Category Archives: Meaningful work

Jana Bergant teaches me how to get started with creating paid online courses

In Meaningful work interviews I talk to people about their area of work and expertise to better understand what they do and why it matters to them.

Jana Bergant (LinkedIn, YouTube, Udemy) is a developer, creator, and author of online courses with over 25000 students. She kindly answered my questions on how to approach creating commercial online courses. We’ve also discussed personal growth for developers and how to find your space in the world.

How do you introduce yourself to people?

There are three main perspectives on my professional work at the moment. I’m running online courses so I’m an instructor to my students and I’m there to support their learning. For my consulting business, I’m an online elearning coach to my clients and I help them build their own courses. In this context, I’m helping them with a mindset, technology, content structure and I support them on their e-learning journey. For occasional contract work, I’m also an e-learning expert that implements educational resources for my clients. My last project was API documentation and project documentation for a slovenian company BetterCare (Marand).

I’m someone that follows my passions: technology, writing, consulting, and teaching. 

How did you get to the point where you are now – a successful online teacher?

I first got involved in programming during my studies at the Faculty of Organizational Sciences in Kranj. It really clicked for me and I started developing accounting software for my father’s store. After this experience, I applied for an internship at six different local companies and immediately got offers from four. My pitch was “I’m new to programming, passionate about the topic, and these are the things that I would like to learn” and it worked. For a while, I’ve also tried studying Computer Science in addition to finishing my first studies and also working two jobs. It was too much and I ended up just working and learning things as I needed them for my work. So, yes, I’m a self-taught developer. I’ve done a variety of work, mostly as a freelancer.

A couple of years ago I had a burnout, got an autoimmune disease that made my life really hard, then got pregnant and I broke up with my partner. It was a really hard time for me. Raising a small child alone made it hard for me to continue with a busy freelancing lifestyle. I wanted to have more time and attention for my daughter and to reduce the overall stress in my life. This is how I found SmartNinja and joined them as an instructor. That’s where I discovered Udemy and made my first course just as an experiment. It was for Jekyll, a static website generator. I enjoyed the process so I then created a second course where I tried to teach Javascript in a more fun and relaxed way. As later chatbots became popular I found them interesting and I created a course on Facebook Messenger Chatbots. Each step was an organic continuation of all that I learned in the past.

I’m now starting to focus more on connecting and growing my consulting practice as making online courses alone at home can be quite lonely at times.

You mentioned that you did some freelancing work in the past. Do you have any advice for freelancers?

Yes, don’t get stuck in a routine. As a freelancer, you should know your niche and at the same also be a generalist that connects things together. It’s good if you can bring in other fields. I’ve also found that it’s important that you’re the kind of person that is not afraid to show yourself to the world. I discovered this difference myself when I started recording my courses. They gave me more exposure to different audiences and as a consequence, I got opportunities that I wouldn’t otherwise have.

If I could do things again I would start speaking, networking, writing books, and doing online courses much much earlier. It requires you to get out of your comfort zone but the upsides are worth it.

What drives you to leave your comfort zone?

I need to see meaning in my work. If there’s none I just can’t do it for long, and just going to work every day doesn’t do it for me.

I’ve also discovered as I became a mother that I want to be an example for my daughter. I want her to be feminine, caring, and empathic and at the same time also to be courageous and full of self-worth. This wish for her is coming from my experience growing as a person.

I used to do a lot of work for free and it took me a while to learn that I need to start charging realistic rates for my work. I don’t subscribe anymore to the idea that in code development things should be free. 

What did you learn from making your first online course?

Students must get a feeling of accomplishment very early on. In the case of Udemy, where there are a lot of very low price courses, students often buy many courses at the same time. You need to provide a strong hook for students so that they will engage with your content and actually learn. On Udemy students can also ask questions to the course authors. You should address these questions daily. It’s not a lot of work though, about 10 – 15 minutes per day.

Reflecting on the course itself also taught me how I could structure it better and what would make it even more useful. Putting each step into a software version control (GIT) also makes it easier for students to follow along. 

At the moment I see these courses also as a paid advertisement for my work. Someone pays to see how I work and think. This generated a lot of interesting freelance work in the past with clients from all over the world. It’s unlikely that you’ll get rich from making a course on Udemy. Some do though 🙂

What does your process for creating an online course look like?

I start with market research. Tools like moz.com and AnswerThePublic give me a general idea of the amount of demand for the topic. If you’re already an expert in your field you can also investigate what kind of more niche content is missing in your area of work. 

What I’m seeing is that you need to go beyond just creating a course. You’ll need to create a community that will have courses, books, and other activities as part of it. If you just want to do a course on Udemy there are specific strategies around that but it will still require understanding the people that you’re addressing with your course.

The bigger the niche the easier it will be for you to address your community. For example:

  • Lisa K created a community where students get together and practice intuition to drive better decisions.
  • Kate Olson trains service dogs.

