Managing Your Career in the World of Web Development, Part 2

Photo Credit: Josh Westbrook

Last month I talked about how web development has become commoditzed and specialized to the point where large software shops are now as digital analogues to agricultural feedlots. Web shops are becoming vast cube farms of production where the quality of the work is sometimes secondary to the process in which it is produced. While this is less true in Canada than other countries, link make no mistake – this kind of thinking permeates today’s market where you are today.

This is a first.

In the world of cattle farming, neurologist or automotive manufacturing, healthful such a concept would long ago have been acknowledged, been dealt with and documentation consigned to the archives. Not so in web development. If you’re a web developer, or work in the world of the internet in any of its myriad incarnations, you inhabit a work environment that has no precedent. No legacy, or at least if there is one it is nascent and so by definition not significant.

And so it becomes necessary to learn how to make your way in a world where there is no previous generation to guide you. No manuals exist and no signposts grace your path. Let me offer up a few simple things to keep in mind.

It’s about your career

The first thing you have to realize is you have a career and sometimes it’s not your job. Hopefully more often than not it is, but what’s critical is that you see your career for the continuum that it is. It started when you got your first job and it ends whenever you decide, and every moment you spend on the continuum contributes to its direction and continuity. The direction of your career is yours to steer but do make an effort to have a direction in mind. It’s not necessary that your direction remain consistent (though of course there is nothing wrong if it does). What does matter is that you have one. As the aphorism goes, ‘when one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.’

Where to begin

Many people starting out today take the obvious routes and either go to an agency like Sapphire or SI Systems or go corporate–IBM, Accenture, Microsoft, Google. These large organizations all fulfill the same need for their employees–they provide clearly defined structures and processes combined with personnel to support whatever the rules and regulations are. It can be very comforting for some to know that all you have to worry about is being on time, dressing appropriately and writing code. If you buy into the cog-in-a-wheel mindset, you’re reasonbly good at your task and reasonably reliable at delivery, you can count on a reasonably successful tenure at one of these companies.

People looking for something more exciting go freelance. The pay is better (though it comes with some extra work) and you can get a broad exposure to different workplaces and work practices while building up a large stable of contacts.

The real prize in the digital world these days is landing a gig at a big digital agency–AKQA, Sapient, BBDO–these are world-wide organizations that combine (mostly) the cool of the creative world with the benefits of a large scale enterprise work force.

Whichever path you find yourself on remember the first rule–it’s about your career, not your job. In our next installment we’ll talk about how to avoid some common mistakes. We’ll also cover some techniques for keeping an eye on your career while the other is on your job.

Social Networking: Insurance For Your Career

Photo Credit: Jeff Turner

If you’re a software engineer, what is ed especially if you’re in Silicon Valley, you will no-doubt have been pinged several times by recruiters and former coworkers about exciting opportunities at their company. How should you respond? You might be really happy at your current company and not even be thinking about leaving. Being a technical recruiter in the valley, I hear this all the time. People love their jobs and aren’t interested in discussing opportunities.

My advice to you is, always take the time to listen to the opportunity even though you might not be interested–at the time–in taking it. Listening to opportunities is like taking out insurance. You might not need it, but it’s critical to have when you do.

Think of the reasons why you love your job:

“My boss is the greatest and I flourish under him or her.” Your boss can leave at the drop of a hat and their replacement can be worse.

The company atmosphere is great. Your company could be sold or go through lay-offs. Or after a certain amount of time the environment of your company could no longer fit your lifestyle.

When these things start happening, people start scrambling to try and remember that person who reached out to them. The person they never even responded to. It’s good to keep a list going of all the recruiters or coworkers that have reached out to you. Thus when you do find yourself on the market, you won’t be starting from scratch. You’ll have a clear path of leads to reach out to at your own pace when you are ready.

What if you don’t like the company a recruiter is working for? The Valley is all about relationships, and recruiters are known to go from agencies to big named companies to start ups and back to big named companies again.  (I should know. I’ve done all three in my career.) Recruiters keep lists of top candidates, another reason it’s good to connect with them. Because down the road, they might go to a company that you would be very excited to work for. Or they might know someone that can help you out.

It’s also good to remember that companies can change when considering opportunities. Nine years ago, a certain big-named Bay Area company’s stock was going at $22 per share. People thought they were done. The stock is now at $250 per share! When that company was recruiting they recruited their future vision. Now some of those people who took the leap are benefiting from it.

So how do you get your “social networking insurance” ready? You should keep your social profiles current, and not wait until you’re in need (just like insurance). This way it’s ready when you need it. Get LinkedIn recommendations during your tenure at your company and not when you are ready to leave. Also, take part in groups and other interests that encourage networking. People like to hire people they’ve known via blogs, meet-ups, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc… People (not just recruiters) will always reach out to their networks first. A lot of the time when a manager hires a referral, it isn’t someone’s aunt Margaret, or their neighbor, but someone they’ve connected with via social media. This can also come in handy when it’s your turn to hire people for yourself.

So remember it’s like insurance you might not need, but when you do, it is there for you!

Managing your career in the world of Web development

I used to be that guy, cheap once.

The one-man webmaster, find creator and designer and strategist and coder and sysadmin and dBA. Yes there really was a time when one person could do all that – and more. Do it for many websites. Some of you reading this were likely in grade school when this was so – the art and craft of mastering websites has evolved exponentially, to the point that even the simplest blog requires a minimum of 2 people – you and the person managing the hosting.

Back in the day it was easy to plan your career. Things fell into place easily and largely because you were one of a rare few that understood the arcana of http, ftp, gopher, IRC and you actually had a netsol ID number. (Mine is KS443 – for us old fogeys they kept some of the records alive for posterity even they don’t use them anymore ). You could command vast sums of money, work any hours you chose, get all the latest toys and have a total blast using view Source and Kai’s Power Tools. A great day in the office was downloading the newest version of Navigator.

Nowadays, not so much. In fact, it’s fair to say the current generation of web workers (web developer is too limiting a box) has become commoditized. Technical schools, arts colleges, even some Universities now have programs designed to compress 20 years of whirlwind innovation into 2 or 3 years of specialized training and spit out an unending stream of assembly line workers. We have hierarchies and R&R documents.  We have Architect, Front End, Back End, Middleware, User Experience, Strategy, Rich Media – all of whom are good at one thing and familiar with a couple more and fully expect to work in a team environment where artifacts of their labour get passed around like so many auto parts waiting for final assembly.

Sound familiar? I’m not surprised. It’s a case of the pendulum having swung to the other side and while I am sanguine to know it will cycle back to normalcy I am both impatient for that time and struggling with my own contributions to its kinetic energy. I am spending a lot of my time recently interviewing candidates for various positions within our company and I see daily evidence of what I speak. And I ask myself time and time again ‘how are these people ever going to get out of the assembly line?’.

In our next installment, and at the risk of sound patronizing, I am going to offer some tips on how to manage your career in the coming years. And in a third and final episode I will offer some tips on how to avoid the pitfalls of ambition in the world of Web development.