ago created an online course geared toward people in technical fields (STEM – science, engineering, technology, mathematics) called Teach the Geek to Speak.
- The course is a 6-step process to deliver any presentation someone might need to give.
- About a year ago, Neil realized a one off course was not enough. He also created a membership to accompany the course that allows members to join a community with access to monthly calls to discuss public speaking issues.
- Neil also has a podcast called Teach the Geek available on all popular podcatchers and on Teach the Geek’s YouTube channel. On the show Neil talks to people like himself about their careers and their public speaking journeys.
- Many of the guests started their career in one place and ended up somewhere completely different.
- Any time Neil is on a podcast he likes to mentioned guest Christine Vartainian. She started off as a civil engineer, then was an attorney, was a stay at home mom for a while, and is now a personal stylist.
7:41 – Seniority and Communication
- John says as we gain seniority we often find out that part of the responsibility that comes with this is communication (goals, status, mission or purpose of a group / function / organization, reasons for funding something, etc.).
- Neil was an individual contributor when this extra responsibility was placed upon him (communication), and he eventually saw the benefit of getting better at it.
- Smaller organizations can rely on people to have certain skills without really having taught the people those skills or clarified what the expectations really are. This sets people up to fail.
- Neil says he wasn’t the only engineer expected to give presentations to management at the time as an added responsibility. Perhaps John is on to something with the above idea.
- Entrepreneurs know what they need to run their business, and sometimes it can be a failure to transmit expectations and training down to employees expected to do the work.
- We work for different sized organizations over time. There can be a need for outside training that doesn’t exist or that is being carried on as a labor of love by people inside the organization whose desire is to help train others (i.e. work in addition to their day jobs).
- The health of an organization is dependent upon people’s ability to effectively communicate within those organizations both up and down the chain and peer to peer. It’s great to hear that Neil is helping organizations with this problem and building communities around it!
10:46 – Showing Your Work and Community
- One of the patterns we’ve highlighted on the show is based on the book Show Your Work by Austin Kleon.
- Seek out a community of like minded individuals and exhibit the things you are doing / seek out collaboration opportunities with other members of the community.
- We’ve had a number of people on the show who have become members of technical communities, but we could belong to many different types of communities to build specific skills (both technical and nontechnical, could be industry specific or related to a hobby, etc.). And there can absolutely be more than one community! See also this post.
- Being part of communities is a chance to meet new people, learn best practices, be a contributor, and make the community better.
- Neil agrees with learning from the community and cites learning a number of things from his podcast guests.
- One example is guest Manjula Selvarajah, a former mechanical engineer who is now a reporter. When she prepares for a presentation, she bites into an apple to prevent her mouth from being dry while giving the presentation.
- John and Nick didn’t have any apples when they were at VMware Explore US earlier this year. Perhaps it’s worth a future experiment!
- John says his mouth went dry a couple of times when he and Nick were giving that presentation.
- You’re supposed to bite into the apple right before giving the presentation so you have a bunch of saliva to prevent your mouth from going dry.
- Nick suggests making this part of the pre-presentation warmup routine (along with doing some push ups to get the anxiety out).
- One example is guest Manjula Selvarajah, a former mechanical engineer who is now a reporter. When she prepares for a presentation, she bites into an apple to prevent her mouth from being dry while giving the presentation.
13:40 – Education and Engineers across Industries
- Focusing on patents was Neil’s 3rd job. Neil’s boss from his second job started a new company, and the boss asked Neil to join him at the new company.
- Neil’s boss wanted each engineer who joined his new company to become a patent agent so the boss would not have to outsource patent drafting to outside council.
- Neil became a patent agent as was expected, and the boss still outsourced everything. That was the case the entire time Neil was at this company.
- It was not until a few years ago that Neil found a good way to leverage his patent agent certification. Now he does freelance patent drafting for a firm in San Diego close to where he lives.
- Neil became a biomedical engineer because his father said he should. Neil says he used to lie about the reason he became an engineer in the first place because he was embarrassed by it.
- Many people who have gone into engineering fields started off in a robotics club or played with Legos as a kid. Neil did not do any of those things.
- Because Neil had not idea what he really wanted to do, he took his father’s advice.
- Once Neil got his degree his father encouraged him to get a masters degree, which Neil did in biomedical engineering.
- Neil’s father then encouraged him to get a PhD in the same field. Neil started down that path but did not finish.