I’m also not limiting myself to one specific platform for the delivery of online courses. Some niches love real-time Zoom meetings while others want to have discussion forums and self-paced learning. It’s more important to go into a really specific niche such as “yoga for women that are going into menopause” instead of just offering general yoga courses. It will allow you to use her language and to connect with her feelings and needs through your offerings. It’s the same thing also if you’re trying to create something for developers. You need to find a specific niche (digital agencies, beginners, ..) and what specific pain are you helping them with.

After I’ve identified my niche customer I then try to figure out their current behavior patterns. What do they search for on Google and which websites do they visit on my topic? That gives me a list of websites or communities that I need to start engaging to get in touch with them and maybe offer them whatever I’m offering.

This all sounds like a lot of work and you haven’t even started to explain the practical parts of building a course.

That’s true. Building something like this requires a very different mindset from working as a freelancer or having a job. It’s not a fixed scope project where you know how much work it will be and what you are going to get paid. Trading time for money of course makes a good living lifestyle but doesn’t generate passive income streams. 

To create revenue streams that ‘passively’ generate the income you need to go out of your comfort zone and take risks. I think that here in Slovenia we’re very risk-averse. 

My first course wasn’t very successful and I could decide to go back to a day job. In my view, in life you fail many times and it’s a part of the process to learn something new.

When you are creating courses, the topic should also be something that you’re enthusiastic and passionate about. If you’re doing courses only for the money it won’t work.

How do you decide on which projects to focus your time on?

That’s definitely a challenge that I still struggle with. It does become easier with experience. I’ve learned it the hard way in the past when I said yes too many times and that led to health problems in my life. I would really advise everyone to find their limits early and not discover them the hard way. 

Do you use any special equipment when producing your video courses?

I have two extra LED lights, I record myself with my phone and I use a Rode microphone. For screen recording and editing I use Camtasia. There’s no need for anything more complicated.

How long does it take you to produce your videos all together (content, scripting, recording, and editing)?

For my YouTube channel, it’s about one day of work for one ten-minute video. For an Udemy course where you need much more content, it can be easily two months of work. It’s probably possible to do it faster but that’s not stopping me at the moment from doing the work.

I recognize that it’s risky in terms of required time investment and that there are no guarantees that the videos will sell at all. It is still a necessary step if you want to build additional revenue streams.

What are some of your favorite resources for leveling up and people that you learn from?

I would suggest reading at least one book per month that helps you grow. It’s an investment you’ll never regret. I also have coaches I hire to help me get better in different areas. If you can move faster by learning from someone who has already solved what you are struggling with, why not use it and learn from it. Not all lessons need to be learned the hard way!

What I learned from talking with Jana

Technological aspects of creating online courses are the easy part. Mindset and being willing to invest time into the long-term is the hard part.

It’s a journey and it takes many tries to arrive at the point where an outsider can see success.

It’s quite possible to decide on what kind of life you want and then adjust the type of work that you do to that.

Matej Martinc explains Natural Language Processing

In Meaningful work interviews I talk to people about their area of work and expertise to better understand what they do and why it matters to them.

Matej Martinc is a Ph.D. researcher at “Jožef Stefan” Institute in the Department of Knowledge Technologies where he invents new approaches on how to work and analyze written text. He explained to me the basics of Natural Language Processing (NLP), why neural networks are amazing, and how one gets started with all of this. In the second half, he shared how he ended up in Computer Science with a Philosophy degree and why working for companies like Google is not something that interests him.

How do people introduce you?

They introduce me as a researcher at the IJS institute. I’m in the last year of my Ph.D. thesis research. I’m mostly working on Natural Language Processing (NLP). NLP is a big field and I’m currently exploring several different areas.

I initially started by automatically profiling text authors by their style of writing – we can detect their age, gender, and psychological properties. I also worked on automatic identification of text readability. We’ve also created a system to detect Alzheimer’s patients based on their writing.

Lately, I’ve been working on automatic keyword extraction and detecting political bias in word usage in media articles. I’m also contributing to research on semantic change – how word usage changes through time.

References to research that Matej is referencing throughout this interview. I encourage you to read them as they’re written in a very clear language.

Scalable and Interpretable Semantic Change Detection

[..] We propose a novel scalable method for word usage change detection that offers large gains in processing time and significant memory savings while offering the same interpretability and better performance than unscalable methods. We demonstrate the applicability of the proposed method by analyzing a large corpus of news articles about COVID-19

Zero-Shot Learning for Cross-Lingual News Sentiment Classification

In this paper, we address the task of zero-shot cross-lingual news sentiment classification. Given the annotated dataset of positive, neutral, and negative news in Slovene, the aim is to develop a news classification system that assigns the sentiment category not only to Slovene news, but to news in another language without any training data required. [..]

