Keeping up with trends in your industry–no matter what your industry is–can be brutally hard.
Especially in a tech-enabled world, it’s not just engineers who need to learn the ins and outs of new technology, it’s everyone. Should copywriters worry about GPT-3-powered tools? What even is GPT-3? Do designers need to keep abreast of what’s going on in web3, especially with the explosive popularity of NFTs? Does it matter if that social platform you use for all your marketing campaigns just installed a new CEO?
When there’s this much new information, what does newsgathering look like? How do you separate the signal from the noise?
Unfortunately, the answer is not as simple as typing [industry] information into a search engine. It’s a careful combination of following the right people, reading the right publications, and getting your foot in the door with the right communities.
But once you get started, you’ll realise it’s not as challenging as you might have thought.
Identifying thought leaders
One of the first steps is identifying who the power players are–think of these people as gateways into relevant communities, publications, and stories for your field or industry.
Who are your field’s thought leaders? Thought leaders are the movers and shakers. They might trend forecast, offer analysis on new tech, and help determine what is or isn’t newsworthy. They help shape the conversation–for the better.
Some thought leaders we like include:
- Balaji Srinivasan, web3, technology trends
- Chris Dixon, web3
- Packy McCormick, web3, business strategy and trends
- Morgan Housel, finance
Thought leaders are also community nodes–people you want to know will gravitate toward any good thought leader. How do you know which ones to trust? There’s no one easy formula for determining whose insights you should take into consideration, or who’s going to give the best advice.
But here are questions you should consider:
What has this person accomplished?
Consider this (tongue-in-cheek!) tweet by Delian Asparahouv, Founder of Varda Space and a venture capitalist at Founders Fund.
While on its face it reads just like a funny joke, he also makes an important point: just because someone has a lot of Twitter or LinkedIn followers doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about.
The truth is people gain and lose followers for all sorts of arbitrary reasons. Maybe their profile picture is attractive; maybe they invented a new meme; maybe they were on a reality TV show. Maybe they did something offensive.
It’s important not only to look only at follower count, but also at what the person has done.
If they’re a founder, look at their company–what about it do you admire? How is it performing? If it folded, do you think that diminishes their expertise? Why or why not? If they’re an investor, which industries do they make investments in? If they’re an academic, what kind of research do they conduct, and for and with which institutions?
These questions will change depending on your industry, and the person in question.
Success isn’t the be-all and end-all, it can be an important guiding light.
Are they knowledgeable, confident, or both?
If anything could be said about the Internet, it’s that it can make it incredibly easy to BS. Sometimes, someone might appear to be a subject matter expert, when in reality, they’re just confident.
Yes, this can even happen online.
When it comes to thought leaders, you can’t always rely on the same rhetorical tells that you can with advertisements, like “studies say,” or “X is groundbreaking.”
However, you can look at how specific they’re being. Are they making an incendiary or over-optimistic claim to bait engagement? How do they handle pushback?
Who tends to agree with them?
Another good tell is who tends to agree or promote this person’s claims.
As the world becomes more polarised, the unfortunate truth is that some people’s accomplishments are diminished for reasons that are not related to the skill level they bring to their professional life.
But, barring any political squabbles, pay attention to who’s in support of what they have to say.
How do other industry leaders respond to them? Are their fans mostly people with a good grasp of the field, or newbies?
Somebody’s content being accessible doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t share valuable information. But be wary of people who only get endorsements from novices.
What are they selling? Does their advice have a direct financial incentive?
Finally… are they selling anything? A course? A diet? A bootcamp?
It’s one thing to be an entrepreneur, but it’s another for your personality to be the product on sale. Be wary of thought leaders that have something to gain from appearing to be an expert.
You may be wondering: How do you differentiate between an industry expert who also is selling a product and a person who’s selling a personal brand?
Are they offering to teach you a complicated skill or de-mystifying complex information, or claiming they have “secret” or life-changing knowledge that can only be acquired through paying for their course or product?
Teachers can give you the tools to get better at a skill. They can even help introduce you to like minded people who may be able to help your career. However, even the best teacher can’t fix all of life’s problems. Use your best judgement here.
