Question Askers and Problem Solvers with Neil Thompson (2/2)

Welcome to episode 194 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 2 of an interview with Neil Thompson, discussing the entrepreneur’s decisions around outsourcing, application of writing across domains, how to foster curiosity in others, and advice for the content creator.

Original Recording Date: 10-06-2022

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. Catch part 1 of our interview with Neil in Episode 193

Topics – Deciding What to Outsource, Writing and Crossing Domains, Fostering Curiosity, Getting New Ideas for Content, Advice for the Would Be Content Creator

2:58 – Deciding What to Outsource

  • How did the skills Neil had in his previous experience (around products, projects, etc.) translate into his business where content development was at the forefront?
    • Not long after Neil’s friend stressed the importance of processes, he was able to fall back on some of the processes he needed to use in his engineering days.
    • It was certainly a challenge figuring out what things to outsource and what to keep in house.
    • Neil didn’t have experience in sales and marketing and decided to outsource those functions, but as he described, he did not pick the right person. Now Neil is more selective when it comes to the people he works with.
      • Neil wants people he works with to have some kind of background with the target audience he is trying to reach. Just because you’ve had success selling a beauty product, for example, does not mean you will have success selling a course or a membership geared toward engineers.
      • Neil will post weekly on Instagram about his podcast. You can find the Teach the Geek Instagram here. He’s not sure how much it actually does and says he does it just to do it.
        • John says the Google thing to do here would be to measure this somehow, perhaps looking at how many hits originate from Instagram. Out of the Nerd Journey crew, Nick watches metrics the most.
    • John says you almost have to give yourself a break / permission to make those kinds of mistakes as a new entrepreneur, allowing you to get better over time.
      • But those just starting a business also do not have infinite amounts of money allowing them to make these mistakes.
  • Maybe what Neil needed was a community of entrepreneurs to join?
    • Neil agrees this is exactly what he needed at the time. If he had had this, he likely would not have signed an 18-month contract with the sales and marketing person that did not go well.
  • Nick mentions decisions on what to subcontract really makes you think about what your strengths and weaknesses are.
    • Although he could not think of it during the discussion, Nick was referencing Episode 173 some advice from Evan Oldford related to documenting your weaknesses (to include things that are your kryptonite and draw away your energy). This can allow for the potential of offloading things that draw away your energy to others.
    • Neil listened to a podcast a couple months ago where the guest went to her boss and mentioned she liked 2/3 of her job but that there was about 1/3 she did not like. She asked if someone else within the organization could do that 1/3. It made Neil think that anyone who picked up that 1/3 or part of it would need to like that part, or they would not be very happy about it.
      • Hopefully others on the team under that manager would have the same option to offload some of the things that steal their energy.
    • Neil poses the question – "should you enjoy all aspects of your job, and is that a reasonable expectation to have?"
      • John says it is important to understand going into a job what the overall job responsibilities are and whether you are a person who would find performing those responsibilities as something that sucks the energy out of you.
      • If it’s just you don’t like doing it but you can still do it that is one thing. If doing a specific task makes you want to walk away from your computer and take a 3 hour nap, then you should evaluate whether that is the right job or the right role for you.
      • John says we kind of figured this out in regard to those going into management. Some guests believed they were getting into management to be a super tech lead and then found out managemenet is more focused on performance management, resource allocation, etc.
      • Nick thinks of Don Jones’ advice on management and leadership in Episode 137 and Episode 138. See also Management vs. Leadership.
      • Neil was speaking to someone who shared with him that many companies do not have the best career development paths for people that want to stay technical. You’re either an individual contributor or a manager, and the two are completely different.
      • John says if you top out as an individual contributor and the only way to move up is into management, you run into The Peter Principle with people promoted to the point of incompetence. We encourage people to decide if they really want to do all the things involved with being a manager before they pursue it (hiring and firing, fighting political battles, etc.).
        • If the answer is no, find an organization that has a path to senior engineer, staff engineer, principal engineer, and beyond (really, a progression path for the individual contributor).
        • Climbing the individual contributor ladder may require leading teams of people but might not need to do hiring, firing, budget reviews, and performance reviews.
      • When Neil thinks of being a manager he knew that it was something he would never want to do, just for performance reviews alone.

