July 26th, 2020

2020 Mid-Year Review

It's probably safe to say that very few people could reflect on the first half of 2020 and say that everything went as planned. In the morning of December 27th last year, I was sipping my morning coffee in my favourite park. I had my laptop with me to write down some goals for the upcoming year. The big concern on everyone's minds at the time were the enormous bushfires ravaging Australia, and I doubt that many people knew what a coronavirus was.

My laptop on a picnic table in Clark Park, Lavender Bay

I try to do this goal-setting exercise every three months to align my priorities for the following 90 days. Here's a reflection on this year so far – what has gone well, what could have been better and what's next.

Looking Back

The global pandemic came in quite handy for me in some ways, especially in the areas of self-improvement and productivity. With months of being unable to venture far from home, I was able to explore new ideas, take online courses and spend time thinking about where my life is headed.

Online Presence

I've wanted to create a personal website since about mid-2019. I was mostly held back by wanting to code it myself from scratch but not having enough experience to feel comfortable doing it, especially the design and layout part.

At the beginning of this year, I committed to learning enough to be able to launch one, even if it doesn't look too good. I published an early (and ugly) version of it back in April and have recently done a complete re-design after taking a course on design fundamentals and learning to use Figma. Here's a tweet with before and after screenshots. I'm not entirely sure yet what the site will become in terms of content. My initial plan was to keep it purely technical with a focus on coding, but this type of content can get out of date pretty quickly. I'd also like to publish content that is still relevant and worth reading a few years from now.

Self-Improvement and Productivity

My main goal in this area was to create a note-taking and personal knowledge management system that I would be able to use effectively and efficiently. Apart from starting a journaling habit last year and having some Trello boards for task management, I had been terrible at writing down my ideas and useful information that I come across.

Back in April, after hearing about Tiago Forte's idea of a Second Brain, I decided it was time for a change. I spent many weeks experimenting with different solutions like NotionRoam Research and regular Markdown files. With new tools being created left right and centre, I felt a severe case of Shiny Object Syndrome. Finally, I realised that there is a big difference between evaluating productivity software and actually being productive, and decided to draw the line somewhere. I ended up using Notion, which has its drawbacks, but so far has done the job rather well.

Professional Development

I have been working hands-on with Microsoft Azure since 2017, so earlier in the year, I decided it was time to finally get officially certified. Ideally, I wanted to earn the Azure DevOps Engineer Expert certification before the end of the year. In June, I sat the AZ-103: Microsoft Azure Administrator exam, getting me to Associate level certification. This one was relatively easy for me as I do most of the skills measured are part of my day-to-day job. The next one (AZ-400) will definitely require some real studying.

I really wanted to level up in web development this year. In some ways I certainly have – I'm a lot better when it comes to CSS and JavaScript, especially React-based frameworks. I completed several online courses, but what's missing is a portfolio of completed projects that I could share on GitHub. I seem to be having trouble coming up with ideas on what to build.

A few months ago, I had an idea to code my own tool for tracking personal finances and investments. I got annoyed with doing it all on a Google sheet and started coding a full-stack web app using Next.js to replace it. The main reason was to have proper multi-currency support since most of the tools out there either don't have it or have a pretty clunky implementation. I got some core functionality working pretty quickly, but have struggled to find enough focused time to get it to the level where it's actually useful for me on a day-to-day basis.

Personal Finance

In the past couple of years, I've been focusing on cutting costs and investing as much as possible. This year, I decided to shift my attention to increasing and diversifying my income since there's only so much one can reduce their spending without becoming a tight-arse (I've certainly felt like one at times, and that needs to change 😃).

Some goals that I wrote down at the start of the year were:

  • Earn at least some side income as a freelancer.
  • Increase annual income by 20%.
  • Continue regular contributions to the investment portfolio.

In January, I started doing small jobs in the cloud consulting and engineering space on Fiverr to get my feet wet. It's not the greatest platform for this type of work, but it allowed me to help some folks (mostly developers) with small jobs that they lacked the skills for without a significant time commitment on my part. I also did a small consulting job for my friend's video production company. In total, I made about $1,000 (USD) on the side during the first half of 2020. It's nothing to write home about, but it certainly ticks the box.

In terms of overall income, I should be on track to hit the 20% increase compared to last year. Towards the end of 2019, I moved from being an individual contributor to a technical leadership role at my job. With that came a bump in pay, so that gave me a bit of a head start.

I've somewhat increased the regular contributions to my investment portfolio, although not significantly. I'm directing some of that extra cash to a "self-improvement and levelling up fund" that I can spend on upskilling. Ideally, that will amount to higher returns than financial assets in the form of increased income.

What's Next

I read an essay called Growth Without Goals by Patrick O'Shaughnessy recently, and I liked the idea of great achievements being by-products of consistent good habits. It's not to say that I won't be defining goals anymore, but I will certainly be focusing a lot on consistency and scheduling time in advance to work on specific areas of improvement. I complete a weekly review every Sunday, which is a great way to reflect on how the past week went and set the direction for the next one.

A medium to longer-term goal I have is to make most of my income as an independent consultant or freelancer. The first step in this journey will probably be leaving full-time employment and taking on some contract-based work. I'm keeping in touch with a few local IT recruiters and am ready to jump on a good opportunity if one comes up. Meanwhile, I want to keep expanding my Azure and especially AWS skillsets.

The second main area of focus is building up my personal brand and an online audience around it. I've started being more active on Twitter and engaging with interesting folks there. With my new note-taking system, I'm now capturing interesting ideas from articles, blog posts and books that I read. Based on those ideas, I want to create and publish more writing myself, too. I think one piece of content per month would be a reasonable initial goal until I get better at this stuff. The topics will probably be from the realm of habits, learning and productivity, mixed in with some technical posts.

Thirdly, I still want to keep on doing web development even if I don't have any great project ideas myself, so I have started looking for small businesses with subpar websites in my local area. I've just started working on a prototype site for a small gym just next door from our building. I haven't approached them about it yet, but the plan is to show a minimal version of a fast and modern site and offer to build it for them for a modest price. Their current one looks like it's from the early 2000s, so technically it should be an easy sell. But if that doesn't work out, I still get the experience of building something and can try my luck with the numerous other small businesses in the area.

I'm keen to see what else 2020 has in store for us, and whatever happens, I'm going to make the most of it. As I'm writing this, I'm sitting at my new home office (well, it's just a corner of the living area). We just spent the entire weekend moving house, and the new apartment has quite a spectacular view. Even if there is going to be a second wave of lockdowns in Sydney, I'm mentally prepared!

View from my desk in our new rental apartment

© Siim Männart 2020