When I started my first full-time web design job a decade ago I had high hopes, but I didn't know what to expect. The one thing I had a hard time learning was deciding when to:
- Follow directions and do exactly as I'm told
- Take a risk and do something different without being asked to
Why is figuring this out important? When a client comes to you and asks you to do something, they don't want what they can already imagine. But they'll tell you that's what they want. It's up to you to say “What do they really want?”, “What do we want out of this?”, “What is our problem?”.
A book can't teach you that. That's the sort of thing you can only learn with experience. Although there are a few points of wisdom I wish I knew back then. They would've made the trek through my career easier. In this article, I'm going to run through these nuggets of knowledge. I think they help answer when to follow directions and when to try something different.
1. Don't be afraid to learn on the job
The “comfortable demon” stands behind every web professional. It's always trying to take hold to make people get comfortable with their current level of skill. But to be successful in web, one must always be learning and keep up-to-date with the latest technology and trends. Don't let the comfortable demon take hold of you!
As long as it doesn't take an unreasonable amount of time, it's okay to learn on the job. It's better to do your job right than to struggle with less than adequate knowledge. Don't let yourself get stuck in a routine. Be bold and always question everything you know. You never know if a particular code or process you've always used may not be the best way to do something, or maybe it used to be the best way to do something.
2. Take responsibility for your own education and progress
Branching from the first suggestion, it's equally important to be aggressive and take the initiative to learn on your own. One out of ten people (if that) finds a mentor who will clear paths and pull strings and make sure they come out on top for promotions and plum projects. If you're in that other nine, and you will be most of the time, no one's looking out for you. So look out for yourself.
As an in-house web designer, most of the work I've done in my full-time jobs did little to advance my career. What advanced my career were the skills I learned on the side. Experience taught me the importance of being aggressive at learning new things on the side.
A decade ago I had trouble learning CSS (lack of motivation really) because my full-time job didn't require me to know it. Eventually, I picked up a book and learned CSS. However, I wish I had more initiative to learn CSS sooner since it quickly became an essential asset toward designing websites. If something is becoming a standard you should make an effort to learn it. For example, mobile is all the rage in 2015. iOS and Android development continue to rise in demand. iOS and Android development is also something designers and developers hesitate to learn. They feel that it's so drastically different than building websites. So that means if you take the time to learn it now then that puts you ahead of the game and you'll be making the big bucks!
3. Recognize under-performance and over-performance and avoid them
This is a tricky subject that has a different answer depending on the circumstances and nature of your job. The argument of under-performance vs over-performance is a matter of getting noticed.
- Under-performance: If you regularly under-perform then you don't get noticed. Under-performers have a hard time getting a promotion or finding better jobs. As a bonus, under-performers don't attract enemies.
- Over-performance: Over-performers often generate extra work for their superiors and colleagues and draw unwanted attention. They are more likely to be culled for "performance." As a result, over-performers tend to attract enemies.
The key is to find the happy medium between under-performance and over-performance. But first, you must take a step back and make an effort to recognize if your performance falls under or over.
Here's an example: let's say you're starting a new job and you're tasked to finish a project in two weeks. You know the project will take you no less than 2-3 days to finish. If you were to start completing that work in just a few days, you would start making enemies from making other people look bad. On top of that, you would be setting a new standard for yourself and others. If there was a project that did actually take two weeks, you would look bad for not completing it more quickly.
4. Never ask for permission unless it would be reckless not to
I'm sure you've heard the saying “It's better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission.” Everyone perceives the world differently. Bosses, in particular, have their own vision as to what it takes to be successful. You shouldn't rely on your boss to inspire you. If there's a technology, process, or tool that you think is better, then use it without asking your boss first.
Of course, if you're going to do something that presents a real risk to the business or where your boss's permission would be reasonably expected, then go ahead and ask for permission. If the loss is small and the risk is appropriate to your level in the company then don't ask for permission.
Trying out new things (without permission) can be exciting! It throws variety into your everyday routine. Bosses usually don't care how you do something as long as it gets done. As web designers/developers, we usually have the liberty to create a website however we want since the final product is the same website. Like CSS, for example, maybe you'd want to try LESS or SASS? Your boss probably won't care.
5. Never apologize for being autonomous or using your own time
My auntie drilled this one into me: you should never apologize on the job. Ever. Entertaining the fault isn't constructive. Apologizing sets a precedent of you as a subordinate who needs more supervision. After describing something you did on your own initiative, don't say to your boss “Don't worry, I did it strictly as a weekend project.” If your company won't let you work on something during normal work hours, then don't do it on their behalf for any reason. Respect your time. Or no one else will.
I have a story pertaining to this. I love jQuery! Most front-end designers do. When jQuery Mobile was released in 2010 I was stoked and so eager to try it out. I used it on the next mobile project at work. jQuery Mobile was awesome at first, but after testing and actual use of the mobile site, jQuery Mobile turned out to be a poor framework. I wouldn't say the project was a failure, but the final result of it was less than desired due to using jQuery Mobile. I learned an important lesson that I should try out a framework on my own time. Or try it on smaller projects before deciding to use it with an important project at work. I certainly didn't apologize for this mishap. Rather, the answer I gave my boss about this was: “It turned out that jQuery Mobile did not meet all the requirements of this project. Next time I will use a solution that does.” (and that winning solution turned out to be Bootstrap).
6. Don't be quixotic and try to prove your bosses wrong
When bosses are "shown up" by people they doubted, they don't give that person an automatic promotion or raise. They find a way to confirm their negative impression and, even if you succeed, you fail.
This logic also applies to conversation & planning about projects. It doesn't help to disagree with your boss. There are constructive ways to approach your boss with an opposing perspective or new idea. Check out these articles: how to sell an idea to your boss.
7. Learn, learn, and learn some more
I can't stress enough how important it is to be persistent with learning new skills. As well as keeping up-to-date with the latest technologies and trends. Setting up a PLN helps a great deal with that. Follow the blogs of leaders in web (with Feedly). Here's a good list of recommended design & development blogs: 14 Web Design Blogs You Can't Miss in 2014. Get inspired and learn what makes the web exciting for web professionals in the present day. I have tips to help you learn new technology.
I've met too many web designers who aren't very interested in learning new things. Please don't become one of them. In this field, those who are successful are hungry for knowledge and new challenges.
In this article, I reviewed seven nuggets of knowledge I wish I was told when I first started my career in web design. Knowing these points would've made things easier in my early days.
In the introduction I stated that these points influence the everyday dilemma of deciding when to follow directions and when to try something different. My points of wisdom suggest that the first step to success is self-learning. With background knowledge and a good grasp on the etiquette of the office, one can decide when it's appropriate to follow directions or take a risk for a different path. If you want to be successful then it is essential that you master this ability.
P.S. And don't forget to beware the clutches of the Comfortable Demon!