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The Missing Advice I Needed When Starting My Career

Do you ever wish you had a time machine? I certainly do, but not for the usual reasons. I want a time machine so I can go back and have a frank conversation with my younger self. I’ll let you in on a bit of a secret: My younger self was an idiot!

I have been working on the web for over 22 years now, and I feel like I wasted so many of those years. If only I could go back and share a few hard truths with myself at the start of my career. Unfortunately, I cannot, but I can share that advice with you.

Admittedly, you are almost certainly not as idiotic as I was. But hopefully, there will be something in this advice that inspires you.

Speaking of inspiration, that leads me nicely into my first piece of wisdom!

Look Beyond The Web For Inspiration Link

I used to be a dedicated follower of fashion who wasted so much time looking at other “cool” websites and browsing galleries of inspirational websites. My design style would morph to embrace the latest trends, from Web 2.0 to hero banners.

The result of this was bland “me too” design. But worst of all, it never put the user first. It was all about making something look good in my portfolio.

Look for inspiration beyond the web. Look to art, architecture and print design.1
Look for inspiration beyond the web. Look to art, architecture and print design. (View large version2)

It was such a waste because so much inspiration is all around us: great books on classic print design, architectural trends, even airport signage (a personal obsession of mine).

Don’t make my mistakes. You don’t even have the luxury of my excuses. With CSS grid3, the possibilities are endless, and we should all embrace them.

On the subject of latest trends, that brings me to my next transgression: obsessing over tools.

Stop Obsessing Over Tools Link

We’ve wasted hours arguing over what tool is best. Should we code in PHP or classic ASP? (Yes, I am that old.) Can I be a “proper” web designer and code in Dreamweaver? Which content management systems should we use? The list went on.

Some tool or other would become trendy for whatever reason, and we would all jump on the bandwagon, until the next one emerged, and we jumped to that after an even more furious debate.

I see the same today: arguments over frameworks4 and whether we should embrace Angular or React. I don’t follow these discussions anymore because somewhere along the line I realized something: There is no single answer.

Do not become overly attached to a single tool. Tools come and go, and no one will be appropriate for every project.5
Do not become overly attached to a single tool. Tools come and go, and no one will be appropriate for every project. (View large version6)

A lot of these choices come down to personal preference or the requirements of the individual client. Remain flexible and open to change. If you don’t, you’ll go the way of Flash developers.

All of that time I wasted arguing about tools would have been so much better spent elsewhere, like on improving my soft skills.

Get Better At Working With Others Link

I was an insufferable know-it-all when I was young. I always had the answers and always knew a better way to do something. I am sure you are not like that, although, let’s be honest, how would you know if you were? I certainly had no idea how irritating I was, despite the warning signs.

For a start, I found myself constantly arguing with everybody. Everything seemed like a battle because nobody around me “got it.” In hindsight, that was because I was too busy irritating everybody to take the time to explain things properly. But at the time, it just felt like everybody else was stupid.

I wish I had realized how weak I was in this area. Perhaps then I would have invested time and energy in improving how I worked alongside other people. Maybe I would have listened more and put the same effort into understanding my colleagues as I did my users.

I am not suggesting I should have done this necessarily to be a good man (trust me, I am not now). Instead, I should have done this because it would have made my life so much easier. I wasted endless time arguing and alienating people, people I needed on my side to do my job. It was incredibly frustrating.

We spend a lot of time debating whether designers should learn to code, when perhaps we should be worrying about other skills.7
We spend a lot of time debating whether designers should learn to code, when perhaps we should be worrying about other skills. (View large version8)

If I had developed that skill of working with people earlier, it would have also allowed me to push beyond the confines of my role.

Always Push Beyond Your Job Description Link

I confess that, for many years, I was a bit of a job’s worth. I was a designer, and I spent much of my working life complaining because other people weren’t doing their jobs properly. Clients failed to deliver copy, developers didn’t implement my designs correctly, and project managers were always putting unrealistic constraints on me.

