Jack of all trades

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Front-end developers, Back-end engineers, Native developers, User experience designers, visual designers, Business analysts, Project managers… Technical project managers, Marketing analysts, SEO experts, QA testers, test engineers, Editorial, Account managers, legal… and it just keeps growing. While the numbers of people it takes to deliver high-quality interactive services continues to expand, can anyone still say they can do it all?

The chosen one…?

“Jack of all trades, master of none”. It’s a fair sentiment with undeniable wisdom. For it goes without saying that butter can only be spread so far, and the fields that form our digital landscapes of expertise, spread out into unseen future horizons…. or something like that.

I remember when the Designer role was split into visual and UX at the BBC. It must’ve been somewhere around 2004-5. At the time I thought it was a ridiculous idea, because visual designers aren’t “designing” if they’re not solving problems – How little I knew back then, and how very much those two roles have evolved, expanded and blossomed – free to pursue pure specialisation.

Of course back when I got started we had “Webmasters”. The disheveled looking “techno-Columbos”, who could solve any office problem, from installing printer ribbons to setting up sql databases, and of course, designing and coding the web site.

One role to solve them all… and in the darkness, bind the business. Bound of course, in ignorance, held hostage to the unknown dark magic that only the “Techie bloke” (sic) could understand. Dark times. But while the many disciplinary splits since then, suggest a more democratic digital family of siblings, the reality isn’t quite as egalitarian as one might expect, and from office to office the power struggle ranges from comical to unbearable. Queue the fight music from West-side Story.

So here’s the point – The digital world is full of people who lack respect for other people’s disciplines! There I said it!

Player Haters

So often people believe they could do the other guy’s job if they wanted to (or had the time), and while in many cases that may be true, we must remember that they’re NOT, and they haven’t taken that time to specialise.

“Real knowledge is knowing the extent of one’s ignorance”

Starting with Developers; as the first-born big brother of it all, it was always easy for developers to presume supreme knowledge. The dark side variants will scoff at proposals and designs for their lack of technical understanding and assumptions of feasibility. Laughing like the human hating robots from the Mash get Smash advert. “StUpId HuMAnzz!”

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Estimations and solutions are drawn forth like a genie from a lamp with much rubbing of the chin. Everything is difficult or impossible… at least till the next day when they’ve had time to scour Stack Overflow.

The light sided coding Jedi’s are a much more positive bunch; singing about what they discovered the night before, offering alternative technical solutions and fixing bugs while you’re describing them. Their key word is “sharing”. Their ultimate response: “You can can also do…”.

Designers have their dark sides too… turned angry by the lack of respect for their art and complexity of their craft, our sensitive human-facing creatives can, if pushed, go down the dark path of turning up their noses at the un-receptive philistines who lock themselves in their mum’s loft, hiding from direct sunlight.

It pains me to say it, but in one particularly dysfunctional digital family I was at, a designer, upon being warned of technical issues of a design decision, was heard saying “Well that’s how I’ve designed it… now f#@k off and implement it!”. Yes, that REALLY happened.

Of course the real designers have found peace in the universe through their curiosity and meditation. Though born from different origins they make the effort to explore the intricacies of their digital canvas… often falling all the way into full front-end development as they strive to uncover artistic possibilities. They will not be the ones painting watercolor on glass.

Here’s a question; why do we need “Technical” Project Managers if everyone’s sharing their knowledge and collaborating positively? In its purest form, a good PM can deliver anything from the pyramids to organising a heart transplant – providing the team members are sizing and describing generously.

Working in the digital industry, it’s important to form a phalanx system of expertise, knowing enough about the discipline to the left and right of you to cover their back and block the gaps. So long as the archer doesn’t get cocky waving a broadsword around killing everyone in his team. As Confucius says, “Real knowledge is knowing the extent of one’s ignorance”.

Pet hates: Things we mustn’t say

Speaking as someone who’s worked across the digital range, from heading up development teams to product owner/management roles and even creative director, I am today acutely sensitive to the faux pas’ of the digital trade. Specialising in UX today, I’m often asked about wireframing and prototyping tools like Axure; I have very real concerns with heavily invested methodologies that leave visual designers with a colouring in exercise. I’m also concerned about measuring the usability of a wireframe (an ‘emotional blank’), that has no visual tone of voice or accent. There is a risk that people aren’t respecting the potency of visual prompting and colour psychology.

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They may not say it often (enough) but many developers I’ve met along the way have an issue with the term “Creatives” referring to everyone but the devs. We are all of course creative in our industry, and I’ve been lucky enough to have some of the most amazingly creative developers working for me in my time. Also leaving them outside of usability conversations is just rude. Everyone in the room is a user, and the folk who can make the lights come on at the front end often keep a bag o’ tricks in their back pockets.

In twenty years of working in interactive services, the singular most common request is from the project manager asking to be kept in the loop. Designers and Developers are making a whip for their own back if they think they’re scoring points by slipping in favours for stakeholders and management. People in a team need to stay acutely aware of their own agendas – even subconscious ones. We all have opinions and preferences that may pull us off course. When these distractions are contrary to the agreed direction it’s often easy to perceive the PM as the nay-saying parent, but this is massively presumptive (that you have ALL the information) and disrespectful to the PM and stakeholders (whose pocket you’re picking).

Salespeople have to sell. The good ones REALLY have to sell. But what are they selling? I once had a water-cooler moment with a new salesman to the team who, although admitting to his lack of digital understanding was confident that he could sell anything… Well. I had to point out that by the time people/clients came to us, they already knew they wanted a website or a mobile app; At that point they were buying expertise. Faking expertise in digital is a very dangerous gamble which at it’s best will make you look like an idiot and at it’s worst will see your company in court. The biggest complaint for sales is the over-promise. Selling projects in on the cheap to win a good client is certainly a strategy (in moderation) providing that the discount is an informed and measured one, but the dates of delivery must come from people in the know. The ones who’ll have to work their weekends when it’s done blindly.

It’s all about the team

Projects have expanded and demands have become more discerning. Alongside online payment mechanisms, booking systems and external API’s, projects have also become more integrated. Then we have security issues and the legal understandings of rights and privacy. While there are many out there who call themselves (as I once did) “Designer/Developers” (like Actress/Models), one thing is for certain, no one person could single-handedly deliver the projects that many of us work on today (to a competitive level). Nor could they command the budgets that the industry now wields.

We must all remember not to measure other people’s disciplines from the surface. Even if we once did the job ourselves, methodologies change as too does the definitions of responsibilities from workplace to workplace. Specialisation evolves and it polarises detail and nuances that historically went unconsidered. We are, all of us, chasing moving targets whilst performing our day to day jobs and we will get the support and respect we need, so long as we firmly accept that we are not alone in our challenges, and offer out the same courtesies we expect to receive.

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