Finding community in the replies
A great place to find communities is through thought leaders–remember when I said to pay attention to who’s following them? Sometimes thought leaders will have their own subreddits, Discord or Slack servers, Telegram groups, or Direct Message groups, but you can also find great people just in their social media reply sections.
Don’t be afraid to jump into conversations.
Here’s an example that comes from On Deck Editorial Lead Katya’s life. A long time ago, Katya responded to Interintellect founder Anna Gat on Twitter, about a topic she was passionate about. It turned out that Katya had a unique perspective on the topic and she caught the eye of an editor at a magazine who followed Anna on Twitter. The editor reached out to her, and commissioned a piece. That was the first piece she had published since she was in college… and the rest is history!
Diving into Twitter
Twitter can be an intimidating platform–it moves quickly, people are quick to attack, and there are thousands upon thousands of accounts to follow. But we don’t recommend that you write it off completely: its power works in both directions, and it can be an indispensable professional tool.
Here are a few quick tips on using Twitter as a professional tool:
- Twitter is a great place to follow thought leaders. Usually, thought leaders within certain fields and industries follow and interact with one another, too. When you find one, dig through their profile–you’ll likely find many more.
- Not sure who to follow? When in doubt, use the principles we laid out for thought leaders above.
- Hashtags were a great organisational tool, but they’re a thing of the past, with one caveat: people still sometimes use them in their bios to signal they’re in a specific community. For example, a former ODF1 member might put #ODF1 in their Twitter bio.
- Social media can be a great place to track trends. For some industries, it might be useful to do a quarterly audit of competitors’ social accounts: What are they talking about? Where do they seem to be spending their energy?
- Make good use of Lists. Lists allow you to group similar accounts together, and get a curated feed of just their tweets. The thought leaders you follow may have already created their own lists, too.
Some lists that may be interesting to you (and to help you get a good idea of what lists are all about!):
Don’t be afraid to jump into the replies or to reach out to people. At the same time, be discerning when it comes to controversial conversations. Unfortunately, the Twitter mob is real, and the last thing anyone wants is to incite its ire.
Many of the same tactics you use on Twitter also apply to LinkedIn, with two caveats. One, because LinkedIn is more “buttoned up,” you don’t have to worry quite as much about stepping on any conversation landmines. In that way, it’s much lower stress to engage in conversations.
Two, LinkedIn offers something that Twitter doesn’t: searchable groups. Thought leaders may lead or promote groups of their own, but you can also just type something in on the site and go from there.
Groups, and digital communities more generally, are a great resource for meeting like-minded people, but also getting a curated feed of news, trends, and conversations relevant to your field.
But how do you know which group to join?
Judging the quality of a community
If you’re green in a space, it can be difficult and even intimidating to judge the community’s quality.
As we go through three different types of communities, here are a few tips that might be helpful:
- Is it active? It doesn’t necessarily have to be big, but it should be active.
- What if it’s too big or too active, though? Take “Digital Marketing,” above. There are nearly 2M members. Sometimes those super high volume communities are just good places to find other, smaller communities advertised. But be aware of groups that are too noisy.
- What kinds of things do people post? Is it mostly spam? Do they stay on topic? Do they get unnecessarily political? Is it a cesspool of memes?
- Are people kind and helpful? How do they treat people who ask questions?
- What’s the moderation style?
- Are there any barriers of entry? If so, are they professional certifications or is it closer to hazing? How do they onboard newcomers?
At On Deck, here are some of our guiding principles in our Slack communities:
- Slack is our space to deepen connections with the On Deck community. We encourage our Fellows to use it to engage with others, ask questions, give and get support, learn things and make friends.
- Slack is not a platform for making 1:1 unsolicited asks. We have public channels that are appropriate for asking questions and promoting work.
How to use Reddit like a pro
Reddit is an invaluable resource for almost any niche subject matter–including professional ones.
Not only is it a great place for news (usually with the added benefit of a healthy comment section to help you discuss or process the story), it’s also a great place to get a crash course on a given topic, to ask questions, and to find like-minded people.
Let’s take a look at /r/Haskell, a subreddit specifically for Haskell programmers.
Any good subreddit will make use of its sidebar. Sidebars are where you’ll find FAQs, Wikis, and other useful information.
