Brian is a web designer / developer out of Hartford, CT who has spent the last ten years working with various web technologies ranging from enterprise business intelligence and data visualization to small business and non-profit websites. Brian is also an active contributor to the Wordpress and Opencart communities. When not designing / developing web solutions Brian’s time is mostly spent participating in local community events with his wife and two sons.
“I’m not a web designer but I play one in real life”.
Two years ago I decided to start freelancing as a web designer. I do not have a graphic design background. So why on earth would an someone with an education in Computer Science and 10 years experience in Business Intelligence decide to make such a drastic change in his life?
Where did the passion go?
I like to build things with computers. Early in my career it seemed the opportunity to build things might present itself. Slowly it became evident that was not going to be the focus of my career. Programing as a hobby seemed like a good alternative, but without any incentive it was hard to justify sacrificing what limited time I had. So what it ultimately came down to was what can I do that (1) allowed me to foster my love for building things, (2) could eventually lead to a successful career and (3) utilize my education and professional experience with code.
Back when I was in college I used to build web pages for books, games, whatever I was currently obsessed with. But back then web design was an extremely frustrating endeavor. It was very difficult to design cross-browser compatible sites and online materials were hard to come by. Sooner or later my interest waned and moved on to other things.
That voice in the back of your head.
As time went on that little voice was always encouraging me to circle back to building websites. I had opportunities to build small scale websites, blogs, I even built an eCommerce site from scratch for a friend. At one point I taught myself ActionScript before Flash faded into obscurity. Unfortunately each of these endeavors petered out over time and I continued to focus on my full time responsibilities.
One day it all started to come together. I discovered a podcast called The Web Ahead that is hosted by Jen Simmons. I started listening on my commute and before I knew it I had burned through a couple of years worth of episodes. From there I discovered other podcasts, started following blogs for well-respected designers, purchased books (old and new) and engaging with others with similar interests on Twitter. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to get back on the wagon.
So where do I stand now? I would be lying if I said I don’t sell myself a bit short. Charging next to nothing, building sites as favors for friends… Even though I have designed over two dozen websites since I started freelancing, established my company as an LLC, and logged the better part of my evenings and weekends for the last two years, I still don’t feel confident that I provide the value that would justify the prices that most designers make. But, little by little, I am making my way to establishing myself as a respectable designer. As I build my career, understand the industry, and build my confidence, hopefully I will achieve success.
Working for a big business the word process can easily come up a dozen times in any given conversation. Depending on the individual you are speaking to it can come up multiple times in a single sentence. This is one of those words that is so overused that it begins to loose all meaning. The problem is that just saying you need process isn’t enough to solve your problem.
What is it that brings about the need for process? There are dozens of things but I am going to focus on four that I see consistently: First is habits. People get into routines or are averse to change. Sometimes it is a knowledge or skill gap. If you don’t know how to do something, you may need to build up skills in your team to avoid tasks being routed through that one individual who has the right expertise. Often times it is lack of focus. If you don’t understand your role or what the proper handoffs are you could be waiting on something you are ultimately responsible for. Lastly is accountability. You need everyone on your team to feel a sense of accomplishment for their deliverables.
- Education (Knowledge / Skill Gaps)
- Lack of Focus
- Limited or no accountability
- Identifying the problem
So, obviously, as in any situation, your team can suffer from one, some, or all of these issues. Chances are if you are managing the team then you already know which ones apply. If you are part of the team, those that apply to your teammates are extremely visible. Your own faults, however, are probably much less evident. Ultimately it is up to the management team to lay the groundwork for how to accomplish your job and then it becomes much clearer to the team. Do you have anyone who is solely responsible for a single task? Is it because this persons role is unique or is it simply because they are the only one with the initiative or skill to produce a certain deliverable.
What helps is to identify all the roles on a project. You can then line those roles up with your team. Estimate how much time each task should take. Figure out the inputs / outputs for each task and who the responsible parties are. Now extrapolate that for multiple projects over a year. What you may find is that your designers are doing to much front end development work before handing off to the developers (lack of focus). Maybe your technical lead is being brought in to every project for some complex library that only she understands (education). Your team members may not even realize that this is an expectation for them to understand this library (limited accountability). After switching tools certain folks might be using less than optimal techniques because “thats they way they have always done it” (habits),
Once you nail down where your problems lie you need to change those behaviors. How you do this can vary based on your team dynamic, what motivates them, etc. You may need to incentivize them, give recognitions, provide them with necessary training, whatever it takes. The important thing is that you make sure it is clear that something needs to change. Write up a lightweight project plan with the individuals and show them where the handoffs are. Emphasize what each individual is responsible for. Make sure it is clear which tools they should be using, what needs to be documented, and ask for feedback. Depending on the extent of the changes, this could be a very contentious conversation. This is where you are going to get arguments about what their job ‘should’ be. You need to stand firm in your convictions and make sure they understand your expectations for what they should be doing. It should go without saying that you should take any feedback under advisement and not disregard any comments or suggestions. This will be valuable as you implement the changes.