To be fair to my younger self, these were all real problems. But I did nothing but moan about them. I made no effort to help my colleagues fix these issues. I never questioned why the client was failing to deliver content or why the project manager seemed so unreasonable? I didn’t bother to understand the constraints they faced.

When I did eventually wake up and start paying attention, I discovered a bigger world. I found out just how interconnected digital and the user experience are, and how many things beyond the screen influence the experience.

I learned so much over that time, and you can, too. Take the time to understand the roles of those around you. Understand their challenges and constraints. Understand their perspectives and motivations. This will not only improve your working relationship, but make you better at your job, too.

Seek to understand colleagues just as you would a user. You could even consider creating empathy maps for them!9
Seek to understand colleagues just as you would a user. You could even consider creating empathy maps for them! (View large version10)

If you are a designer, this will enhance your designs, making them more useful in the “real world.” If you are a developer, you will understand the challenges users face and the impact you have on the user experience11. And so it goes on.

Ultimately, this will make you better at your job and hopefully progress your career. But a successful career is about more than being good at your job.

Commit To Putting Yourself Out There Link

You could be the best designer or developer in the world, but if nobody has heard of you, you will have little success. That probably isn’t right or fair, but that is the reality.

I’ll be honest with you: Many people are far better at their jobs than me. But I speak all around the world, write books and have built a significant following, not because I am good at what I do, but because I put myself out there.

But it took me so long to realize that. I wasted years moaning about how it was unfair that other people got to write and speak and how my ideas were just as good as theirs.

Eventually, it twigged that I didn’t need anybody’s permission to start sharing my thoughts. I could write on a blog without a publisher and speak on a podcast without a conference.

You can, too. Not only that, you should! If you are not sharing what you have learned, you are invisible, and that will hamper your career.

You don't need to be invited to speak at a conference to start sharing your ideas.12
You don’t need to be invited to speak at a conference to start sharing your ideas.
(View large version13)

You might feel you have nothing new to say. Don’t worry, just share what you have learned. There will always be people who haven’t learned those lessons yet.

You might feel nobody is listening. Again, don’t worry. If you persevere, eventually people will start paying attention. I’ll let you in on a secret: Quality is not the number one reason for success. Consistency is. Even second-rate content will draw attention if you release it regularly enough.

Put yourself out there, in whatever way you choose. It will enable you to build contacts in the industry. That will help you avoid the last mistake my younger self-made: wasting too many years working for appalling bosses.

Don’t Put Up With A Terrible Boss Link

I worked for some truly nasty people, ranging from the incompetent to the criminal. Two ended up in prison, and the only good guy I ever worked for died of a heart attack due to stress!

I wasted years working for these people, years of them undervaluing my work and failing to invest in enabling me to do it better. Admittedly, I could be a bit of an idiot, as we have already established. But even with hindsight, these people were terrible. Unfortunately, apathy and fear prevented me from moving on.

Don’t make my mistake. There is no need. We are much in demand. Getting good digital staff is incredibly challenging, and you owe no loyalty to a boss who doesn’t value your expertise.

Instead, find a company that is going to nurture you and help you grow in your career. I’ll be honest: I never achieved that. I never had a mentor or somebody to teach me. I stumbled my way through my career, and I think I am the poorer for it. So, don’t settle. You deserve better, and loads of great jobs are out there.


Footnotes Link

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Paul Boag is the author of The User Experience Revolution and a leader in digital strategy with over 20 years experience. Through consultancy, speaking, writing, training and mentoring he passionately promotes digital best practice.

  1. 1

    Nils Solanki

    July 25, 2017 1:36 pm

    Thank you for the great advice, Paul. It’s reassuring that even well-known designers like yourself have struggled with these issues. I’ve still got a long way ahead of myself it seems :) I was wondering though:
    Do you have some specific advice for someone who wants to go solo after a few years in an agency?