Automatic sentiment and viewpoint analysis of Slovenian news corpus on the topic of LGBTIQ+

We conduct automatic sentiment and viewpoint analysis of the newly created Slovenian news corpus containing articles related to the topic of LGBTIQ+ by employing the state-of the-art news sentiment classifier and a system for semantic change detection. The focus is on the differences in reporting between quality news media with long tradition and news media with financial and political connections to SDS, a Slovene right-wing political party. The results suggest that political affiliation of the media can affect the sentiment distribution of articles and the framing of specific LGBTIQ+ specific topics, such as same-sex marriage.

Can you start by explaining some background about NLP (Natural Language Processing) to start with?

As a first step, it’s good to consider how SVM (support vector machine) classifiers and decision tree techniques used for classification work. Very broadly speaking, they operate on a set of manually crafted features extracted from the dataset that you train your model on. Examples of that type of features would be: “number of words in a document” or a “bag of words model” where you put all the words into “a bag” and a classifier learns which words from this bag appear in different documents. If you have a dataset of documents, for which you know into which class they belong to (e.g., a class can be a gender of the author that wrote a specific document), you can train your model on this dataset and then use this model to classify new documents based on how similar these documents are to the ones in the dataset on which the model was trained. The limitation of this approach is that these statistical features do not really  take semantic relation between words into account, since they are based on simple frequency-based statistics.

About 10 years ago a different approach was invented using neural networks. What neural networks allow you to do is to work with unstructured datasets because you don’t need to define these features (i.e., classification rules) in advance. You train them by inputing sequences of words and the network learns on itself how often a given word appears closer to another word in a sequence. The information on each word is gathered  in a special layer of this neural network, called an embedding layer that is basically a vector representation that encodes how a specific word relates to other words. 

What’s interesting is that synonyms have a very similar vector representation. This allows you to extract relations between words. 

An example of that would be trying to answer: “Paris in relation to France” is the same as “Berlin in relation to (what?)”. To solve this question you can take the embedding of Paris, subtract the embedding of France and add embedding of Berlin and you’ll get an embedding as an answer – Germany. This was a big revolution in the field as it allows us to operationalize relations in the context of languages. The second revolution came when they invented transfer learning, a procedure employed for example in  the BERT neural network that was trained on BookCorpus with 800 million words and English Wikipedia with 2500 million words. 

In this procedure, the first thing you want to do is to train a language model. You want the model to predict the next word in a given sequence of words. You can also mask words in a given text and train the neural network to fill the gaps with the correct words. What implicitly happens in such training is that the neural network will learn about semantic relations between words. So if you’re doing this on a large corpus of texts (like billions of words in BERT) you get a model that you can use on a wide variety of general tasks. Because nobody had to label the data to do the training it means that it’s an unsupervised model.

Are you working with special pre-trained datasets?

I’m now mostly working with unsupervised methods similar to the BERT model. So what we do is to take that kind of model and do additional fine-tuning on a smaller training set  that makes it better suited for that specific research. This approach allowed us to do all of the research that I’m referencing here.

A different research area that doesn’t require additional training is to  employ clustering on the embeddings of these neural networks. You can take a corpus of text from the 1960s and another one from the 2000s. We can then compare how usage of specific embeddings (words) compare between these two collections of texts. That’s essentially how we can study how the semantic meaning of words changed in our culture.

Modern neural networks can also produce embedding for each usage of a word, meaning that words with more than one meaning have more than one embedding. This allows you to differentiate between Apple (software company) and apple (fruit). We used this approach when studying how different words connected to  COVID changed through time. We generated embeddings for each word appearance in the corpus of news about COVID and clustered these word occurrences into distinct word usages. Two interesting terms that we identified were diamond and strain. For strain, you can see the shift from using it in epidemiological terms (strain virus) to a more economic usage in later months (financial strain).

What we showed with our research is that you can detect changes even across short (monthly) time periods. There’s a limit to how accurately we can identify the difference. It’s often hard even for humans to decide how to label such data. We can usually get close to humane performance by using our unsupervised methods.

(both figures are from paper Scalable and Interpretable Semantic Change Detection)

Does this work for Non-English languages?

You can use the same technology with a non-English language and we’re successfully using it with Slovenian language. In the case of  viewpoint analysis of Slovenian news reporting, we’ve discovered a difference in how the word deep is used in  different context. Mostly because of the deep state that became a popular topic in certain publications.

For our LGBTIQ+ research, we can show that certain media avoids using the word marriage in the context of LGBTIQ+ reporting and replaces it with terms like  domestic partnership. They’re also not  discussing LGBTIQ+ relationship within the context of terms such as family. We can detect the political leaning of the media based on how they write about these topics.

We just started with this research on the Slovenian language so we expect that we’ll have much more to show later in the year.

(figure is from paper Automatic sentiment and viewpoint analysis of Slovenian news corpus on the topic of LGBTIQ+)

So far you’ve talked about analysis and understanding of texts. What other research are you doing?