Those who know me know that I love iteration. It is rare that anyone is going to get something 100% right on the first attempt. You can try and plan for every imaginable situation, but the truth is you’ll never think of everything and it will draw out the planning phase. At some point you have to execute. But it is very important that in these first few weeks you are closely monitoring your team, looking for bottlenecks, and adapting as you see fit. It is also important that you let the team know that you are going to be making changes. Have 15 minute stand up meetings with the team to make sure they understand the changes. Make sure that they are adapting by discussing with them one-one-one and as a team.
Once you are happy with the process it is important that you sustain it. This means making sure that your team is following through and that you are able to easily onboard new members. Documentation is critical of course, but it is also important that you set certain goals and objectives to make sure they succeed. If you are not revisiting this with your staff members regularly and reinforcing the adoption of new tools, new techniques, and new responsibilities, you will fail. For those individuals who are unable to change, maybe it is time for you to look for other opportunities on the team for them that might more appropriately fit their skill set and motivations. Finally, it is important that you reward those individuals that are adopting the changes.
“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity”
― Sun Tzu, A Arte da Guerra
When your kingdom is under siege and you can no longer fortify the perimeter, sometimes the best thing to do is exactly the opposite of what your instincts tell you to do. You may want to surrender. You may want to flee. Or you may arm your troops, fill them with bloodlust, and send them to what is certain death as the final line of defense.
And sometimes you achieve greatness.
It was one and a half years ago that my wife, kids, and I were in a car accident. Everyone in the car survived but my wife ended up with chronic back pain. The kind of back pain that prevents you from being able to live a normal life. Without a doubt it has affected our lives. Our two sons needed to be enrolled in full-time daycare. I need to come and go from work to take her to doctors appointments and help her if she loses her balance and falls. She can no longer do the things she has come to love. As one would expect, it has caused a great deal of distress in our family.
A little about my background: I worked for 10 years in the financial sector for the MIS department at a company providing web based Business Intelligence solutions. I have had a successful career that has offered me the opportunity to learn new technology, manage people halfway across the world, and build enterprise solutions. With this tragedy that befell my family I was unsure what the repercussions would be to my job. Obviously I am needed at home to care for my wife and children, but I have an obligation to my job.
I wrestled with this for some time. I love technology, web technology in particular. Back when I was in Polytechnic University before I started my career I was building websites and applications as a hobby. Even during my career I have helped friends and family build their web presence. Throughout my life I have taught myself everything from Basic to C++, PHP to ActionScript. So what is stoping me from starting a career as a freelance web developer?
A lot apparently.
To start with I have become a cog in the corporate machine. I forgot what it was like to have real competition. In an large corporation you have HR Generalists, ombudsmans, and others who are there to make sure the company acts in your best interests. Out in the freelance world it is every man (or woman) for themselves. The only authority you can appeal to is the client.
Additionally I hadn’t realized how much changed since I last designed a site. Most of the software I was working with was customized off-the-shelf software and it had been quite some time since I had built a product from the ground up. A lot of the tools and techniques I had used previously (Flash, table-based design) had become passé. And it seemed like there was a new ‘hotness’ every week.
But I didn’t let this deter me. I loaded up my phone with podcast after podcast on web design, start attending meetups for Drupal and WordPress, began blogging and creating screencasts as I learned new tools, and attending conferences. Before long I found my list of clients expanding. First it was clients through sites like eLance but eventually people started finding me through my YouTube channel, Twitter feeds, Facebook, and Google search results.
Granted I have not reached a point where I can support a family of four this way, and I still have a broad range of skills that I need to develop, but I can start to see the forest through the trees. By focusing on some specific tools I am creating a niche for myself. This niche can serve as a way for me to build a reputation and become valuable contributor to the web community. As time goes on I am starting to draw some parallels between the corporate and the freelance world that is allowing me to make sense of it. I may not of achieve greatness, but I am not ready to stop fighting.
Often times we become so complacent in our daily lives that we grow fearful of any disruption. Even the slightest change to our daily routine can fill us with anxiety. Sometimes, however, when things become overwhelmingly chaotic you are forced to rethink your priorities and make dramatic changes. Those challenges become opportunities that can serve as the foundation for a new life. So pick up a book, learn something new, and challenge yourself to embrace chaos, and achieve greatness.