- "At some point you have to start living for yourself and not for the wants of others, your parents included." – Neil Thompson
- Neil didn’t want to be at school much longer and was tired of being poor. He tells the story of many of his friends from the undergraduate days going straight into the workforce and making good money. They would play poker together, but Neil could not play because he didn’t have the money.
- His former classmates were living in condos and had cars with Neil barely able to afford a scooter.
- Neil dropped out of the PhD program after about a year, and the first job he got as a research associate was 7 months after he dropped out of the program.
- The process of self-discovery is interesting. John went to school to be an electrical engineer (also because of his father).
- After his sophomore year John realized he did not know what electrical engineers really do, and if was what he was doing at the time, he definitely didn’t want to do it for a living.
- Neil recalls having a guest who was a mechanical engineering major, and after the end of her 4 years of study she still did not know what a mechanical engineer did.
- The term engineer can be ambiguous at times. People could say they are an engineer and be a software developer, a mechanical engineer, or many other things.
- Outside of becoming a certified Professional Engineer other fields are borrowing the term engineer.
- Neil mentions he can think of some people who are bothered by the fact that you can attend a coding boot camp and then get a job at a technology company, calling yourself an engineer. These people had to study for 4 years and maybe even participate in an apprenticeship to qualify to even take the Professional Engineer exam.
- Certain types of engineering like civil engineering have certain standards for people employers might want to hire (and may account for the reasons for requirements we have mentioned), whereas software engineering, it’s a bit too open to say completing a certification exam qualifies you to be a software engineer.
- When we say software engineer, even the software part of that is a bit overloaded and could cover many different programming languages and many different tasks (from writing a compiler to a front end and beyond).
- Maybe this is more to do with young industries vs. older industries?
- If you are designing a bridge, you certainly want someone qualified to do it! If you’re building an application, maybe you don’t need a certification…unless the app helps design bridges or keeps a pacemaker optimized for example.
20:09 – The Nuances of Patents
- When John tried to understand what patent law was all about, it seemed like one of those industries that hires practitioners out of the industries where they are writing patents.
- Neil says in the past you could work at a company, and the company would pay for you to go to law school, get a degree, pass the bar, and become a patent lawyer.
- The difference between a patent agent and patent attourney is law school. The patent agent did not go to law school, but both the patent agent and patent lawyer have the ability to draft patents and prosecute them in the patent office.
- In earlier roles Neil would fill out things like invention disclosure forms and pass it to a patent attourney who would take care of drafting the patent and the prosecution of it.
- This makes Nick think back to when he read Invention: A Life by James Dyson. Dyson had a number of patents stolen / taken because the legal components were not quite right.
- Typically you sign an agreement that anything you develop on company time with company resources is property of the company (and not your own property). The company might give you a gift card for your troubles, for example.
- John says organizations are trying to protect themselves from employees using a company’s materials and intellectual property to develop a new business and walking away.
- There have been a number of high profile lawsuits about these types of situations (self-driving cars to give an example).
- In working for an organization we don’t often think about the intellectual property implications of what we are doing. Some of it is patentable and some of it is trade secrets.
- Neil mentions academia as an area focused on developing novel work / research. People in this industry are thinking less about patenting something and more about publishing (with publication being required to gain tenure).
- Now many more universities are pushing their researchers to patent. Those can be outsourced to other companies which then brings in money to the universities.
- The tenure process is normally about securing income for the academic. There’s usually a specific amount of money you make from an academic institution with the rest coming in the form of grants.
- Sometimes the researchers will negotiate with the institutions where they work so they can spin out companies.
- When you join a company you may need to get something in writing that your side project is completely your own and is not company property to avoid any kind of confusion.
- A company could point out that something you are working on is in conflict with their products even if you didn’t use company resources or time to build it. Those situations could become quite contentious.
- Was there a crossover in the communication Neil needed to do before (documenting what something is, its value, communicating within an organization, etc.)and after becoming a patent agent?
- It’s still about storytelling.
- Even the communication with the inventor is quite important, especially if that person has never filed a patent.
- There is a great deal of explanation and communication required to tell someone what the process of getting a patent is.
- It’s not just you apply for a patent and get it. The process can take years.
- Most patents initially get rejected. You would then have to amend your application to the needs and the wants of the examiner going over the application (a human with their own biases).
- There is communication even there between the examiner and patent agent on what is and is not patentable.
- There is communication with the inventor, communication with additional stakeholders, communications with companies you want to pitch an idea to (to see if they license it), and to the examiner.
