Last night I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak at the Atlanta Web Design Group’s panel on “How to Make it as a Web Professional“.
I was joined on the panel by five other Atlanta based web professionals and we fielded questions from the audience that covered a wide variety of topics.
Everything from how to get started, how we handle failure, how to structure contracts, etc. All in all it was a great experience for me, but as I sit back and think about the people in the crowd, I can’t help but feel like they didn’t get what they wanted.
Not that there wasn’t a ton of great information being shared with them, but for a lot of people just starting out in this field, I think people are looking for a step by step guide on how to “make it”. And unfortunately, despite our desire to help people by sharing our experiences, there is no set path to achieving success that is easy to distill down into simple to follow instructions.
There is no set path to achieving success that is easy to distill down into simple to follow instructions.
Often during the talk I heard myself and my panel-mates giving life advice more so than anything that pertained to working on the web. Things like, “Do what you love”, “Fail fast and often” or even, “Know what you’re worth”. And while all those things are true, I can imagine someone in the audience thinking, “Well that’s great, but I need to know HOW to do those things.”
The problem is our field is so broad that it’s impossible for us to tell you which path is right for you. Every site or application that you see is crafted by so many varying disciplines, each with it’s own complexities that are all so dependent on each other, it’s hard to even know where to start.
For example, someone asked last night, “What do I need to know when coming up with a new design?”. My head almost exploded. The question was fine, the answer was just so complex that we all stumbled to find the words.
First, before you get a job…
When I started on the web there were a lot of great books and blogs providing information on every aspect of the web. Since then, the number of resources and tools has increased exponentially.
It can be quite overwhelming, but for me, I use Twitter as a starting point. J pointed out that the Atlanta Web Design Group has a Twitter list of respected industry leaders. Following these people is a great place to start. Read their posts and books until you come across something that resonates with you.
2. Pick a direction
I said this multiple times last night; where you end up won’t be the same place you started from, so choose a path and start walking down it. Not doing so is the same as standing in place, accomplishing nothing.
Once you pick an area that interests you, focus on that area for a while. Trying to focus on multiple areas at once will be too difficult initially and you need to build a base perspective to help you evaluate future career paths.
3. Set a deadline
Nothing generates more progress than a deadline. I remember in the early days, I really needed to learn to code to take some of the pressure off of Matt. I told him I could be pretty solid in a year. He laughed. And as well he should have. I didn’t have enough experience at the time to make such a bold claim. However, by declaring one year as my deadline, it made me work harder to prove myself right. I was ultimately wrong, but pushing hard to meet the deadline enabled me to get better faster.
There are so many tutorials and courses available that you should easily be able to find things to work on. Start small and learn the basics.
I also recommend not using tools that automate things for you. Learn how to hand code (that goes for both designers and developers). Once you understand the constructs well enough, automating things for speed is OK—but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you automate before truly understanding what’s happening.
Regardless of your chosen area, make a list of requirements on a sheet of paper. The purpose of this site is X and needs to do Y, and Z. Then take those problems and try to solve them with your design and build.
5. Track your time
There is a lot of talk lately about killing the billable hour. Whether that will happen still remains to be seen. However, there will always be a need to estimate the amount of time something will take you. You can arbitrarily pick a timeframe out of thin air, or you can have some data to back you up.
You still may ultimately be wrong about your estimate, but having some real-world knowledge of how fast you can produce something will help you give your employer or client an idea of what to expect.
6. Get feedback
I can’t highlight the importance of this step enough. Find someone or a community with experience to give you feedback on your work. As someone on the panel mentioned, having a mentor can be hugely beneficial at ANY stage of your career.
Being open to criticism will help you develop a thicker skin and teach you how to respond to and address problems. Revisions and refinement are essential to every career on the web, so get comfortable with them as early as you can.
Also, if you’re a designer, find a buddy or a partner that can code. If you’re a developer, find a designer who can deliver design.
Also, if you’re a designer, find a buddy or a partner that can code. If you’re a developer, find a designer who can deliver design. Maybe that person is just learning and needs to practice as well. There will be a built in feedback loop to that relationship that will help train you for the real world.
Then, once you have a job…
1. Be professional
The moment you start getting paid for the work you do, it is no longer a hobby. It’s a job—so you better start treating it like real business. It can still be fun, challenging, and rewarding but make no mistake, it’s work.
Make sure they describe what you are to deliver, when you’re supposed to deliver it, and when you’ll get paid.
As such, you need to carry yourself as a professional. Pay attention to contract terms. Make sure they describe what you are to deliver, when you’re supposed to deliver it, and when you’ll get paid. You should also hold the people that you work for to the same high standards. Anybody that isn’t willing to sign a contract or share some of the risk, is not someone you want to work for.
2. Get in over your head
A few of the panel members said they lied to get their first job, saying they had skills that they knew they didn’t have. While I won’t condone lying per se, I would highly recommend getting in over your head.
It could be taking on something that you haven’t done before or taking on a project with an aggressive deadline. It will be painful, but the lessons you learn will stick with you in ways that having things go smoothly just can’t compare to.
3. Communicate well
Despite all the technology we have at our fingertips these days, there are real humans involved every step of the way. It’s important to know how to communicate with those people effectively if you want to be successful. That goes for interacting with your client or employer, or interacting with other designers and developers.
If you’re writing an email, make sure you use proper punctuation and capitalization. Nothing is more disrespectful than treating an email or post like a text message.
If you’re writing an email, make sure you use proper punctuation and capitalization. Nothing is more disrespectful than treating an email or post like a text message. Know going in that is very hard for even professional writers to convey tone properly, so try to stick to the point and not try to be funny or sarcastic.
Also, there is this cool thing called a phone. If you’re worried about the tone being received improperly or an issue is too complex for email, pick up the phone and talk to that person. You’d be amazed at how much time it can save.
4. Set and manage expectations
A lot of problems on a project can be traced back to poorly set expectations. You set the expectation of delivery at two weeks, and then at the end of two weeks you tell the client you’re not finished. The client tells you that they’ll have content to you by the first, but the day before you find out it’s going to be another week. The first time expectations aren’t met on a project, the seeds of distrust are planted. Every time after that, that same distrust will grow like a weed until the relationship can be choked to death.
The first time expectations aren’t met on a project, the seeds of distrust are planted.
Stay out in front of that issue by setting expectations at the outset of project, and managing them along the way. Delays are inevitable, but be sure to communicate them to your client as soon as they become a concern.
If you promised something by Friday, don’t tell your client on Friday that you don’t have it. Tell them on Wednesday that it might be delayed and set a new expectation. They won’t like it, but it’s far less damaging to the relationship and the trust that you’re trying to build.
The web discipline you choose to focus on doesn’t matter. Regardless of which path you choose, putting this advice into practice will make you better. The better you are, the more valuable you are. The more valuable you are, the more you can charge and get the type of projects you want. So pick a direction, stay focused, and one day you’ll be able to look at yourself and confidently say, “I’m a web professional”.