Drawing the owl

Some job descriptions ask for many years of experience in a particular field on the assumption that understanding that industry is very difficult for a newcomer.

Often this belief is false. Advanced skills like heart surgery or singing German lieder take a long time to nurture. Ditto virtuoso creativity. But raw understanding of how an industry or field works, or how a particular company works, can come together fast, particularly if one makes a point of finding a good teacher or being a good student.

I mentioned in my last post that I have a few simple procedures I use to ascend steep learning curves for topics that are neither simple nor complex—but rather, complicated.

Here are those tips and tricks.

1. Industry know-how

When I find myself working in a new industry, one of the first things I do is find an expert craftsperson in that industry and I ask them what they do and how they think. I ask dumb “beginner’s mind” questions and I check in to make sure I’m following everything I hear. I also ask them every book and blog I should read, every publication I should subscribe to, and every influencer and competitor I should seek to understand. I then create a custom Twitter list and reading list that includes all the above, and I read it every day, adding to it and pruning it as I go. I repeat this process with as many experts as I can find.

Monopoly tech ecosystems and media companies are direct or indirect players in almost every industry, as well as the social sector, so I stay up to speed about them as a matter of course no matter what.

2. Industry know-who

Only an expert in a particular industry will have connections to and credibility with all the “right” people, but a newcomer or outsider can quickly discover who the right people are.

After reading five books, and scanning Twitter for twenty hours, I start to have an informed sense of what I know and don’t know. For any information I don’t have, I have a good idea of where to get it. My goal as I learn who’s who is to be able to visually segment the relevant external stakeholders and the market in general. For technology companies, I always check out CB Insights, Crunchbase, and the major analysts.

If and as relevant, I try to identify for every segment the market leader, the thought leader, and a handful of interesting niche players, and then I prioritize following them first and foremost.

3. Industry lingo

When I am playing marketing roles—as a consultant or acting head of Marketing—I am often trying to make a highly arcane or technical concept relatable to multiple audiences, many of which are themselves highly informed and technical.

Subject matter experts often fear (rightly so) that a marketer will make everything fluffy, and indeed, simplifying a complex topic distorts it (turning our semiotic rainforest into astroturf).

At the same time, every complex topic also has an underlying theme, and every complicated particularity has a specific edge to it. Good writing distills—it doesn’t dumb down.

Usually within a month of hyperdrive, “beginner’s mind” absorption, I’ve picked up enough knowledge to—if not speak at a conference for a particular company—at least be able to write all the conference materials in a way that supports a distinctive and ownable positioning.

4. Current events, trends, and conversations in any given industry

After an hour of scheduled time, every morning, reading the media streams I created above, this comes naturally. Within a month, I usually feel like I have a solid enough grasp of a space to have an intelligent cocktail conversation with real experts, or to populate a cross-channel editorial calendar, if that’s my role.

I know where to inject a particular company’s voice into ongoing conversations, or how to start a new conversation that promotes our unique story.

5. Weird quirks of (otherwise complex) software applications

Although most tools in the same category work similarly, they each have their defining quirks. I also find that any tool I stop using for a while grows and changes quickly. Google Analytics and Google Data Studio are good examples—their capabilities change dramatically every six months.

When I am trying to learn or assess a new tool, or re-engage with one that’s changed a lot, I give myself a series of tasks: (a) understand the basics, (b) understand the maximal limit case possibilities, (c) talk to at least three expert practitioners to learn their personal tips and tricks, and then (d) learn what appear to be the most important shortcuts.

The learning curve here can be pretty steep, but SDRs and customer success managers are invaluable… I’ve gone from zero to sixty quickly with some tools thanks to the boost of an excellent webinar, tutorial, Q&A call, online training, or demo, which of course is exactly what these things are for.

If I am trying to stay up to speed with a general class of tool, I often pick three in a given space to follow closely… once again, the market leader, the thought leader, and a handful of quality niche solutions. This gives me confidence that I’m staying abreast of important commonalities (simple), differences (complicated) and dynamic trends (complex).

For example, for CRMs these days I’ve chosen to follow Salesforce, SugarCRM, and Tessitura; for web design, the Adobe suite, WordPress, and Squarespace; for collaborative task management, Asana, Airtable, and dirtworld scrum best practices.

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Learning things that are complicated is not that fun and takes a lot of time.

On the plus side though, the process for learning complicated domains is refreshingly simple. It just takes work.