11:58 – Writing and Crossing Domains

  • Right now Neil’s business is just him, but he does outsource quite a bit to other people. For example, he uses a virtual assistant company that will do a lot of the research he might not want to do.
    • Neil wrote a children’s book called Ask Uncle Neil: Why is my hair curly? He wrote it 4 years ago.
    • Every now and then Neil will get the inkling to keep promoting the book.
    • Neil uses the virtual assistant company to find podcasts on which he can talk about the book. This company will find the podcast and provide him with contact information so he can reach out to the hosts about being on the show.
  • Writing a children’s book is a different type of writing and for a different audience than his writings in his early career.
    • Neil said writing the book was pretty simple, and he’s a simple person.
    • The book is geared toward kids up to 8 years old.
    • It was way more fun to come up with a story that was interesting, funny, and would keep a child’s attention was way more fun than writing a patent application (quite dry).
  • John sees a pattern with Neil taking previous skills and crossing a domain (applying a writing skill into a new area for example).
    • This was not true when Neil began his career. At that time he thought he was going to be an engineer until he wasn’t any more / he retired.
    • As Neil got older he saw all these different interests and did not see a reason to not chase them.
    • This was especially true once Neil started working for himself and not for an employer. He didn’t have to spend time writing a bunch of protocols and had time for other more interesting endeavors (like writing the children’s book).
    • This may also be the reason the conversation with guest Christine Vartainian resonated so much with Neil.
      • Just like Neil, she didn’t see herself as stuck in a box either.
      • Some people in Christine’s life may have wondered why she chose to eventually be a personal stylist after initially being a civil engineer.
      • Ultimately, your life is yours to live, and Neil respects people who are willing to live their lives regardless of what other people might think of the decisions made.
      • John says the stylist portion may be something that one needs to outsource. Maybe you don’t know the message you’re sending based on the way you are dressed.
      • A plaid jacket with elbow pads may send a specific message you didn’t realize (i.e. it screams professor instead of executive).
      • Having a previous technical background could allow someone who is a stylist (like Christine) to provide better guidance for someone meeting with a technical audience.
      • This is a job in the same way that Neil is providing communication skills to those in technical domains based on his previous technical experience.
    • Neil’s sister works in human resources (HR) and would from time to time hire speakers. His sister told him a story of noticing that a specific speaker’s shirt was not ironed and being unable to listen or focus because of the shirt being wrinkled. This person could have used an image consultant.

17:04 – Fostering Curiosity

  • Neil’s book is promoting diversity in STEM fields. The book originated from a question Neil’s nephew asked him about his hair being like it is.
    • Neil used science to answer the question.
    • Neil grew up in a strict home and followed his father’s suggestion of becoming an engineer. As Neil has aged he has realized the importance of curiosity.
    • Curiosity can take you in a lot of places, and it’s certainly something Neil uses now.
      • That’s why he wrote a children’s book, why he started Teach the Geek, why he became a patent agent, etc.
      • Many of the things Neil does are based on curiosity. "What would happen if I did this? I want to follow through and see what happens."
      • Neil wants to instill that same curiosity in kids. "Very often the question askers of today are going to be the problem solvers of tomorrow." – Neil Thompson
      • You want curiosity to be fostered in kids by parents, the people around them, and by society in general.
      • We don’t want our kids to be robots who just do what they are told.
    • The STEM practitioners of tomorrow come from the youth of today.
  • When Neil became an engineer he realized that engineers are problem solvers.
  • It’s rather ironic that Neil became an engineer in the first place after being told to do it. It was not because he was looking for a problem to solve, chasing a curiosity, or answering a question he was asking himself.
  • Neil wishes more adults would foster curiosity in their children. Telling kids to do something "because I said so" without any kind of explanation doesn’t help.
    • It doesn’t get any better as an adult. You’re going to why your responsibilities and processes are what they are, why you didn’t get the raise or the promotion, etc.
    • We’re training kids to become adults at some point. Why would we train them in something they won’t be using once they become adults.
    • Nick says some of the curiosity helps us discover what our career options are. One of the things Nick and John found in getting into sales engineering was that there are many, many technical career paths we never would have thought to consider as options when they were working in IT operations.
    • Nick is happy that we’re working to expose people young and old to what they could do in their careers and showing them examples of people who have made transitions into these roles from all kinds of areas and previous backgrounds.
    • On a more foundational level, we have interviewed 50-60 guests to this point and put out over 200 episodes on Nerd Journey. So many of those guests have told us they enjoyed taking things apart, figuring out how they worked, and overcame a fear of breaking things.
      • Breaking things isn’t so bad when you’re a kid. Taking things apart and figuring out how to put them back together is a lifelong skill and something that people will pay money for down the road.
      • The idea that we would try to stamp that out is like saying "don’t try to learn too much." It’s more of an annoyance thing as a parent than being overloaded.
      • John has a 6-month old and doesn’t want her to touch hot things and get burned, but we should treat kids of different ages differently as they grow. You have to start progressively explaining why and not just giving a rule.
    • Neil says it would be very difficult to downplay the importance of curiousity in a young person and then expect them to be an innovator as an adult. How would they be able to innovate if they were never encouraged to be curious?
    • It takes effort to answer kids’ questions. Perhaps we should be willing to put more effort into answering the questions.
    • Sometimes the message we give off to kids through our tone of voice is that their questions annoy us and that they should not be curious about the world.
    • Now, with Google, it’s easier to get answers to these kinds of questions. There was no Google when Neil was a kid. People had to leverage resources like Encyclopedia Britannica.