We’re working on models for generating texts as part of the Embeddia project. The output of this research also works with the Slovenian language.

We’re also investigating if we can transfer embeddings between languages. We have a special version of the BERT neural network that has been trained on 100+ different language Wikipedias. What we’ve found out is that you can take a corpus of texts in the English language, train the model on  it to, for example, detect the gender of the author, and then use that same model to predict the gender of the author of some Slovenian text. This approach is called a zero-shot transfer.

How approachable is all this research and knowledge? Do I need a Ph.D. to be able to understand and use your research?

It takes students of our graduate school about a year to become productive in this field. The biggest initial hurdle is that you need to learn how to work with neural networks.

Good thing is that we now have very approachable libraries in this field. I’m a big fan of PyTorch as it’s well integrated with the Python ecosystem. There’s also TensorFlow that’s more popular in the industry and less in research. I found it harder to use for the type of work we’re doing and harder to debug. With PyTorch it takes about a month or two for our students to understand the basics.

In our context, it’s not just about using the existing neural networks and methods. Understanding the science part of our field and how to contribute via independent paper writing and publishing it’s usually about 2 years.

How easy is it to use your research in ‘real-world’ applications?

We have some international media companies that are using our research in the area of automatic keyword extraction from text. We’re helping them with additional tweaking of our models.

Overall we try to publish everything that we do under open access licenses with code and datasets publicly available.

What we don’t do is maintain our work in terms of production code. It’s beyond the scope of research and we don’t have funding to do it. It’s also very time-consuming and it doesn’t help us with our future research. That’s also what I like about scientific research. We get to invent things and we don’t need to maintain and integrate them. We can shift our focus to the next research question.

So in practice, all of our research is available to you but you’ll need to do the engineering work to integrate it with your product.

Let’s shift a bit to your story and how you got into this research. How did you get here?

I first graduated in philosophy and sociology in 2011, at the time when Slovenia was still recovering from the financial crisis. While I considered Ph.D. in philosophy I decided that there are not many jobs for philosophers. That’s why I’ve enrolled in a Computer Science degree that offered better job prospects.

During my Computer Science studies, I was also working in different IT startups. I quickly realized that you don’t have a lot of freedom in such an environment. Software engineering was too constrained for me in terms of what kind of work I could do.

After I graduated I took the opportunity to do Erasmus Exchange and I went to University in Spain. In that academic environment, I found the opposite approach. I received a dataset, a very loose description of a problem, and complete freedom to decide on how I’m going to approach and solve the problem.

When I returned to Slovenia I decided to apply to a few different laboratories inside IJS to see if I could continue with academic research. I’ve got a few offers and accepted the offer from the laboratory where I’m working today. 

I also decided to focus on NLP and language technologies as I’m still interested in doing philosophical and sociological research. Currently, I have the freedom to explore these topics in my research field without too many constraints. I’m also really enjoying all the conferences and travel that comes with it. Due to the fast-changing nature of my field, all the cutting-edge research is presented at conferences, and publishing in journals is just too slow. It takes over a year to publish a paper but there’s groundbreaking research almost monthly.

How do you see research done at FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google) companies? We know that they’re investing a large amount of money into this field and have large research teams.

They’re doing a lot of good research. At the same time, they’re also often relying more on having access to a large number of hardware resources that we don’t. This can be both a blessing and a curse. At the moment I don’t see their research being that much better from the findings from universities. Universities are also more incentivized to develop new optimization techniques as they can’t use brute hardware force for their research.

Are you considering working for a FAANG company after your Ph.D.?

Not really. I already have a lot of freedom in my research and I can get funding to explore the areas that interest me. If I would work inside a FAANG company I would need to start at the bottom of the hierarchy and also be limited by their research agenda.

I also really like living in Slovenia and I don’t want to relocate to another country. At the same time, I’m excited about potential study/researchexchanges as I enjoy collaborating with researchers at foreign institutions.

What are some good resources to follow in your field?

You can follow the current state of the art at:

Papers describing paradigm shifts in the field of NLP:

Unsupervised language model pretraining and transfer learning: BERT: Pre-training of Deep Bidirectional Transformers for Language Understanding

What I learned from talking with Matej

  • Recognizing what kind of work makes you happy allows you to optimize your job or clients so that you do such work.
  • Natural Language Processing is a very approachable technology and not something that only big companies can use.
  • There are many opportunities to bring research findings into the industry. It does require expertise and connections to both fields.
  • These technologies now also work for the Slovenian language.

Aleš Vaupotič on conversations in IT

In Meaningful work interviews I talk to people about their area of work and expertise to better understand what they do and why it matters to them.

Aleš Vaupotič has a wide-ranging 35+ years career in building software and hardware solutions. He’s one of the most experienced e-commerce experts in the region. Our conversation ranged from how to grow as a developer, what it’s like to be part of the sales process, and where he currently sees technological opportunities.

