Jack of All Trades, Master of One

We all heed this as words of wisdom or a warning that if you don’t buckle down and master a specific domain, you might get cast as a jack of all trades, master of none. The inevitability of developing our careers around this age-old saying risks us becoming a jack of no trades and a master of just one. In this article, I explain why in an Internet age dominated by advanced algorithms, data and code, knowing how to write a line or two of the jargon that powers the internet is what will make you stand out from the crowd and open up new opportunities.

Learning curve

But writing code is difficult, right? You didn’t enjoy maths and you were never interested in what all the buttons did on your Casio. Graduates have spent years studying computing science at a university with computer labs packed with specialist tools and state of the art equipment. There must be a reason why Google is hiring PhD’s out of Cambridge to build machines that beat humans at board games?

Many of us consider coding to be difficult if not impossible to get into. Like open heart surgery or flying a plane. You don’t even consider it within the realm of possibility. But guess what? Writing code is easy and anyone with a computer can do it. That’s right. You don’t need specialist tools or a university computer lab. Just the web browser you already use for doing your online shopping and a text editor is all that’s required.

The ten years I have spent working with technology tells me that having a diverse set of skills and tools to call on adds a significant amount of value to my specialism as a project and product manager.

Exercising the skills I learned during the early parts of my career in web design and development helps me to be a better leader of the teams I work with to build the products and services you might have used at the BBC and across UK government.

Using this experience in my day-to-day role I can have a considered discussion with the development team about how we might go about solving a particular challenge or I can demonstrate an idea to the design team using prototypes I’ve coded in HTML. The aim isn’t for any of my code to make it into the finished product or even my design to be the one we settle on. It’s the ability to express ideas beyond words and pictures that can facilitate meaningful discussions that help a team to mature and evolve concepts quickly and efficiently. The creative folks over at the infamous design agency IDEO expressed this thought in this saying: “If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a prototype is worth a thousand meetings”.

How does this principle apply to me working in a creative field?

So this brings me onto design and user experience specialists. Some of the most interesting and inspiring people I have met in my career are working in this space. You are some of the most positive, engaging and frankly, wacky individuals to work in tech. You wear your bright green trousers with pride and you champion for what’s right for your users. And that’s the most important part – the users that is. In my privileged position of working side-by-side with you folks, I want you to succeed and I want you to use all the tools and techniques that are available to you to win your clients over. And that’s why I think designers and user experience specialists have a lot to gain and little to lose by learning front-end development. You already use an assortment of methods ranging from low-tech sketches to high-fidelity designs.

Having the ability to translate those designs into clickable prototypes without complex or expensive tools is a powerful way to demonstrate your ideas.

Whether you work in a startup or a large corporate, your team will be made up of many skills including development. Developing your empathy for the roles that are involved in building a product will give you a lot mileage in succeeding as a team. I often see friction being caused by a lack of empathy, that is, being able to put themselves in the other person’s shoes and seeing things from their perspective. This is a common thread across product teams all over the world and often fights break out between those that design, those that build and those that manage. Having empathy will give you a better appreciation for how to approach a situation and allow you to better navigate difficult situations. It won’t solve all your problems but it will certainly help to narrow or bridge the gap in your differing views.

Taking shortcuts

Whilst it’s true that there are design applications that will produce code suitable for prototyping, it won’t necessarily enable you to learn or appreciate what a front-end developer does:

  • Modern code generators will get it looking and working almost right but you will need to make adjustments manually to achieve the desired result so having a bit of coding knowledge will help you fine tune your prototypes
  • Output from a code generator rarely reflects how you would approach coding a site if you were doing it yourself so you won’t get a full appreciation for writing quality accessible code
  • It’s rare for large organisations to allow you to bring your own tools and they are just as unlikely to stump for the cost of buying them. So being able to produce a prototype with nothing more than a text editor and a web browser will help you overcome the often strict constraints of the corporate IT department

How do I get started with front-end coding?

If you’re in the creative field or perhaps you’re a project or product manager from a non-technical background and want to find out more about front-end coding: you can hear more from me on this topic at The UX Conference at the Canada Water Culture Space in London on June 13. See the full agenda and get your tickets at theuxconf.com

Onwah Tsang is a specialist in technology strategy and delivery. Previously Technical Project Manager at BBC. Onwah has spent the last ten years focusing on the essential skills that make the difference in delivering technology: project and product management, user experience, technical knowledge, and quality assurance. Onwah has led the design and development of products and services which impact millions of people around the world and shares this insight as a guest contributor for the BBC.