23:52 – Getting New Ideas for Content

  • As a content producer, how does Neil get new ideas for content or decide his content might need to be revised or refreshed?
    • His process is a bit more freeform for the time being and involves taking in feedback from others.
    • The Teach the Geek YouTube Channel was started first, and a guest suggested Neil begin a podcast too as many people could listen to a podcast while they drive rather than watching a video.
    • Neil started the podcast about a year after he started the YouTube channel, and the podcast is just an audio version of the interviews that he does on Zoom.
    • Many of the changes Neil has made have been based on feedback from others. John suggests our collaborators / co-creators in endeavors like this are good sources of feedback.
      • And the technical community probably is listening to YouTube and podcasts moreso than hanging out on Tiktok or Instagram.
      • Neil says YouTube, the podcast, and LinkedIn are the major focus areas for him (and where his audience normally is).
    • John mentions recent guest Stephanie Wong, Head of Developer Engagement at Google Cloud, having a TikTok channel on technical careers.
      • Though John doesn’t really use TikTok, it challenged his thinking a little. There is a generation of people younger than John who have grown up doing this kind of thing (making Tiktok videos) for entertainment for years.
      • We’ll have to ask Stephanie about the audience she is getting through that platform.
      • Check out Episode 177 and Episode 178 to hear more of Stephanie’s story.
      • Neil says Tiktok may be a bit of a generational thing (i.e. if you’re past a certain age maybe it’s not your thing). He had hired a TikTok consultant to help him a while back and made daily videos for about 6 months, but nothing really came of it.
        • Neil highlights that it was also a tremendous amount of work.
        • There are a number of things you need to do to produce content for TikTok to make it appealing for the type of people who look at Tiktok videos (i.e. make the videos with good lighting, make them look a certain way, etc.). If you are not doing this it is way more difficult to build an audience.
        • John recalls now that many Tiktok videos are shot looking up at someone with a ceiling in the background, and more professional style videos would not look like that.
        • There are consultants for all kinds of things, including how to make better TikTok videos.

28:33 – Advice for the Would Be Content Creator

  • If you’re looking to create your own course, don’t do what Neil did, and learn from his mistakes.

  • Neil developed something without doing the proper market research to see if it was something that people wanted. It worked out ok, but Neil would not advise doing it that way.

