7 Habits of a Highly Successful In-house Web Designer
Andy Budd wrote an article a while back on the 7 Habits of a Highly Successful Freelance Web Designer that was an great read, but it also got me thinking. I think most of us want to be freelance web designers or will be at some stage of our lives, but what about those of us that currently work in-house? Small funky agencies, stuffy corporate financial development teams or even large media corporations that can be a bit conservative at times but house a seriously kick-ass in-house media team?
I’ve worked for a few of these and for the fun of it I am going to keep the original 7 Habits intact that Andy Budd wrote of in his original post. I really think the gap between freelance and in-house is fairly subtle, and the type of developer you are will come out in either environment.
Here are a few of my thoughts on how to stay sane whilst working for the man.
Love what you do
In-house politics, schmoozing senior management, uninspired co-workers and ranting lunatics are some of the things you have to deal with everyday in your workplace. Work is one of those rare places where you have to get on with people who either don’t interest you or don’t have the same interests as you do.
Hopefully when you are done dealing with them and doing what you have to do with the day, you might have some interesting work to dig into that can keep you inspired and motivated for the rest of the day. If you are one of the lucky ones this will be your entire day, but similar to freelancing there are many small or unavoidable daily chores you must get through before you get to the fun stuff.
These fun bits should drive you to get out of bed in the morning and make your day worthwhile. If those fun bits start to disappear and all of your days become just one big chore, then it’s time for a change. It’s time to move on and start doing something else. Does this mean freelancing or moving companies? Or possibly your company is large enough that you can change roles and still find challenges within your existing company.
Whatever the options, don’t ever be one of those people that clock in at 9 and leave at 5 with nothing positive to say about your day. You should still enjoy what you do whether you work for yourself or somebody else.
Never stop learning
RSS feeds, textbooks and blogs should be a major resource for the in-house web developer to keep your skills fine-tuned and relevant. There would be no chance I could keep up with some of the in-house development emails and discussions if I didn’t keep up with my reading. This industry is too fast paced and buggy for that, and it’s good to discuss these topics daily with a group that can test your perspectives on topics from development to usability.
Gone are the days of the uber-multitasking developer/designers (or at least applying for these jobs with any serious expectations that the employer would think you do have these skillsets). Nowadays it is best for you to have a solid grounding in a couple of areas of expertise. In a large company, this usually means sticking to web design and understanding the process as a whole, but the IA and backend coding responsibilities will not remain in your court.
Within the CSS realm alone there are many skills that are necessary to produce a professional, quality website. Browser bugs and compatibilities, knowledge of semantic markup, accessibility, search engine optimisation and basic architecture on large projects. It is always good to absorb all of the expertise of those around you, but you can never be an absolute expert at them all.
Get a killer portfolio
It’s a bit difficult to develop a product for an in-house team and then put it on your resume and expect it to remain as pure and intact as it once was when you launched it over a year ago. Who knows who has had access to the site through a CMS? Do these people even know what web standards are and are they restricted to what they put into your website at all?
Unfortunately this is the downside of working on projects for larger companies, a site will only be resume worthy for a limited time, depending on the size of the site and how many people have access to it.
Use this high turnover as an advantage. You can keep building new websites and new features within existing ones (ajax apps anyone?) and really plug this when applying for new employment and listing your ‘featured work’ on your resume. Nobody actually looks at anyones list of websites and picks them apart tag by tag. If you have a large amount of fairly well designed sites and then really communicate the changes you made within the company to prospective employers, you will come off looking good.
Blue chip clients and 800 page websites are something that many freelancers don’t have in their portfolio.
If you are worried about someone combing through your resume with the fine tooth validator, then start your own site that you have complete control over. Start a blog, make sure it validates and point out that it is perfectly accessible and is in fact delivered as “application/xhtml+XML” mime type. This will prove you know your stuff and balance out your other large-scale not so perfect work.
Network like crazy
Sometimes in a large company it’s easy to forget that there are other departments around and to stay secluded in your IT comfort zone. This is only natural in some large companies and for some it’s quite hard to confront the loud marketing guys on the other end of the floor.
These different departments are new chances to network and understand more about your company and your industry in general. It can be easy to see only the immediate problems in front of you when you are a web designer, but I find it’s good to step back from that and understand the bigger pictures of the industry. Why is it marketing don’t care about web standards? Is there a valid reason or do they just not understand it because nobody has bothered to explain why it benefits them? Get to know all of these people and their concerns (which are just as valid as all of your daily gripes) and every ones days could move a bit smoother.
Someday these people will also leave your company and work somewhere else. Whether you finally want to go freelance or just want to move to the new best thing, then it’s always great to know people who know how to put the word out that you are looking for employment.
Manage your time
It’s extremely easy to get distracted at work and not be as efficient as you want to be. Reading emails, attending unnecessary meetings, coffee breaks, phone calls and open plan offices gone wrong and you may find your day is over without accomplishing any of your goals for the day.
It’s important to be able to sit at your desk and actually get some work out once and a while, especially if you are a resource and have deliverables. Forget checking your email every two minutes and just block out some time in the Outlook calendar for yourself so nobody can steal your time with yet another meeting request. Put on your large “I am not at my desk” headphones to make up for the lack of walls in the office and get into your groove.
One important freedom of working for a company is that you shouldn’t have to work insane hours into the night. This should be your time and side projects should be the only thing you are working on in the wee hours of the night. In-house means leaving work when everyone else does… you probably do have a boss so you have to work during the day, unlike our freelance friends. Holidays and evenings, enjoy them.
Build your reputation
One way to enjoy the day at work a whole lot more is to build your reputation and become someone that people want to work with.
This means that each day will present new challenges and provide you with avenues to learn new things about the industry and perfect those specialist skills mentioned beforehand. Everyone that leaves your workplace will have an opinion about you in some degree. This may vary from, “I hardly knew him” to “He was a bit hard to work with”. All of these people will cross paths with you again someday, in a company or while you are looking for work as a freelancer, and it’s always best if you meet them again on good terms.
I definitely believe in a certain level of professional karma, you never know when someone will be in a position to help you out.