Yogi Berra once said, “When you see a fork in the road, take it.” For designers (and engineers and others in the “service” organizations), the fork in the road often comes mid-career, when you finally feel like you are good at what you are doing. Suddenly you are offered—almost required to—do something that is 90 degrees away from what you have mastered. And that is pretty scary.
Fork one: Becoming a manager
Before you dismiss this out of hand, let me correct a few myths. Becoming a manager does not mean people will take you seriously, it does not mean you get to tell people what to do, and it doesn’t mean you don’t get to make things anymore. After about six months in my first managing jobs, I realized that I now was designing a place where design could happen. It’s a good idea to read up a bit about what a manager really does before looking into this path (or accepting it if your boss offers). Erin Malone has written an excellent article in this issue on considering becoming a manager; I recommend you take a look.
Beyond that, it’s wise to consider where becoming a manager will take you, and what the opportunity cost is. So often we think it’s a default decision: you get a chance to be a manager and you take it (demand it!). But management is only a good choice if it is something you enjoy, and if it takes you in the direction you want to go. Where do you see yourself in five or ten years? Running a design studio? Starting a small product company?
Becoming a manager will teach you a number of useful skills to get you there. You learn how to lead people; you’ll learn how to manage budgets and make choices in resources. You’ll get to understand in a very direct way the trade-offs one has to make between good design, good business, and good human relations. And don’t tell me they are always or never opposed—life has many happy intersections, but sometimes you have to bite the bullet and do things your team will never understand.
So I mentioned opportunity cost. This is a phrase common in business circles, less common in design circles. But I bet you understand the concept: you only have so many hours in the day and if you spend them one place, you can’t spend them elsewhere. If you love what you do, and you know you don’t enjoy being a manager, then don’t agree to become one just to get ahead. Not only is it a way to make your life less happy, it’s also hours spent learning management skills that you could be using to explore your area of interest more deeply, and becoming a guru on the topic…
Fork two: Becoming an expert
Sometimes your greatest goal is simply to raise your rates or get a higher salary. You love what you do, but you want greater respect and the money that comes with it. In this case, you may want to consider guruhood. No, that doesn’t mean you have to start making outrageous statements on mailing lists, even though sometimes it seems like that is how people do it.
First, select the space you wish to be known for. It’s not enough to say, “I am a designer,” any more than you can say, “I am a musician,” and become a household name. Sure, some rock stars move into jazz or country, but mostly they explore the outer ranges of their chosen genre. This can be translated to design.
You can specialize in web design, like Jeffrey Zeldman or application design, like Terry Winograd. You can narrow within that, and specialize in application or content design, like Alan Cooper or David Seigal (boy, that dates me). You can look at specializing in web genres, such as search, ecommerce, or communities. Or you can cluster your interests; for example, communities and search makes social search. I think you can easily see the advantages of being a communities and ecommerce solution if you wanted to work with companies like Netflix or Amazon. You can become a technique expert—be brilliant at taxonomies or personas. Materials, genre, technique—the important thing in guruhood is to be one of the three or four top-of-mind names in your space. You are a brand, and you have to learn how to build it, and not overextend it.
Like all choices, this one has its downsides also. This works only if your temperament suits it; if you are a dilettante learner, like me, you may find expertise is only fun when you keep adding new things to it. If you are a professorial type, you get joy in deepening and sharing the body of knowledge you’ve obtained.
You also do have the classic publish or perish problem—to reach the heights of guruhood, you need to speak, write, or find another way to be found out about.
Fork three: Become you 2.0
Finally, the path you may choose to take is one of reinvention. This can be a tough one. You give up much of your sense of self—how often do you say I am a designer, or I am an engineer? It doesn’t even seem like a job title anymore. It doesn’t seem like “senior product manager.” It feels like “artist” or “writer”—something inherent in your makeup that chose you, and you didn’t choose it at all. But don’t be fooled! A curious person of talent and intellect can end up many places. A rocket scientist could be just as easily an engineer, a theoretical mathematician, or a concert pianist. The left and right brain play nicely with each other in certain people.
Think of the places where you hit a self-imposed wall in the past: the opportunity to become a product manager, the time you took a programming class and loved it yet didn’t follow through. Was it because you were afraid of losing your sense of self? There is a simple exercise you can use to see how a major change might feel: speak it out loud.
- “I used to be a designer, now I’m CEO of a fortune 500 company”
- “I was an IA for some years, but now I run the product team.”
- “I did usability in the past, and that has made me an awesome marketing vice-president.”
- “I came from engineering, and now I’m an entrepreneur, and we just closed our series A.”
Out in the world, you don’t have to reject your past if you feel it might cause upheaveal (externally or internally), but sometimes in private, saying out loud can help you see if it’s something you want or if it’s something you are afraid of. You may find yourself quickly thinking, “Hey! Engineering taught me a lot that’s useful in securing funding.” You may realize it’s not at all a dichotomy, but rather just you taking things in a direction most people can’t see.
Intelligent and creative people see life a bit differently. And you are always you. You can be a project manager after fighting them your whole life; then go back to design if you don’t like it. You find suddenly find you have no enemies after the experience, just people who want to make good products like you but have different ways to accomplish it. Each path will teach you something, and as you choose one, the others are not closed off. Rather if you change paths again, you’ll do so with a new body of knowledge and insight.
The three lives of Thomasina
When I was a kid, I saw this Disney movie about a cat named Thomasina who had three of her projected nine lives without dying, but through transformative change. Who knows why, but that film stuck in my head, and I feel like I live out that movie. I’ve been the guru, the manager, and now Wodtke 2.0. And I may get to experience lives four, five, and six, while still enjoying the knowledge of lives one, two, and three.
I am not about to forget what I know about information architecture, nor what I know about working with teams as I learn about financial projections. I keep being the guru and the manager as I become the transformed. This becomes very clear as I give expert reviews of broken information architectures, or as I take a manager job while I write privacy policies for PublicSquare. The forked paths are really more like spaghetti strands, twisting around and around like the plate of pasta in another old Disney movie. You never know where they lead until suddenly you discover true love.
My advice is to be fearless and curious, attentive and passionate. Two will show you where to go, the other two will tell you how to get there.