Working in digital

Do you remember when people first started talking about this new kind of industry you could get into: ‘New Media’, ‘Digital’, ‘Web Design’?

I do!

For me it was the tail end of the last millennium, I had graduated from studying Biological Sciences at University and had just finished my National Service in Finland.

Whilst half-heartedly applying for Graduate Scheme jobs and failing, I was also playing at home with a laptop that my dad kindly gave to me (I had little spending money at that time). I setup my first Dialup account with an ISP, and was soon having fun using Yahoo messenger and learning the rudiments of HTML.

It soon became clear to me that there were actual opportunities out there to make a living from this thing called Web Design and New Media. Therefore I took out a loan and completed a 3 month full time course that taught me everything I needed to know about the World Wide Web, Internet, HTML, Javascript, Dreamweaver, Flash, Databases, Animation, and e-commerce. I worked SO HARD, harder than I had done at University (okay maybe not the final year). I loved this whole thing – I was using my creative side which I had sort of forgotten about since A Level days, and also my logical side – I’d always had trouble deciding at school which camp I should be in and I never did, I just did both.

Shortly after that, I landed my first job. Success! I had escaped the careers of yesterday, the boring world of conferences, meeting rooms, spreadsheets, business, suits, consultants.

Except it never quite turned out to be that simple utopia.

My first Web Developer role started with me sitting in a tiny office in Soho, as a new recruit, sat at a computer with my back to everyone in the office, including the boss. I did not have much to do for a few days, and I went for lunch by myself. You could say it was unnerving. After that I realised that you just had to learn as you go, act like you had years of experience, and make mistakes and fix ’em quick.

The next role was better for awhile, I joined a friend who had been on the same training course. Unfortunately the business ran out of contracts, and soon I was out. But I met some great people there, and one of them taught me that I had to be meticulous with my HTML layouts (get your calculator out!). That carried through all the way to today, in terms of precision.

So this carried on for a number of years, I did a mix of Frontend Development, interaction design, animation, Backend Development, content design, accessibility, usability, UX. My main value was probably down to a mix of a good design eye and Frontend technical skills and passion for Web Design. I enjoyed the technical and creative challenge of every project – the way I approached my work was largely down to me, as long as I delivered on time.

I also enjoyed working in these agencies for the people side – smart people, we’d have fun conversations, socialise, and generally did interesting work (because it was coding and design). I had many great mentors, who all taught me something unique that would make me more well-rounded as a Web professional.

What I didn’t enjoy was the expectations around work life balance, the lack of good design of how the companies operated. The traditional pitfalls of bad management were also very present in these agencies. Most jobs were in agencies that were still owned by traditional businesses. The digital team would always be moaning about how the rest of the business (or the client) just didn’t “get it”.

Even if your agency was very design or web technology driven, the chances are that there was no well designed operational model or well organised ways of working. I actually ended up staying a number of years in one place, owned by a large media organisation, mainly because the work hours were totally reasonable for someone with a young family. I worked really fast during the day, but I left the work at the office.

Sales pipelines were frequently a problem, and for smaller agencies we never charged enough for the work, and the scope frequently got out of hand because the understanding was that this work could be done by anyone’s nephew on a computer at home.

The Web was the future: everyone wanted it but nobody wanted to pay for it.

Me

So eventually, despite having many exciting projects to work on for clients, the mother organisation sent in the consultants and the whole business direction changed. I had been working now for a number of years in a hybrid role – what you might call a UX Developer. I did the wireframes, interaction design, and assembled the frontend on our projects. Somehow at the time this role was hard to explain to new teams and employers! Soon I found myself being pigeon-holed into a pure developer role, and they were talking about making me a full-on Javascript monkey!

I got an opportunity to take a new full time UX role, so I took it (working with my old boss). I entered a shiny new world, really creative, big teams pitching and working on project strategy, creative, branding. It was very exciting!

The problem was, nobody understood what UX was. Not our agency, not any of the clients. I can’t say I had enough experience either to fully understand it. People understood parts of it, but overall, nobody wanted to spend budget on research. Nope, just interview some stakeholders, make a sitemap, pump out some wireframes, then watch as it goes away into design and engineering and then the content arrives…

Or they wanted you to ‘sprinkle some UX pixie dust’ on whatever they had, without understanding why they had what they had. It was flattering that people think you can do that, but for me, not being a hot shot visual designer, what I was interested in doing was solving problems (for humans). So I did what I could, tried to learn more about things I didn’t know about (like Branding and Style Guides), and tried to make the best of it!

So what’s my point, where is this rant going?

I think I’m at a point where I’m trying to take stock of where I am, and how I got here. In terms of UX, I am having some reservations about being a UX person that doesn’t code. I miss actually making the products and the unique position I found myself in. I care about accessibility and about making usable products. I love HTML, CSS and Interaction Design. I miss being able to iterate on the product as I go when new information or content comes to light (it always does, folks).

I have to be honest – sometimes UX feels about as exciting as being an accountant. Also incredibly stressful because there’s this mix of confusing expectations on what you actually do, and can do on your own.

On the other hand, I don’t miss being the developer who is stuck with trying to make the best out of a poor business goal, misunderstood user needs, badly scoped work. I’m slightly afraid of stepping into companies that think unless you’re a React fanboy, then HTML+CSS isn’t that valuable. And don’t mention the new frameworks and workflows and build tools…

The industry is at an interesting point. It’s growing up. We went through a phase of just building crazy stuff, then we got real about accessibility and usability. Then some of us forgot about that again. UX has become this huge thing, which most lay people do not understand. It’s a hard sell to a lot of folks. Developers have more powerful tooling than ever, but at a cost.

Many agencies could still do with taking better care of their employees. Most could take the time to redesign how they work. Many have to think about how their workforce is getting older. What do you offer senior people with more experience and families? What’s the plan for avoiding burnout and keeping your best people around to be happy and productive?

I’m still excited about the industry. It was never perfect, and it has good experiences and less agreeable ones. I’m fortunate – I managed to luck into a career that was new, full of possibilities and with few barriers to entry. I do like coding, but really love design and solving problems. I think the challenge now is thinking about how I can do good work for the next 20 years.

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