From non-profits to tech: How my career taught me to love ‘vertical slicing’
For many years — long before I was working at a tech company, or before I knew about marketing attribution or what ‘MarTech’ meant — my career was in the non-profit field.
I worked in a lot of different capacities from the time I was about 18 until I was 32, in roles that took me from the suburbs to the inner city. I lived in Spain and the United Kingdom. Kenya, Chile, and Mexico were cool places I got to visit, all in the service of the greater good.
Many times throughout my tenure I felt a deep sense of satisfaction about my contributions. Other times, I was emotionally removed from the lives I was supposed to be impacting. These highs and lows are all part of the job, and they vary based on the kind of work you’re doing.
When it comes to non-profit work, there are ultimately two great ‘death and taxes’-esque truisms: Non-profit isn’t about the money. Also, non-profit is all about the money. The name of it be damned, if you’re in this field of work (I still can’t bring myself to call it an ‘industry’), then you’re probably thinking about cash every single day.
The daily grind, and the question of time well spent
You got into this work because you wanted to help people, and that’s really cool of you. But if you’re anything like I was, you worked through your days with the Grim Reaper of cash flow trailing just behind you at all times.
Here’s how it usually goes down:
- Gosh, I really need to raise some money or we’ll be in trouble
- I’ll set aside a whole day two weeks from now to focus on it! I’ll write a big long email and make it look nice!
- [Day blocked for fundraising time arrives] Okay! I’m ready to do this. I’ve got my coffee and my email campaign editor up. And I’ve got ideas for stories to share with our donors!
- Someone on your staff pings you about a pressing issue related to the work you’re actually there to do. You dutifully put out the fire.
- Back to work! Ah, it’s time for a lunch appointment to meet with a potential intern for the next year.
- Repeat steps 3 and 4 until it’s almost the end of the day and then leave without completing more than about 20 percent of what you set out for.
- Leave the office, sad and dejected.
Now, this situation can apply to pretty much anyone who has any degree of autonomy to their daily schedule. But the worst part of the experience is this: No one got any value out of it. You raised no money, and your donors didn’t hear how their contributions are making a difference. No new person had the opportunity to hear what your organization does and how it matters, or how they can partner alongside you.
Despite the grand plan you set out at the beginning of the day, you just didn’t get anything in return, and no value was delivered to anyone. It’s a shame, because it doesn’t have to be that way.
Succeeding at big things means focusing on the small stuff
It was already too late by the time I learned a valuable lesson that changed my life, which has shaped my career ever since: It is better to deliver a very small thing that has value than to deliver nothing at all.
We often fall into the trap of thinking that what we need to do right now is the big thing. If it’s not a massive effort, or if the output of your tasks are not what you’d deem prolific, then it’s considered a failure.
During my time in the nonprofit world, I would make the mistake of trying to create a big, beautiful email campaign that I hoped would inspire certain feelings in the reader:
- The gratification of being recognized for their effort
- Sincere appreciation for all their hard work
- The joy of learning something new
- And the sudden urge to give more money
But the truth is, that’s a lot to ask from an impersonal email campaign to potential donors where the maximum personal tie-in is a digital mail-merge. Was there value? Yes. Was there an ROI? Sure, if I managed to ever get the thing done. Was it efficient? Absolutely not. (It was not a great way to pass the days, at least!)
I began to lean into the mindset of playing small ball. I started out with a pledge: Every day, I would set a timer for 15 minutes and I would write as many personal postcards to as many members of our donor base as I could. I learned I could knock out about seven in 15 minutes, once I got the rhythm down.
After I got through all of those postcards, I turned my attention to a prospect list that I’d been putting off. Everyday I’d see how many fresh invitations to connect over Skype I send. (I was living in England, and most of my donor base was North American.)
But really, a brief email that directly asked for a short conversation was all I needed. People who I never thought would respond did, and soon appointments were booking up. It wasn’t long before we were bringing in new donations again.
These were small moves, but they paid off over time. The key difference is that each handwritten postcard or personal email was a thin, vertical slice of value I could produce every day.
Making the unlikely, but gratifying, switch to a career in tech
Several years ago, I made a shift out of non-profit work and transitioned to my day job in tech. When I made that move, I’d never heard of an emerging field called Product Management. But as I grew in several roles at a couple of companies, I realized that product work was where I wanted to focus my energy in the coming years — here was a discipline that I wanted to master.
Why Product? Well, product management is about uniting technology, design, and business around a common empathy for people’s needs. In my work as a product manager, my number one goal is to deliver the most value to our customers in the most efficient way.
This means that we must ruthlessly protect our customers from ourselves — from our grand ideas, visions, and project plans. We have to simplify our work so that (when we’re doing it right), we’re delivering small, perhaps imperfect pieces of a product that is genuinely making their lives and work better.
The term we use for this in the tech industry is ‘vertical slicing.’ A vertical slice is a proof-of-concept that, from top to bottom, is complete enough that we can hand it over to a customer and see their eyes light up just little bit. Then we go back and do it again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.
Approaching work this way when I was in nonprofit — and now in tech — has made all the difference, and it’s absolutely why I love what I do.