- Nick equates this to what ISO auditors do when checking to see whether a company has controls in place to meet specific standards. Sometimes the auditor has a different interpretation of the standards than you might.
- Neil says this kind of thing happens frequently in the patent world. There are ways to find out what a patent agent’s acceptance rate is. If you see the person rejects most patents, then you have a lot of communicating to do.
- There is a human being on the other side who is interpreting the rules as a human being. It’s a difficult job. John says this is like major league baseball umpires and the interpretation of the strike zone (which for a long time was interpreted as art and not science).
- There are 2 bars you need to overcome when it comes to patents:
- Novelty – has this been invented already? You can write an application to overcome this a bit more easily than the second bar.
- Obviousness – make sure the examiner doesn’t think it would have been obvious to anyone skilled in the same art to have developed the thing you’re trying to patent. That’s challenging to get past. What’s considered obvious?
- Is it easier for independent inventors to claim a patent compared to those doing it for their employer?
- Companies have many more patent attorneys to work on the application and more time to communicate with the examiner and amend the patent.
- Companies have more money to do this too since patents are not cheap. It would not be uncommon for an individual looking to get a patent to spend at least $10,000.
25:53 – Joining a Startup
- Neil joined the startup in his early career because he no longer wanted to work where he was working.
- When his boss left the company and started his own company, Neil and others did not have a leader hired for a while.
- The company did not hire someone for quite a while. Neil and his peers reported to the VP of Research and Development (who was quite busy) and often times did not have a lot of direction.
- The group Neil worked in was quite different from others in the company. Other groups might not know or even care about what Neil and his group were doing / working on.
- The group eventually got a new boss. Looking back Neil feels like this person may not have been best suited for the role due to lack of experience in the technology being worked on by Neil and his peers. The new boss wasn’t a great resource for guidance either.
- When Neil’s former boss suggested he join the company, Neil was more than happy to do so.
- It can frustrating when there is no champion within the organization for the team on which you happen to work.
- And when others within the organization do not understand or appreciate the work done by a particular group, even if the work is fulfilling to those that do it, it can be almost as bad as an individual feeling the same way about their role.
- "Nobody understands what we are doing is closely related to nobody understands or values what I’m doing." – John White
- Neil mentioned when people inside the company who worked on other products were planning to join other companies and gave notice, the company did not let those people stay very long (walked out very quickly after giving notice). Neil got to stay the full notice period, almost like they didn’t care where he was going.
32:55 – Birth of Teach the Geek
- Neil had been a research associate, a product development engineer, and had then joined a startup as a product development engineer. His 4th job was a product development coordinator, which was supposed to be a 1 year contract.
- Five months into the contract Neil was called into the CEO’s office along with his boss and a few other high ranking executives. They told Neil that was to be his last day.
- The company wanted more sales and marketing help, so they were eliminating Neil to bring in a sales and marketing person.
- On the way home Neil told himself he never wanted to be in that situation again (being called into someone’s office and told his services were no longer needed).
- At this point Neil had to figure out what to do next. Neil thought back to the challenges he had giving presentations and what he had done to improve, thinking other engineers and technical types could benefit from this also. This is where the idea of Teach the Geek bore fruit.
- Neil shot some videos at his kitchen table detailing what he believed people could do to get better at giving presentations and sent them to a friend.
- The friend’s feedback was that he could not release the videos and that people would not pay for it. The friend encouraged Neil to develop a process. Thinking back Neil wishes he had though of this (developing a process).
- In his former roles, there were FDA-mandated processes which had to be followed for developing and marketing medical devices. Neil eventually developed a process for creating content like the videos.
- Sometimes we don’t see the application of similar processes from another domain to a new one in which we’ve involved ourselves. Sometimes we need someone to point these things out for guidance because we can’t see it ourselves.
- Eventually Neil hired a consultant to help him put the entire course together and develop a strategy for marketing and selling the course.
- In his former role as an engineer, he knew nothing about sales and marketing.
- This experience turned out not as he expected, paying the consultant quite a bit of money for something he probably could have received for less money.
- Neil knew is target audience was people like him, but much of the advice he got from the consultant did not pan out as being helpful to the intended audience.
- For example, the consultant encouraged him to do a webinar on Facebook. Neil didn’t have the expertise the consultant had and thought it might be foolish not to listen and follow the advice.
