Addressing the elephant

John failed to address the elephant

In her article, The Elephant in the Room, Sarah Parmenter suggests that we’ve entered a new era of the web. Not the exciting, innovative kind of new era that we’re used to, like when responsive web design came along and literally redefined the way we build websites overnight, or when we realised that Ajax was such a powerful thing that we should herald it with a whole new version number of the web.

No, this new era is a less welcome one. A less bountiful one where the combined forces of the rise of the in-house web team and the sheer numbers of enthusiastic, young and talented designers and developers entering the industry are resulting in an inevitable consequence. There is less work to go round. Established and once successful agencies and freelancers are now struggling.

I’ve worked professionally in the web for ten years, and for a large part of that time I’ve run my own company. And for most of that time I’d describe business as “good”. Sometimes good in an insanely busy kind of way, sometimes just chugging along nicely, and very briefly (and thankfully rarely) good in a nice relaxing, quiet week kind of way (I try and be positive about the dips).

And the truth is, in 2016 business continues to be good. It’s nothing spectacular, I’m not driving around in an Aston Martin, but Push Code has a healthy client list, I enjoy what I’m doing and I can put food on the table for my family.

I don’t want this article to come across as gloating, and I’m not without sympathy for those individuals and companies that are struggling. But in the spirit of Sarah’s post, I wanted to share some of my insights from the last few years of business.


Never stop learning

Lets face it, there’s no shortage of things to learn when working in the web. We all feel overwhelmed by the pace of new frameworks, tools and best practice that pop up seemingly as we sleep. It’s tempting to reject it all, bemoan the crazy state of modern web development, but we all know what Darwin said about those that fail to adapt to the changing environment.

We don’t need to learn it all, just learn something. Adding another string to your bow is obviously good for business, but it’s good for us as individuals too. The positive effects of learning on our health and wellbeing are well documented. It’s just an immensely healthy thing to do.

Perfect the balance of pragmatism

Designers and developers are inherently perfectionists. And so we should be. We’re professionals and it’s our job to care about the vertical rhythm of our designs, and the milliseconds we can shave from page loading times.

Pragmatism is a nuanced balancing act. We shouldn’t abandon our pursuit of perfection, but we need to be careful not to obsess over the minutiae and technicalities. If the operational realities of a project mean using Bootstrap is the only feasible option, then there’s no point getting snobby about it.

Master what you love

I’ve always defended generalists because I am one. But the longer I’ve worked in this industry the more I’ve realised there’s a lot of sense in specialising. Dan Mall recently wrote about how the “full service” web design, branding, SEO and marketing agencies are failing to tell the world what they are good at, what they are actually amazing at.

I’d still say being a generalist is fine — perhaps even a good thing — on a personal level. But as a business, being able to make a name for yourself in a narrow sector, so that when clients need the kind of work you do, you come to the top of the list, is always going to be a better position to be in.

But I would take this further still. It’s not enough to specialise in something just because it’s good for business or a good career move. We need to love what we do. If you love dogs and make a name for yourself as the best WordPress developer for dog trainers then chances are you’re running a successful business that makes you very happy.

Focus on the things that matter

Feel you don’t get the opportunities you deserve? Are offshore companies eating in to your market? Do you hate working with front end build tools? Are you competing with too many younger, cheaper WordPress devs?

I’ve noticed that in articles and comments discussing the challenges our industry faces, there tends to be a somewhat derisive undertone directed at the causes of these challenges. Whether it’s the “old guard” or the “conference crowd”, or cheap accessible tools like Squarespace or WordPress. Far too often these things become the focus of our energy, as if they are the problem that is going to ruin us all.

In his article Focus on your own shit, Justin Jackson puts it simply:

“Quit worrying about what everyone else is doing. Focus on how you’re helping people.”

It’s a fine and sensible thing to observe the challenges our industry faces, but the crucial thing is to reflect on how you or your business can overcome those challenges.

Conclusion

Don’t ignore it, address it. Maybe the elephant needs a website.