We had a very wide-reaching conversation and what follows is just a partial summary of things we discussed.

How do people introduce you?

I’m most known as an Application Architect. I’m most often in a role where I lead the project from the initial meeting up until the first successful deployment. By that time I’m usually embedded in a larger team and I can usually call my client a friend. 

I’m most proud that I can identify the needs of my clients and have the necessary breadth of experience to lead the implementation. It took me a lot of time to develop this skill.

I explain my job as mostly finding the opportunities in the business process where IT can help. What can we do to make everyday work easier? It’s also a multi-layered system. We need to think about our client, our client’s client, and also possible end-users. We try to figure out how we can arrange processes so that everyone benefits. I think this type of thinking and planning is what makes me an Architect.

What were some of your early projects and what have you learned from them?

In my teens, I designed a mechatronic system that measured how fast we were skiing between two points at my local hill. That’s where I first learned how to define what the project needs, the materials required and how we’re going to implement it. Of course, this being in the 80’s it required a lot of ingenuity and borrowing of hardware parts from different household electronics.

I later worked with Globtour where we developed the first regional systems for booking, tourism transfers, and billing. There I first learned how to implement business needs and regulatory requirements into such a large-scale project.

Luckily, I had a colleague who previously worked as a programmer for IBM and was trained by them in the USA. He taught me the basics of project management. For them, an IT project started with planning for how you’re going to do backups, maintenance, and ease of use. With this in mind, we developed a software framework that was serving us well for many years. We made sure that there was a robust login system, defined backup system, permission systems, and centralized logging to name a few important aspects. Even though it was written in Pascal it was not much different from today’s modern frameworks like Laravel. It allowed us to be at about 1/3 of the budget and time of competing companies at the time.

Why did you recently switch from a small consultancy to working inside a larger agency?

While I always enjoyed working solo or in small teams, I’ve recently noticed that I’ve hit a limit of what I can accomplish alone. It’s just not possible for me to get larger projects because I don’t have the necessary certificates, references, or required team size. 

While I can offer a lot of experience and specialized knowledge, that’s not enough if you want to become a larger solutions vendor. To solve this I’ve decided to join a large digital company that can fulfill all these checkboxes and provides me with new challenges to work on.

You mentioned that you’ve participated in a lot of sales meetings. How do you see your role in the sales process and what makes for a good sales pitch in IT?

I found that being good at doing sales is a very important skill to master. I am not enjoying sales, but it’s a skill you can learn by reading a book and practicing. In this regard, I see it as just like learning JavaScript or any other technical skill.

A large part of sales in IT is also being able to explain the solution in a very plain language. I find it extremely valuable to invest time in these initial stages as we explain to the client what we’re going to do. If the client understands the benefit of high-quality localization and accessibility they are more than happy to both pay for it and accept a longer development timeline. What I also often see is that people try to rush this part of the process and don’t take time to learn how their client works and what their real needs are.

Creating a high-quality business overview document creates value for everyone. It helps different people on the client’s side understand what’s going on and it also ensures that there is a good understanding of the team that will execute a plan. It’s still a very imprecise problem as we still don’t know how to properly define software projects ahead of time. 

I noticed that having the capability to quickly create high-fidelity prototypes makes a big difference in how clients understand proposed project functionality.

How are you improving the quality of your communication with your team?

I’m always questioning my assumptions and how I relay information. Especially if the results are not what I expected. There’s always an opportunity to improve as a communicator. It’s always a new challenge when you need to delegate work that you used to do yourself. Many things that were obvious to you now need to be explicitly stated.

One of the things that I’m doing to improve in this area is that I’m blogging more and creating YouTube videos. Today I realize that I won’t improve if I don’t go through the process of creating, publishing, and then learning from feedback. Despite my understanding of all this it’s still scary to get feedback.

What does a good code look like?

It’s a code that it’s simple and straightforward on its own. Something that I know I’ll still understand months later without having to think about what it does. I’m not a fan of modern Javascript that you can write in a very terse way but doesn’t make it easy to reason about it. I’d rather write a for-loop than a map function. It feels much more natural to me. My personal mission at the moment is that each project that I work on has less unnecessary code.

These days I’m also studying code flows and how the project is structured. It doesn’t have to be a language that I’m working on. I’m just trying to understand and learn from these conceptual ideas. GitHub is a great source to find such projects.

What would be your advice to more junior colleagues in the industry that are battling with all the technology changes, fear of missing out, and are starting to talk about burnout?

What I see happening with some people is that they fall into the trap of everybody can be a developer. Sure, for some time but after that, you become tired if you keep doing the same things all the time. You need to find ways to grow and to keep challenging yourself. If they can’t do it in their workplace setting they could try to find that enthusiasm in life in their personal lives.

