How to Build Your Own Curriculum at Work

Featuring Clinton Chan (Product Manager @ Sonder)

Though working at earlier stage companies often comes with diverse tasks, fast-paced work and a lot of responsibility at a junior level, a common drawback of working for a startup/scaleup is the lack of formalised & structured learning compared to joining a mature tech company.

So how do you ensure that you both have a high rate of learning, and are learning the right things?

The answer: building your own learning plan and curriculum.

Whether you’re at a tiny startup or global tech company, intentionality in selecting, engaging in, and measuring your learning is super valuable in ensuring you’re building the right skills for the career path you wish to carve out.

That’s why I spoke to Clint from Sonder about his 3-step framework to building his own learning curriculum as a product manager:

”Last year (whilst studying) I started a full-time role as a product manager at a startup in Australia (Sonder)— it’s a new-age role in a barebones industry, so expecting there to be L&D is just naive.

Fortunately, with a lot of help, I’ve been able to put together a curriculum for both this role and life in general. Here are the 3 key steps I’d recommend to help you assemble your own curriculum and continue a life of learning:

1. Figure Out What You Don’t Know 🤔

Not that I respect the guy, but ol’ Donald Rumsfeld is famous for talking about “known unknowns” (stuff you know you don’t know), and “unknown unknowns” (stuff you don’t know you don’t know).

When starting off trying to create a plan of learning it’s important to survey the field and keep a list of gaps in your knowledge, habits you should form, and challenges to take on.

So where to learn from?

  • Follow the Best: One of the easiest ways to start off is to learn from the best people, the masters. These can be your senior colleagues, your mentors, or people just a few years older than you in different companies but similar roles.

  • Seek the Watering Hole of Knowledge: Depending on your industry there’ll likely be a service, content library, or accreditation school that contains a wealth of information, find it, and create lessons of your own. This is great for technical learning.

  • Flock to Like-Minded People: Go to the meetups, after-work drinks, or heck start your own friend group by reaching out to people over LinkedIn and bringing them together. What’s more, as time passes, these people are likely to progress and they can continue to give you guidance on how to progress to as they stay a few steps ahead of you.

2. Put it Together 🧱

So now that you know some what you don’t know and where to learn it, document that list as a “curriculum” of sorts, whether it be Notion, GSlides (god I’m exciting), or even pen & paper.

A key consideration is to REALISTICALLY size each topic. Be conservative about how often you can commit to learning (weekly or monthly), how much time you have, and then break your topic down into different sub-topics.

For myself, I usually do core learning across two 3 hour blocks each week (6 hours in total), so I’ll set myself a learning sub-topic that I can absorb in 4 hours as I’ll often need more time to process the knowledge too.

Here’s an example of an economics curriculum I put together to boost my commercial acumen, as part of an overall goal to learn the first year topics in an MBA within 12 months.

The steps?

  • Put together a list of the first-year subjects from Stanford and HBS MBA curriculums.

  • Take a subject like “Fundamental Economics” and break it down into sub-topics.

  • Take a quick squiz of how much each sub-topic contains, time-estimate it, and then roughly divided the topics until each sub-topic is one week’s worth of learning.

  • Choose a regular timeframe to learn: Wednesday and Sunday afternoons, and make sure that each week, you commit to the sub-topic allocated.

  • After breaking each subject down and measuring how long it takes, you have a 12 month curriculum (if all the content broken into weeks was more than 12 months, you can continue it into the next year).

This takes time by the way; it’s not something you can always do in a weekend. I took about 1.5 months to build this one!

3. Check Yo Self 👩‍🏫

The last part is important but quite hard to do. It’s to test that you have learnt what you set out to learn.

If you’re learning to apply something at work this isn’t too hard; you can ask a more senior team member to test your understand of a topic, by setting you a small task and asking you to walk through your thinking.

Otherwise, it’s a good idea to take a certification if there is one, give yourself a “task” from an online course, or to ask somebody who is knowledgable in that field to give you a test (this can be a task they do commonly at work).

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