- Neil isn’t sure how people found out about that initial webinar on Facebook but remembers by the time he got to the point of offering his course everyone had logged off.
- Neil decided maybe he knew more than he gave himself credit for knowing and should have listened to himself rather than blindly taking advice.
- New entrepreneurs are very clear on not knowing certain things. There is a susceptibility to people who position themselves as experts.
- You don’t know what you don’t know.
- And we in these cases don’t have the ability to evaluate their expertise extremely well. That person could be a tremendous expert but may not be the expert we need.
- Maybe the person was too consumer focused and presented Facebook as the option when Neil needed to be on LinkedIn or some other platform (for example).
- Take an accountant for example. If you don’t have an accounting background you may not have the ability to evaluate whether the business accountant is doing a good job. The examples go on.
- Neil recalls another instance where a consultant advised him to get on TikTok for its organic reach.
- He did daily TikTok videos daily for about 6 months, but nothing really came of it.
- If your target audience isn’t on Tiktok, it does not matter if Tiktok has an organic reach because the bottom line is you are not reaching the people you need to reach that way.
- Find where your audience is so you can get involved with them there.
39:15 – Specializing Past Toastmasters
Neil was initially part of Toastmasters starting with his second job and stayed involved with local groups in the area for some time even after that job ended.
- Toastmasters was Neil’s origin community when it came to learning improved communication.
When Neil was involved with Toastmasters, there were types of speeches you were asked to give to move up in the Toastmasters hierarchy (competent communicator level, advanced communicator bronze / silver / gold, and all the way up to distinguished Toastmaster).
- He noticed the speeches in Toastmasters were really not in line with the type of speeches he had to give in product development.
- Neil would develop speeches for Toastmasters but felt like he couldn’t use much of what he learned in his normal job when giving presentations.
- Another reason for starting Teach the Geek was to give people who needed to give the same types of presentations Neil had to give a chance a place to go to build skills for those types of presentations.
- John highlights the need Neil saw for Teach the Geek to be something more domain specific than Toastmasters.
- This also falls in line with one of the patterns we’ve seen referred to as the generalist specialist divide.
- Would someone want to start with a broad set of communication skills and eventually get more specialized or start very specialized and back into a broader set of skills over time? Many times there is not a clear answer, but circumstances can certainly dictate the path one ends up taking.
When Neil looks back on is Toastmasters time, it makes sense that they would be more general. They are a global organization with chapters in all kinds of places made of people from all backgrounds.
- It would not make much sense for it to be highly specialized.
- Things like being more comfortable speaking in front of others, stopping the use of filler words, and how to improve nonverbal communication are things everyone who wants to improve presentation skills can relate to.
- Things like needing to communicate technical issues in the realm of product development or speak about a product’s capabilities (technical sales) is a little different than a more
John worked for a VMware distributor before joining VMware several years ago, and they had a Toastmasters club within the business. Even then it was some of the generic Toastmasters course and not adapted to the specifics of what the company needed.
- In this case, John isn’t sure it would make sense to adapt it specifically for a company unless the company was at a certain size.
- Neil recalls visiting a company as a guest which also had a Toastmasters group inside the company, and it was very much like what John described.
- A Toastmasters group is supposed to follow the Toastmasters curriculum without any option to really stray from that curriculum.
- John says you could be part of a club at work and then start to work from home and then transfer membership over to a club that is closer to where you live. You don’t want to have to start over and want the same experience and curriculum wherever you go, which is exactly what Toastmasters is selling (almost like a chain restaurant).
- Toastmasters does cost money to join. See this page for more details.
- One of Nick’s co-workers is very involved in Toastmasters. If you’re in Dallas / Fort Worth and want to get involved Nick can put you in touch with the right people.
- John feels like he knows some people in the Denver area who work for Toastmasters because they relocated when the headquarters moved a while back.
Neil didn’t really find anyone looking to strike out on their own like he was during his time in Toastmasters
Mentioned in the intro:
- We encourage listeners to try to pinpoint one of the Three Signs of a Miserable Job referenced in Patrick Lencioni’s book.
Mentioned in the outro:
- Check out Episode 26 covering The Generalist/Specialist Divide.
- Fun fact: John considered going into patent agency / patent law at one point in his career.
- Maybe we should have Neil back to dive into the patent agent career path in more depth?
- It could be interesting to have somoene on the show who went through the patent process as a submitter.
Contact us if you need help on the journey, and be sure to check out the Nerd Journey Podcast Knowledge Graph.
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