Writing code and building technological solutions were always something that excited me. I’m also very proud of my attention to detail and that I always see opportunities for my growth as a developer. That’s why I think I don’t feel many of these challenges.

You’re also supporting the development of young people through First Lego League Adria. Can you reflect on some of the things that you learned in the process?

I’m fascinated by how creative and capable kids are, aged between 8 and 16 years. They’re also always very successful when competing on the international level and have very solid language and presentation skills.

I’m happy to see that the best local participants are getting great opportunities for further studies and personal development. I hear that US Universities and Colleges are actively trying to recruit them with good scholarships. At the same time, there’s a lack of trust in such opportunities in our environment so they mostly go unused. After working with such teams for the last 10 years I see how much potential they have and what kind of big impact they’ll be able to have in their professional work.

What technologies excite you at the moment?

Svelte makes sense for me for front-end development. It just feels natural to write. I also really like the community around it. It’s really supportive, full of great ideas, and open to discussion. I’m also contributing to the Routify project that enables routing through file structures.

Incremental Static Regeneration in modern JavaScript frameworks is definitely something I can see a lot of good use cases for.

Tailwind makes it really easy to write CSS styles in a very natural way.

I’m looking at serverless and edge computing as I feel that this is finally the true cloud that allows us to bring websites closer to end customers.

I’m also excited about WASM and that we can push computation to clients’ devices. When we connect this potential with serverless it greatly simplifies a lot of the needed backend infrastructure.

What I learned from talking with Aleš

Communication and written expression is the most fundamental part of successful IT projects. If people can’t understand each other the project will fail.

Keep tinkering with technologies and different challenges. Fundamentals are always the same and I’ll be able to build on previous knowledge.

Don’t worry too much about businesses. They come and go. People and relationships around them last much longer.

Anže Tomić explains why I don’t need a Podcast

In Meaningful work interviews I talk to people about their area of work and expertise to better understand what they do and why it matters to them.

Anže Tomič is most known for his podcasts Apparatus pogovori and Glave. He makes technology and media approachable to people that wouldn’t otherwise care.

I wanted to talk to Anže to see if he has any advice for me on how to approach interviews and all the media and brand myths around that. I expected basic tips on how to get started but instead got deep insights on business models and economics of the creator-led industry.

How do people introduce you?

Tech journalist and podcaster. I’m always kind of amazed that they need to add the podcaster part as if it’s something special.

Why podcasts?

Short version: I listened to a lot of them and I wanted to make them. The first podcast that I listened to was not a podcast but a radio show on XFM – Ricky Gervais Show that was airing every Saturday in London and it lasted about 2 hours. Someone actually recorded the show, cut out all the music so that it’s just the dialogue between hosts, and uploaded it to the internet. It’s at least 90 hours of content and I listened to this at least 8 times.

At the time I worked at Radio Študent and started noticing the trend of the radio moving online and decided that I also want to do this.

Should this conversation be a podcast and should I start a podcast instead of writing down a summary?

That’s a good question. I don’t think it really matters as it’s more about providing information. Pick a medium that you’re more comfortable in. As far as I know you, it seems that you prefer writing. You’re the one that’s asking questions and you need to be comfortable so that you can create your work. Personally, I can convey more when I’m working with audio compared to text. I want to underline the personal part. Since you asked “if you should” I think the answer is that it depends, yo! (Anže wanted to make sure that the last part made it to the final edit).

Is there anything else I should think about if I’m deciding between text or podcasts?

Not really. I used to advise people to do podcasts because they were new. But now they’re mainstream and it’s just like advising someone to go start a blog. I’m happy that it became so popular as a medium but it’s not special on its own anymore.

I describe it as like going to the cinema. You don’t go watch the movie Avengers, you just go watch Avengers. There’s no movie anymore. I’m also seeing this with the podcast shows. People now listen to Odbita do bita they don’t listen to podcast Odbita do bita. There are many of these kinds of shows now and people know how to interact with them.

There are two additional considerations. Time is definitely a factor. Both text and audio require editing time. With audio, you also need to make sure that the person that you’re interviewing sounds good and can talk coherently. With text, it’s much easier to make them look good.

Does that mean that you are a brand now?

No. I think it’s tied to personality and personal brands. It’s now much easier for someone to move between networks. It used to be that a TV or a radio show was more than just the host. I don’t believe that this is true anymore. That’s why you see so many shows these days that are named after the hosts.

It seems that I’m on a path to establish my own personal brand. Do you have any advice for me?

Keep doing what you’re doing. Talk to as many people as you can. That’s the easiest hack to grow your presence. That’s how you ensure that people will know about you since every person that you talk to will bring their people to you. It’s “the easiest” that still requires a lot of work.

Everyone that you talk to has their own audience. They will share your interview with them. People will see you and the more often you do it the more people see you. Rinse and repeat. I really think that this is a good way to do this.

