22 APRIL 2022

Investing time

The rising tide, formulating quality questions and solving problems at scale

Since publishing Surface area of luck back in February, my journey into the Australian startup and technology ecosystem has continued further down the rabbit hole.

As alluded to previously, it was easy to dismiss Australia (out of naivety) as being a noteworthy participant in the space. Prior to this journey of making deliberate efforts to dig beneath the surface, it was an uncommon occurrence to hear or read about all the amazing work that is being done in this country.

When I had left my previous line of work, I knew I had wanted to dive into the startups and technology space — in search of interesting, important problems to solve and ambitious people to be surrounded by. There were faint whispers about the mega successes of Atlassian and Canva, but I did not really know what the tactical next steps were going to look like.

There was no playbook to follow. I was coming into the space with the shirt on my back, laptop in my arm and virtually next to zero network to fall back on.

‘You left a pathway in process engineering to do… this??’

What I did have in my arsenal, however, were small glimpses and insight into the power of technology via prior immersions into the worlds of frontend development, design thinking and human centred design. In 2017, I had learnt how to build a personal website and maintain a blog; most recently in 2021, I had further upskilled by learning how to develop web applications.

Learning how to code in specific programming languages was a means for me to ‘converse’ with machines in order to get them to do what I wanted them to do and building up ‘technology’ was a means to solve specific problems at scale. While I had these baseline, primitive, means I still had very little idea of what the ‘right’ thing to do next needed to look like.

Nevertheless, I did everything I could to figure things out along the way and maintain some flow of momentum as the days rolled over into weeks, and weeks into months. The timeline looked like this:

This last point touches on an insight that has happened for me over these months of exploration, which I will continue to explore for the rest of this post.

Formulating quality questions

‘Where would be the best investment of your future time and energy?’ — is now the prime question at the front of mind when it comes to researching companies doing interesting and important work.

It has not always been like this for me. I remember, in my earliest days of hunting for job opportunities, that there were other aspects like role & responsibilities, company prestige and location of work that took up most of the prime mental real estate.

The selection criteria would have looked something like this:

If I had to narrow it down even further, the impetus at the core of all my actions back in 2016–2017 was to answer the question I had posed to myself: have you got what it takes to be a competent engineer out in the real world? Company prestige and location of work were, really, secondary to that.

My methodology for finding opportunities that were in alignment with the above was very much a spray-and-pray, hope-for-the-best sort of approach, rather than anything honed and precise.

Off I went, into the open playing fields of LinkedIn and Seek, in search of the coveted two words under the role description that would allow me to pursue the question burning in my mind back then.

To much chagrin, this open field approach made a comeback in my recent months of exploration. Instead of ‘process’ and ‘engineer’, the two words at the front of mind were now ‘frontend’ and ‘engineer’ — and the search went far and wide, across all the platforms, in search for these opportunities.

While my North Star was in knowing that the ultimate environment for me was within the realms of startups and technology, I also had a grounding sense that I would have to choose a specific role that would be most ‘suitable’ to pursue. So I chose. But as time passed, most of these search efforts had sent me down towards dead-ends, as it turned out that the open market was never really interested enough to open up a door to a process-engineer-turned-frontend-engineer.

Despite all the noise within the startup ecosystem of organisations being desperate for engineers and new talent, it appeared that the worlds of process engineering and frontend development were too far apart for most companies to even consider forming up a bridge to make such a crossover possible.

Something had to change, and that definitely was not going to be the rest of the world.

I went back to the drawing board, and spent a lot of time looking at the two keywords I had chosen for myself. If the ‘frontend’ market was having a hard time understanding where I was coming from and seeing where I could help them, what if I could just be an engineer?

I knew I had hard skills that were honed from my time as a field engineer working within complex manufacturing environments and through teaching myself how to code, in addition to the important softer skills of thriving within multidisciplinary teams and listening to end users. What if I could transplant these skills into the new context of startups and technology?

The sequence of priorities were then reshuffled.

Notice how the role description is now at the bottom of the stack, as opposed to the first. These were the critical steps that eventually crystallised into the opening question of ‘where would be the best investment of your future time and energy?’, but not without the help of the NFT explorations I had been doing in parallel at the time.

Investing time

I like the framing provided by using the word ‘investment’ in this context, since it predicates a baseline of objective due diligence prior to a key decision being made. In the financial world, before an investment is made, due diligence is performed to ensure that the capital in question is being directed to the most appropriate recipient — hopefully into hands where it would have a healthy likelihood of generating future returns.

Why not use the same model when it comes to considering career pathways? Such decisions can be seen as investments, not of capital but of future time and energy — both resources which are more scarce and valuable than money.

During explorations into Superlocal and a number of other Web3 projects and virtual communities, I would often be more than happy to spend significant portions of time into doing deep research whenever I had encountered interesting ideas. Before committing towards putting money on the table, buying into an NFT and gaining access into these virtual communities, I would spend hours on end, trying to get as informed as I possibly could — learning about the mission, the people behind it, the project’s traction and more.

Much of this was out of necessity, due to the lack of any reputable sources of truth around ‘where to invest’ within the space and the do-your-own-research culture. This does not mean that the space is full of bad actors, per say, but much of the risk exposure currently is with the individual investor and not (yet) abstracted away into (the equivalent of) financial institutions.

What was surprising to observe was how the time I was spending on researching these Web3 project was significantly overtaking the hours that I was dedicating to seeking out and developing conviction around real-world job opportunities.

What was going on? On one hand, in the Web3 space, I was being extremely rigorous and diligent about what I was buying into, and on the other, I had reverted back to the scattershot, non-methodical approach of yesteryears.

After a number of further iterations and rounds of self-reflection, the process of developing conviction on both sides of this spectrum started to merge into a more cohesive and clearer methodology, such that it became applicable whether it was for understanding a Web3 idea or an existing startup / technology company.

These are not new ideas unique to me, but a rehash of core components of the lean canvas framework, principles that dig into the very bottom of what makes a startup a ‘startup’ and even applicable to better understanding what makes a company qualify as a ‘company’.

Someone graduating from college thinks, and is told, that he needs to get a job, as if the important thing were becoming a member of an institution.

A more direct way to put it would be: you need to start doing something people want. You don’t need to join a company to do that.

All a company is is a group of people working together to do something people want. It’s doing something people want that matters, not joining the group.

Paul Graham