While /r/Haskell doesn’t have an FAQ listed, it does have links to a Wiki, other relevant communities, learning material, and vetted mailing lists and blogs that developers might be interested in.
/r/Haskell has an IRC channel, but other subreddits might use Discord or Slack–migrating to those platforms are where you’ll find faster paced, real-time conversations. We’ll go into more detail about real-time conversations below.
Reddit is also a good place to ask for advice. Take /r/digitalmarketing, a favourite subreddit of Talal Syed, our Startup Growth Lead:
A quick glance at /r/digitalmarketing reveals that it’s full of professionals asking questions.
Reddit has several strengths when it comes to asking advice:
- It’s asynchronous
- Your questions stay bundled to your username
- It allows for longform answers
- It leaves room for conversation.
From Talal Syed, on what he likes about Reddit:
✅ There’s always a strongly moderated sub where the signal-to-noise ratio is high.
✅ Great comments rise to the top. Reddit is diverse enough that there’s always fantastic responses.
✅ If they’re B.S., they also get fact checked rapidly.
✅ Sorting by controversial, best, top can yield interesting results and counter the hive-mind nature of the platform.
On how it’s helped him:
✅ I used relevant subs to brainstorm content ideas when I was a content marketer. I looked for questions that were asked often, counter-intuitive takes that could serve as contrarian thought leadership content, lists of recommendations for tools, etc and so on.
✅ It’s by far the best recommendation channel if you want to learn anything from scratch. For example, I used learnprogramming to find out which courses to take, which programming stack to opt for, etc.
✅ I have a list of 30 subs for growth and marketing. Whenever I come across something interesting (tactic, strategy, unique approach etc) that resonates, I put it in a swipe file. Whenever I feel stuck creatively at work or need to think outside the box, I use the swipe file for inspiration.
While not every subreddit is created equally, one like /r/digitalmarketing, which boasts a healthy and active 152,000 users, is perfectly situated for lively discussion.
Multi-Reddits and using Reddit for newsgathering
Subreddits can be as broad as /r/digitalmarketing, or more specific, like /r/Haskell is. But they can go even more specific than that. Let’s take a look at the recommended subreddits on /r/Haskell. /r/haskellgamedev is ultra-specific, and only has a little under 1,000 users. But that doesn’t mean it’s useless–it may still contain relevant information for you.
What do you do if you want to keep up with multiple smaller subreddits, but you don’t want to check in on them individually when you log on? You can trust your “front page,” which brings all the highest rated threads from each subreddit you follow, or you can use Multi-Reddits.
Reddit also allows you to create custom bundle URLs of subreddits without needing to subscribe to them. This solves the problem of feeling like you need to hop in and out of community pages, or have a bunch of tabs open.
Consolidate, pick your battles, and engage where it’s valuable.
Talal uses Reddit to stay on top of marketing, crypto, and tech more broadly. He uses multi-Reddits to organise thematically similar subreddits:
“For instance, my Marketing multi has around 30 subreddits. I copied it from /r/multihub, but pruned the ones I didn’t care about, or that weren’t as high signal, and added more relevant ones over time. They’re also great because you can search within a specific multi. Reddit’s search isn’t very good, so limiting searches to only the subreddits that I’ve fine tuned is great. If I’m doing research, I use this tool that shows a visual representation of subreddits. Another good visualisation tool is this one.”
Keeping up with your industry in real-time with Discord and Slack
Old Internet heads know IRC, like what was being promoted on /r/Haskell. But in a moving world, there was always going to be an incentive to update real-time chat to be sexier and more accessible: enter Discord and Slack.
Discord and Slack serve a similar process to Reddit: centralise the experience, give the user one login, and expand the feature set to be useful. Because of the ease-of-use for setting up a server and including bots, many projects on Github and beyond use Discord as a way to do support, new releases, and general chat with like-minded individuals.
This is somewhat your “in”. By joining servers for projects you’re personally interested in, you both expose yourself to the day-to-day conversations that enable good networking, but also ingratiate yourself by genuinely contributing.
