It’s college graduation season, so there’s been a lot of advice circulating for young designers/coders etc. on how to get a first job and how to succeed at it. A lot of this advice is really good. I want to add a few things from a perspective that doesn’t get much direct attention: what it means to come to a professional world from outside, and how that outsiderness can be both difficult and helpful.
“Outside” can mean a lot of things, and many, many of us who work on the web grew up poor or very far away or without a formal design education or one of a million different outsides. The early web attracted weirdos and misfits like you wouldn’t believe, and many now run successful companies. This is a malleable field, and if you’re interested enough, there’s probably a place for you—but it won’t necessarily be easy to find it. But you don’t have to do it alone.
If you are coming from outside the usual pool of people who work in Field X, you’re going to hit culture barriers. Some of those barriers need to be rattled and eventually demolished, but some are just about a lack of shared context. Open secrets are the hardest ones to crack when you’re coming in from outside, because no one will take you aside and whisper them in your ear. They’re the air everyone else is breathing. If you’re feeling out of place or you don’t know where to begin, don’t freak out. There are ways to pick up the context you need to thrive.
For starters, figure out who your role models are, even if they’re not doing exactly what you want to be doing. Use your role models’ processes and tools in your own experiments, and credit them when you do. Find out what work-related blogs and books they read, what conferences they go to, and how they talk about their work. Read all the things. Watch all the videos. Develop opinions about what you’re reading and hearing—and try to balance negative criticism with generosity, because there are always complexities that are easy to miss. If the stuff you find this way makes you excited to wake up in the morning, you’re heading in the right direction. If it makes you want to barf on your shoes, maybe try a different part of the industry.
You don’t have to try to sound sophisticated or jaded to fit in. People who are paying attention can tell, and it’s better to just be honest and work at gaining the knowledge you need. When stuff comes up that you don’t know, cop to it and then go look it up or ask questions about it during downtime.
And while you’re at it? Build hard skills other people don’t have. There’s a difference between being literate and having a decent editorial eye and knowing how to professionally copyedit and offer kind, helpful, effective editorial feedback to writers. There’s a difference between knowing the basics of a lot of web stuff and being really really good at writing fast, stable applications. Being a generalist is awesome, but you need to work toward clear specializations as well. It’s not either/or.
Do what you say you’ll do. Make yourself as indispensable as possible by actively tying up loose ends and helping with others’ work. Help the people you work with be awesome. Don’t wait for things to come to you—but you probably already know that, or you wouldn’t be here to begin with.
When good jobs go bad
Some companies are amazing places to work. Some are soul-destroying hellmouths. Most are in the middle, but it’s the second I want you to watch out for. At these companies, you will hear that it’s important to be “a team player without an ego,” which is often code for “you will work late nights, weekends, and holidays because that’s how we do it.” You will find that project and product managers don’t have the power to negotiate reasonable deadlines, that contracts go unsigned, and that executive whims regularly derail projects. And sometimes a company is reasonably healthy, but you’ll wind up working with—or for—someone whose workplace behavior would make perfect sense if he or she were five years old.
The hard reality is that you will probably have at least one terrible job, if you haven’t already. And you probably won’t be able to quit immediately, especially if you don’t have financial support from your family, or if you’re reliant on a sponsored visa, or you have kids of your own, or a dozen other things. This is hugely stressful even for people who aren’t particularly vulnerable, and no easy advice helps.
But you won’t be stuck forever. Our industry includes boatloads of kind, generous human beings and plenty of organizations that will support you in having a healthy life. You just have to make a path to get to them. How? Learn all you can where you are. Be good to people. And above all, get outside your company (or regional) bubble, talk to people who are doing amazing things, and ask how you can help. Sometimes you can do it all at the same time. Sometimes you’ll have to take a deep breath and leave a bad situation to get to a better one.
The fact that you’re reading this website suggests that you’re working in one of the few professional sectors that’s actually booming right now, which makes you luckier than most people in the world. You don’t have to settle for misery. Which brings me to your secret advantage.
The dangers of being valuable
There are a lot of open jobs in tech right now that pay a lot of money and offer a lot of perks for people with the right skills. If your background hasn’t prepared you to assume that you’re destined for a high salary job with a prestigious company, this may feel especially surreal. This is good! One of the hidden strengths of being from not-around-here is that some things that seem normal to most people in the field may seem weird to you. And sometimes, sensitivity to weirdness can save you.
You may, for instance, already realize that if you’ve been hired into a prestigious, high-paying job as a junior designer/programmer/whatever, this probably has as much to do with a fluctuating market as with your own skills. If the people you grew up around don’t have access to that kind of job, you probably already know that you can be extremely skilled and work very hard and still barely make a living.
So why is that awareness useful? Leaving aside minor things like empathy and wariness toward entitlement, you’ll be better prepared for inevitable changes in the market value of your own skills. More importantly, you’ll be significantly less vulnerable to one particular flavor of manipulation: When you internalize the idea that you’re precious and irreplaceable in a company or an industry, it’s easy to be wooed into life-altering decisions like handing over years of 80-hour weeks to companies whose work you don’t actually care about. The more you accept this flattery as your due, the easier it is to be hypnotized by interests that conflict with your own.
Keeping the rest of the world—including the part you came from—in your peripheral vision can keep you from getting bewitched.