It’s the same model that many international podcasters were following. They started with interviews and only after they’ve built a following they started doing other types of shows.

I’ve made 208 podcast interviews throughout the years. This allowed me to build a really strong network and personal following. When I decided to pause my podcast for now I felt comfortable that I could restart it again later.

One more tip is to make sure that you ask people to share. There’s no shame in trying to cut through the noise of social media by explicitly asking your guests to share and tag you.

You should also decide if you’re doing this as a hobby or as a job. If you want to make this part of your income you should make sure to ask your audience to support you as soon as possible. Running sponsorship and ads early on is also another way to approach this.

Do you think all digital creators should have their own Patreon-like account in 2021?

Yes, definitely. Creating quality content takes time and it’s real work. I think it’s perfectly valid to ask your audience to support you if they like what you are doing. Initially, it feels a bit strange since a lot of our existing economy is supported by Venture Capital and Big Tech. But when you think about it’s also a very simple model. Ask people to support what they like by directly paying for it so that you can continue doing your work. Modern online tools make it really easy to do that.

With the Patreon model, how do you ensure that you stay true to the work that you want to keep doing? How do you not sell out so that you can get a bigger audience?

Is having a large audience really your goal? You don’t need to underestimate niche audiences and what they value. Since you are publishing in English you have access to many more niches. When you’re publishing in large languages you can have very niche topics like 12th Century Classical Composers and you can still be successful. 

You can think about it in terms of Kevin Kelly’s 1000 true fans. Your business model is to build a core audience of your true fans that support your work so you can create it full time. Unless you decide that you want to have a huge audience because being famous and rich is your goal. Then you’ll probably need to create mainstream content.

Do you see any point in creating content in the Slovenian language? Will your next podcast show be in English?

The English language gives you access to more people and there is also much more competition. It becomes more important when you’re creating niche content. When I look at what my friends from the USA are doing I see that it’s quite possible to make a living doing 5 very niche shows. They can do it because they have enough potential English-speaking audience.

I think you can still accomplish things when producing content in Slovenian and I think I’ll keep my work in Slovenian.

Do you think having a strong Eastern European accent is a problem when creating content in English?

I think it’s a huge advantage. It’s what differentiates you from the competition and makes you unique. If you have a good vocabulary and can speak it’s better if you don’t try to hide your accent. I can confirm this based on my personal experience.

Is there any other advice that you often give to new creators?

You need to persevere and grow. When you read or listen to your first work after two years you need to be ashamed of it. If you’re happy with it you haven’t accomplished anything. In the beginning, your work will suck. With time you’ll get feedback and you’ll be able to adjust it so it becomes better. We see all these successful people and they seem so polished. What we don’t see is all the work that came before. 

Who are your heroes that you’re learning from?

Gervais, Merchant, and Pilkington in terms of spoken radio.

John Siracusa, and Jason Snell in terms of quality tech podcasts.

I’m mostly learning by following the work of people that I admire. Sometimes they’ll also explain their processes and thinking.

What I learned from talking with Anže

  • There’s no expectation of working for free in niche verticals. It’s completely acceptable to create Patreons and ask people to support your work.
  • I need to stop thinking in terms of “open source” economics where everyone expects everything for free. I can (and should!) create paid products and different consulting offers.
  • Embracing the differences is the new black. Provide value, entertain and lean into what makes you different from everyone else.

Miha Medven shares why Freelancers are better developers

In Meaningful work interviews I talk to people about their area of work and expertise to better understand what they do and why it matters to them.

Miha Medven is working in the space of Software-as-a-Service and Web development. We talked about personal growth, what it is like to be a good manager and why he loves to work with freelancers.

How do your coworkers introduce you?

Sometimes they would use my official title – Technical Director. I prefer to be described as Head of Development – a person that is responsible for technical execution projects.

In my experience, the job titles are useful for external people. For internal people, they become an obstacle in communication if they feel that your title doesn’t fit the nature of their problem. 

What kind of responsibilities do you take on yourself with the Director in your job title?

I’m the kind of person that focuses on execution. I observe two kinds of people: the ones with idea and vision, and the ones that know how to implement this into a live product. I’m the latter kind. I’ll make sure that we can execute the vision and I’ll try to help wherever it makes sense. I don’t feel any jobs are beneath me if they push the implementation forward such as marketing copy or helping with portrait photography of team members. I’m always looking for opportunities to see what I can do to make sure that the product that we’re building gets to my clients or partners. This kind of interdisciplinary attitude to work allows us to have a high velocity of shipping features and products.

How do you decide on a balance between doing it yourself, delegation, or dropping it?

I try to look at my existing time commitments and what’s the impact of this work. I need to decide between the existing availability of my team’s time and my specialist knowledge. If I can delegate a task to a team member it means that they can grow and can also take more dedicated time to do an excellent job on it.