The idea of “proving and showing” fuels communities like Gen Z Mafia, a Discord server that helped Gen Z coders find collaborators and launch their projectODF2 Fellow Jimmy Hsu, CEO and Founder of astrobanking.com, shared this about his experience with GZM.
I’ve helped or founded dozens of communities on Discord and Facebook Groups, but the most notable are Gen-Z Mafia and Subtle Asians Bay Area. I usually end up in an early core supporting role or am the founder directly.
Gen Z Mafia was brought together by the pandemic initially as people had colleges and hackathons shut down. People desperately wanted a space where they could meet like-minded builders and collaborate, and we filled the gap at the time. I was there day one after I saw Emma Salinas, one of the founders, tweet about creating the Discord, and have helped support and grow the community on a core level since. Nowadays, my role is much less than it previously was in the early days.
Gen Z Mafia was originally formed from members that came from Tech Twitter, but eventually grew into a beast of its own after it was profiled in the New York Times. We kept momentum with fireside chats from industry leaders for some time, but eventually it grew into various sub communities as people found their preferred niches.
The beauty of GZM was two-fold: it brought together people who were passionate about tech and it forced people to build. While conversation is great–sometimes keeping up with your industry means testing new skills in a safe space. If you’re an engineer, you may sometimes participate in Hackathons, or your company may have dedicated “hackathon” days.
The purpose of these isn’t just to add a spark of creativity to people’s work days–it’s also an efficient way to learn new skills.
Repl.it, where Editorial Lead Katya Delaney as a Community Manager worked during her early days in tech, and ODF Fellow Emma Salinas currently works as designer, regularly hosts hackathons and challenges for its user base. They also have an active forum, Repl.it Talk, and an active Discord.
On servers like GZM’s and Repl.it’s, not everyone will be an expert. But that’s often not the point: it’s about getting your feet wet and meeting passionate people. Passion may not be the best source for expert-knowledge, but it is a great place to discover trends, new tools, and even figure out what’s not working.
But what about Slack? What’s the difference between a Slack server and Discord server?
The only differences are that Discord tends to skew younger, and more casual, but otherwise, both generally serve the same purpose.
You’re more likely to find Discord servers in certain industries, too, i.e. for engineers, certain types of design, and web3, whereas a field like product management or customer success might be more likely to have a Slack server. It’s mostly about aesthetics and familiarity.
On Deck’s Slack Ecosystem
We’d be remiss if we didn’t also mention our own Slack servers, where our Fellows maintain active communities, even after their fellowships end. Like with GZM and Repl.it, on the On Deck Slack, people meet collaborators, find out about community events, and ask questions.
These Discord and Slack servers echo the culture of smaller indie shops that serve as a home base for their local communities. You’re there because you’ve found “your people,” and ideally, you’re there because you’ve got something valuable to add. (It’s worth noting that participation and a desire to learn is valuable!)
It can feel intimidating at first because the deluge of casual chatter means you need to choose when and how to engage wisely. People can tell if you’re there for your own profit, and there’s a need for an authentic altruism. They also may already know one another, and even online, it can feel like you’re “intruding” on other people’s social spaces.
However, they can usually tell when you’re making an honest effort, and in healthy communities, that honest effort can be enough to “break in.” It just takes time. We also recommend that you stay self-aware and humble enough about your own knowledge — people are much more forgiving than you might think!
Thankfully, there’s a very easy way of conquering the “are they going to think I’m dumb” anxiety: knowing the anatomy of a good question.
The anatomy of a good question
There are two kinds of good questions. The first is straightforward like “What’s a good business intelligence tool?”
The second–the kind you might want to ask a thought leader– is one that allows them to share information, and one which challenges just enough that it interests them to do the work to craft an answer.
Optionally, if it’s asked in a public forum, it can’t hurt that there’s an incentive to look good by responding to such questions. While this isn’t a surefire formula to get a response to someone “out of your league”, the idea is sound:
- You’re showing the person that you’ve done legwork beforehand in learning about the topic. You aren’t approaching them with absolutely nothing, and you aren’t asking them to spoon feed you the basics.
- By doing legwork with regards to details (bug tracking, solutions you’ve already tried, documentation, UX feedback), you’re also telling someone that you attempted to solve the problem yourself, or at least minimise the amount of work needed for them to assist.