    • Do your market research first. Figure out whether this is something people want and want to pay for before you take time to develop the product or service.
    • Those of us coming from technical backgrounds may miss out on entrepreneurial concepts (market fit, whether people will pay for something, etc.), or we might fee like they do not apply so much to what we are doing.
    • Nick and John don’t have any experience in market analysis like this. But we have friends who have developed courses and know a lot more about these kinds of things. John suggests you need to find that community to ask for guidance on these aspects and things like consultants to hire, etc.
    • Nick says the research goes back to the generalist vs. specialist conversation we were having. Whether the content is general or more specialized determines the total addressable market. Perhaps if the content is highly specialized the total addressable market is smaller but allows you to charge more? Maybe we need someone who works in pricing and packaging on the show.
    • Neil says pricing is a big deal. Neil was on another podcast close to the time of this recording, and he was discussing the different ways in which people buy products and services. There are distinct differences based on demographics.
      • For example, Neil does not typically buy a product or service until he decides it is something he needs to have.
      • If someone contacted him in an effort to sell something and Neil did not think beforehand that he had a need for that thing, the person would not convince him to buy it.
      • When Neil hired a TikTok consultant, he was already thinking he needed to try putting content on that platform. If a Tiktok consultant had contacted him about putting content out on the platform without him first coming up with the idea / recognizing a need, Neil would have said no.
      • When Neil decided to add a membership in addition to the course, he hired a consultant for this as well only after deciding it was something he needed. He didn’t see anything on social media encouraging him to do it. He had a need and sought to fill it.
  • Should Nick and John consider adding a YouTube channel for Nerd Journey also? Maybe they should pick Neil’s brain on that.

    • Neil has a really nice back drop for his videos that has the Teach the Geek logo on it.
    • Neil says he is pretty low tech when it comes to the YouTube channel. He likes to focus on the conversations with people and uses Zoom as a tool.
      • Certainly others out there may be putting a ton of effort into their videos, but for Neil it’s about the content.
      • Neil likes to add captions for the questions he asks so people can click on the particular time stamp and go straight to what they want to see / hear. Neil started doing this about a year ago.
      • Neil has picked up tips from seeing what other content creators do and thinking it would help him better serve his audience. He’s willing to put in the work to do it, but it’s a balance between what the audience wants and what you are willing to do to provide what the audience wants.
    • Nick and John don’t have a monetization strategy, so part of the stress goes away.
  • Neil didn’t have a monetization strategy at first either, but it developed eventually. Part of the strategy is carefully selecting people for the podcast. But Neil also likes to have people on the show whose stories seem interesting.

    • He looks at guests as a potential collaboration opportunity.
  • Neil says he started the membership and originally planned to market it to engineering associations. The idea was they already have the people. If there is nothing like this, why not present it to the association? * These organizations that used to have onsite conferences during the pandemic had to cancel them. Once these events became virtual, many of the sponsors were less keen to sponsor.
    * Neil would suggest the organization bring the people, he could bring the membership, and they could split the money. * This is the kind of entrepreneurial thinking you develop over time and was not something Neil thought of initially.

  • The Teach the Geek podcast as we stated was a natural offshoot of what Neil was doing on YouTube already.

    • Neil says the length of the show is based on his own stamina. At first he was surprised that we wanted to get enough content from this interview for a multi-part series.
    • Neil likes to do 30 minutes or less with each guest, which means he needs to find lots of guests. This allows for meeting more people and allowing for more potential collaboration opportunities.
    • John says limits are good things and inspire / encourage people to work inside the limits. Nick and John have certainly had many discussions about this for their show.
    • With YouTube you can get strong metrics about how long people are watching. With Neil dividing his videos into chapters, he likely gets some good metrics on how those are used. Even adding the chapters and giving people the option to watch only sections they want could potentially encourage more people to watch the entire way through.
    • Should Nerd Journey branch out into YouTube as well? If we did we’d need cool backdrops with our logo like Neil has!
    • When Neil had his backdrop made he’s not even sure virtual background were a thing at that time. The backdrop suggestion came from the sales and marketing consultant he hired that was discussed earlier. Of all the suggestions given, Neil feels like that was the best one.
  • If you want to reach out to Neil, visit the Teach the Geek website.

  • Mentioned in the outro:

    • See also Episode 75 on Vendor Management as Relatable Experience for People Management. After hearing this second part of Neil’s story, it made us think back to the above episode (i.e. outsourcing is not so different from being a manager).
    • See also these episodes with Evan Oldford
    • To all you dads and parents out there, let’s make an effort not to snuff out the curiosity in our kids! Do the same for your co-workers when they are curious.

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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