Are You A Specialist or Jack Of All Trades?
With the economy so unstable and a personal down-shift in the number of good-paying projects, I have begun to search for a full-time job, or at least a part-time job to fill in the financial gaps. My preparations for this search has included some deep thinking about my skills, assets, and what it is I really offer a client and how different that is from working in a company. Based upon my discussions with contractors, recruiters, and line managers, I’m finding that the current needs of organizations differ enormously from the work I’ve done for the past twenty years as a freelancer. For me, the shift from “one-stop-shop” web designer and marketing writer to some sort of singular role on a team within an organization that creates web sites is a paradigm shift.
This article is part therapy and part research about what we offer to our clients as freelancers and how that translates back into corporate life.
What Is A Freelancer Anyway?
Almost twenty years ago I chose to set out on my own rather than hire a baby sitter for my new-born daughter. In leaving the corporate world where I had been a proposal manager for about ten years, I found myself with enormous amounts of freedom to choose what I wanted to do along with enormous amounts of worry about how to get the project to do that thing. Each person who makes the decision to strike out on their own has a different reason for doing so and a different personality and approach to achieving making a living through freelancing.
I became a freelancer because I’m a round peg in a world of square holes. My problem with corporate work has always been not being able to “mind my own business.” I have always wanted to help when I see a problem with a project, whether it means crossing lines of responsibility or my own authority. I always needed the big picture to function. I’m a natural born organizer. In fact, over the years I discovered that I was happiest in a collaborative small collegial environment and pretty unhappy and unsuccessful in a top-down larger setting where I was expected to do my job and only my job. I got bored quickly. I also had a tendency to feel an ownership or strong responsibility about the quality of the project, in my case, the proposal. Responding to government RFPs requires a highly structured process that relies on the various parts of the project, namely contracts, legal, technical, marketing, and production to each perform their jobs flawlessly on a tight schedule. It caused me great stress that, although I was called a proposal manager, I really was managing my section of writing and not the look, quality, or timeliness of the whole package. The realization that my personality was not a good fit for the work I was doing had reached a peak right at the time I had my first child and the company could not support part-time or telecommuting. I really appreciate my time in the corporate world for teaching me not only the skills of marketing and technical writing but also a lot about myself. Freelancing came naturally to me (although the business side still is not my strong suite).
So, to me, taking on an entire project; from purchasing a domain, serving as webmaster of a web host; designing, storyboarding, coding, illustrating, and marketing a site as well as researching and creating content was a natural and fun thing to do. I discovered through each project that I loved being a “jack of all trades.”
The definition of freelancing to me is the ability to create an entire product for a client, be it a website, marketing campaign, newsletter, blogging site, or web portal; from soup to nuts. Freelancing is forming a small business where I am the sole-proprietor. I define what I can do for a client, how to market my services, how to charge for those services, and how to find out and fulfill a client’s needs. For me, this means learning many skills and also discovering those parts of a project that I’m not good at and learning how to sub-contract specialists to perform a discrete task or provide a feature requested by the client. However, my “Managing Editor” approach to work may not be the case for others who take the freelance plunge. Which brings me to the other type of freelancer: the specialist.
Specializing As a Business Model
A lot of you are perhaps thinking, “Why are these articles always about web designers?” There is another very active type of freelance worker who takes on projects that create a single product, be it an article, book, software application, or graphic image such as a corporate brand. I call these types of freelancers “specialists.” You can describe your work in terms of the software applications you know or the programming languages you can use, or the specific methodology you can apply to a single task. Your job description really hasn’t changed from when you may have worked for a company as a programmer, an analyst, or a writer. You have taken your skills from a large milieu where you had to follow the corporate rules into self-employment which is liberating because you can concentrate on the types of projects you like to do best and set your fees, hours of work, and amount of work you wish to take on according to your needs.
A Move Towards Complexity
This new paradigm is a melding of programming and design that lends itself to development using teams of people with individual specialties rather than a single “jack of all trades.”
The designer might not be the person who applies this code any more; rather the designer provides the layout or blueprint used by a web developer who is more comfortable creating using code. This new paradigm is a melding of programming and design that lends itself to development using teams of people with individual specialties rather than a single “jack of all trades.”
A single designer can still create gorgeous websites that offer feasts for the eyes as well as high levels of interactivity, but these sites need to be maintained by people who know how to code in HTML and CSS in order to update a site’s content. I see a lot of gorgeous sites but they are mostly designers creating sites for other artists and are not the nitty-gritty websites of organizations. These less artful and more practical sites are being created so that users with some training can update content without the need for designers or programmers through the use of software systems called content management systems (CMS). I design and build sites using one such CMS called Joomla! I can still do it for small organizations or individuals who typically are not computer savvy and depend upon me to guide them through the various steps of design, implement, customize, and publish. I use off-the-shelf products that do not require much coding to provide the features that my clients want. I think this type of website development is becoming a niche market.
What Companies Seem To Want
This leads me back to my decision to look for full-time work. But, I have made a discovery that I should have realized: the corporate world seems to be the originator of this move from “jack of all trades” to specialization. I don’t know where I fit when I read job announcements for web designers and find that all that is wanted by such positions is someone who can create wire frames and story boards. Other job descriptions for web developers that read like a Chinese restaurant menu of software acronyms. Then there are descriptions of job requests for web content managers that range from performing copy writing to maintaining proprietary software repositories of content. The over-arching theme of these ads is the production line. Each person has their small role to play in the web site development project, all run like a software development project where each department is completely separate from another.
Specialists are winning the business battle, but I’m not sure whether the loss of the generalist designer such as myself is a good thing or not. This system seems awfully removed from the client and their constituents.