- Your perspective may allow for them to explore a closed topic from a different angle. That goodwill generation increases your chances of being remembered.
It also helps that the people that have the most knowledge to share (or the people that may hold the keys to the types of circles you want to run in) may not be the ones that spend the most time on places like Twitter or StackExchange.
Someone with a big brain for a subject might not have the biggest following, and someone you feel may not respond may just be waiting for the right way to be engaged.
Even on smaller Discords or group chats, pecking orders naturally form, and while we’re not about to advocate for high school drama in pursuit of your development, this maybe something to keep in mind.As mentioned above, curation of your sources allows you to pick and choose when you’re engaging with thought leaders, and seeing their content. Learning the power of Twitter Lists or RSS readers means that you’re making the choice of who to “soft follow”, or involve in your regular information routine.
Questions are also a great way to just connect with people and get to know the community. ODF Fellow Sarup Banskota shared that some of the most helpful question-and-answer sessions happened when he ended up making a new friend, “Oftentimes I'd connect with someone I end up speaking with, and get a ton of help that way.”
How to find the right reading material: Substacks and blogs
You may have noticed that blogging is back–at least in the form of newsletters. There’s been an explosion of newsletters. How do you know which one is only good for one post? How do you know which one to subscribe to? What about which ones to pay for?
Substack is, perhaps, the only place on the Internet with a worthwhile leaderboard.
But, the flip-side of this is, while most Substacks that end up on the leaderboard are good, that doesn’t mean that every good Substack is going to end up on the leaderboard. So how do you tell?
Mostly, you’ll want to use the same tips we gave you for thought leaders: Does this person know what they’re talking about, or are they engagement-fishing? Let’s break down the anatomy of a useful Substack (and remember that this will also apply to blogs). YMMV, but we hope this is a good starting point.
We really like TheSequence, which focuses on ML and AI.
- It’s written by subject matter experts.
- They summarise research AI and ML research papers–working professionals may not have the time to parse dense information like that, and this is an indispensable resource to keep up-to-date.
- They offer educational material for people who are just learning.
- They regularly have posts about industry challenges.
- They have a vibrant community aspect where people can ask questions. Community is an underappreciated feature of Substack–sometimes, Substacks also will have attached Discord or Slack servers available for subscribers.
The fastest way to learn: small projects
While you’re compiling all this knowledge, here’s a reminder that it’s good to test whether it’s actually contributing anything to your growth. Remember what made Repl.it and GZM successful?
Starting a small project with the aim of replicating something you admire or are interested in also serves as a litmus test to the resources you’re using.
For instance, if you’re into motion graphics, and want to learn how a certain intro or animation is made, you can attempt to learn solely using the places you already visit regularly. If you’re unable to do it, you know that you need to expand.
Another benefit of off-hours/”weekend” projects is that you get to fail and make mistakes in private. These opportunities give you much-needed context for how the successful people in your industry made their mistakes, and also removes some of the mysticism attached to the pedestal you may have put them on.
It also allows you to remove the stakes associated with failing in public: if everything that you attempt has high stakes behind it, it both punishes you for experimentation and demotivates you from trying in the first place.
Sometimes, it can be as simple as “I want to do that” when you see something you like; with the right question to the original creator, you can be set down a road towards names for things you never knew, and the associated tutorials or resources. This serves as an onboarding point for YouTube channels that have genuinely useful tutorials — often, they’re produced by people without the typical “YouTube flair” and just genuinely want to share knowledge.
Adopting an attitude of “paying it forward” also reframes your contributions to a community as a form of altruism, rather than being motivated by clout-gaining or monetary profit.
For instance, one of our contributors had a weird use case for a pair of devices: a game controller and an Android tablet. The controller was coded in a way that performed functions that they didn’t want when certain buttons were pressed, and they couldn’t hack the Android tablet in order to change them. Since the controller was common, when they eventually did get the issue fixed, writing a small guide (with the specific model number of the controller, so it would index in search properly) completed the loop.
How one of our Fellows learned to code through a side project:
We hope this guide helped, but each industry will have its own nuances on how it operates.
What are your favourite ways to keep up? What do you think we missed in this post?