The challenge I’m facing at the moment is how to find the capacity to make 100+ of these decisions in a day. It’s mentally exhausting. It’s also challenging to figure out how to relay the decision process itself to the team so that they can do it without me.

How do you see your management style?

I’m trying to have a very cohesive team. We’re at 5 people at the moment in my team and I’m striving to have a weekly 1-on-1 with every member. I keep checking with everyone to make sure that my understanding of their needs is aligned with the work they are doing. I see this as my primary responsibility and how I can provide the most value.

I find that we can make the most progress if we work as a team and that we’re not relying on outsized contributions from individuals. I see open communication as a fundamental method to achieve this cohesion. I’m trying to be open about my challenges and to discuss them together with their issues. This puts us at an equal level and I find that it helps with the granularity and type of information I get from my team.

It also helps if I can lead by example and to show that I’m also dealing with remote work issues or time organization in my personal life. This allows us to more openly discuss strategies for how to cope with it as a team and team members don’t feel the need to hide them. I also try to be honest with them and tell them when their actions are leading to erosion of trust so that we can catch them early.

I find that making sure that there is enough open communication inside the team allows us to ship features much faster and of higher quality. I find that when a team trusts that they can change the processes and approach to problem-solving that provides us with the benefit to detect and fix things early.

How do you level up as a manager?

I make sure to read a lot of books. The problem with books is that managing people requires a lot of tacit knowledge and to learn that you need to have a lot of practical experience. At the moment I’m experimenting with different approaches and trying to learn from the experience. We’ll decide as a team to try one approach for 2 weeks and then talk about what worked and what didn’t.

How does your team structure work each week?

We have an in-person day on Monday when we meet together in an office. We take this opportunity to have come together for discussions, planning, and unstructured meetings. As we’re a small team we just need to have a shared space so we can realign our work and highlight challenges. I try not to have too much structure in meetings as I find that it’s better to adapt to the type of work that we’re doing. I’m a big fan of real-time reactions so that we can address issues early.

How do you level up and ensure the professional growth of your team members?

I start by trying to figure out how I would make myself replaceable. I ask myself what kind of skills do my team members need so that they could replace me. This forces me to learn new things and at the same time provides growth opportunities for others. As I talk with team members we try to find different opportunities and I try to challenge them to start taking on these new opportunities.

One recent good experience in this area was our graphical designer who grew into a confident UX lead role in a matter of a year. I supported him in taking bigger roles and helped him understand what we need from this role. Now he is independently leading UX development and it’s something I don’t have to do myself anymore.

What would be your advice to someone that is feeling that they’re not growing in their current position?

It’s hard to change the way you’re thinking and working if your environment doesn’t support it. Tacit knowledge of how to do work better requires immersion into teams and environments that think and work differently. The more they can interact with such teams the easier it will be to start doing this kind of work. This process mostly depends on the management style of team leads so the most such person can do is to choose their (new) team wisely.

An easy way to try out new approaches to work is to do freelancer or volunteer work. This will help you develop a breadth of experience that will create more opportunities for you in smaller markets. We’re mostly solving product as opposed to technical challenges and in such cases, breadth of experience helps more than being specialized. You’ll also see how different leadership approaches product, technology, sales, and team challenges. It’s a much better experience than trying to learn from books.

As a specialized professional such as a developer or designer your added value doesn’t come from your specialization. You need to see how your work can empower the customer in your market segment. The best way to develop this skill is to have experience and understanding of how different teams approach these kinds of work and to not be afraid to reach out from your area of specialization. Skills of talking to people and having an understanding of how a sales process works are invaluable in a team that is developing new public-facing products.

Do you think it’s possible to have highly functional teams that work remotely?

Yes, I think it’s possible. It’s really important that all team members are remote savvy and that they can function in a remote work environment. If a team member doesn’t have this skill they will feel left out and it’s going to be a problem. In our team, we also make sure to allocate part of our work time for social calls so we can connect on a personal level. It helps to have a small team and to be mindful that you need to train any new team members on how your team does remote work.

I’m also a big fan of gifs in Slack. It helps to convey the tone of information that would otherwise be lost in a textual chat.

Can you share some books and resources that you found valuable?

Overall I found that being a manager is challenging and that you need to have a team that you can grow it and that you also have mentorship from your manager. In my experience, you’re lucky if you can find someone that takes management as part of their core competency. I also try to talk to peers in similar roles and try to learn from their experiences. What I mostly get from these discussions is that leadership is individual to each person and there are different approaches. 

What I learned from talking with Miha

It’s very hard to learn management and team dynamic from books or conference talks. It’s much easier to switch teams until you find one where you feel that you can belong and grow. Until you don’t anymore. Then switch again.

Resourcefulness and breadth of experience is a big plus when working a small multidisciplinary team.

There’s a need in IT space for support communities for next generation of emerging leaders.