    • 2

      Absolutely! The most important thing you can do is build your profile. Too many people who start agencies are great from a design or technical point of view but terrible at sales and marketing. Make sure you are writing, speaking and getting out there as much as possible. If you stop that now then you should have no problems bringing in work. Good luck!

  2. 3

    Hi Paul,

    Really thanks for the advices!… I’m a 29 year old accountant who is trying to become a full time developer because I’ve been always passionate about technology (I’ve been coding since i was 7 years old). Actually, I’m experiencing the same things you had in the past, and it’s an invaluable input for me. Thanks!

    • 4

      Glad it helped Francisco. I’m sure you will make the jump before too long. As you start to look for jobs I would highly recommend attending meet ups and conferences. Your best chance at getting a good job will be to meet people in person. Networking is by far the best way of landing a good role.

  3. 5

    Tom Hermans

    July 25, 2017 2:14 pm

    Some stuff resonates here too. Stop following trends like a sheep or engage in endless and often pointless discussions which platform, framework, coding style etc is better. What gets the job done is OK, and yes, there might be preferential ways to accomplish X with Y rather than Z.
    And last, indeed, don’t put up with horrible bosses or environments where you cannot thrive. Know your worth and dare to make a jump to make the most of it.

  4. 7

    I started in the mid 90’s as a web designer, as we were commonly referred to back then, and I can state with absolutely certainty that this article is Spot on.
    I would add a few more items, of course – but the ones listed here are as true today as ever.

    • 8

      I have to confess I could have gone on forever Tim! For example, I wish I told my younger self to focus on working smarter rather than harder. At one point I burnt out entirely because I became obsessed with working long hours despite the fact I was working incredibly and efficiently. So many lessons to learn and many of them we only seem able to learn the hard way!

      • 9

        John Flickinger

        July 25, 2017 6:17 pm

        I feel like a lot of younger Designers and Developers fall into that and tend to work long hours in an environment where it is encouraged until they burn out. Some (toxic) places normalize it and say that you aren’t “paying your dues” if you aren’t working long hours regularly and actually look down on people having lives outside of work.

        I guess you need to see the other side to know that companies that value work/life balance exist. Crunch is crunch, but treating every day like crunch is only going to lead to turnover.

  5. 11

    Great statements, thanks Paul. Reminds me of the book i was recently pointed to: “So good they can’t ignore you” by Cal Newport. The basic idea is to build skills that matter and the passion will come (and not vice versa).
    In fact i also had the opportunity to build up skills in younger days (many many years ago…) that really drove my “career”. But one thing is missing: getting the word out. May be i should start with that, too, even if i am already old… :-)

    • 12

      I was going to cover that but the premise of the article was what I needed to tell my younger self and that was one of the few things I did a good job at so I didn’t include it.

  6. 13

    dmitrizzle foshizzle

    July 25, 2017 7:15 pm

    Excellent points. Apathy resonates pretty loudly with me.
    Would love to read a perspective on business ownership from Smashing editors as well.

    • 14

      What do you mean by business ownership? Lessons learned running my own business?

      • 15


        I like the perspective that you take on in your article. I think it would be great to read advice specific to designers/developers who own their business and are required to think of the steps to keep the business afloat proactively.

        A lot of what you said is extremely relevant already, but some things would be different or new. I don’t know if it’s worth another post; just a thought I wanted to share.

  7. 17

    Great article, glad I’m not the only one who remembers programming in ASP Classic on Dreamweaver. In fact, I remember listening to your boagworld podcast while I did so and dreaming of the day I could convince the company I worked for that CSS was a viable alternative to table-based layout.

  8. 20

    Hey Paul, great article to point young designers like us in the right direction, I was reading through the comments to see that you have specifically mentioned on the difference between hard and smart work. Honestly I struggle a lot between the two, like I constantly find ways to do tedious stuff faster but there is always some work that feels hard. So the point I wanted to know was what is the difference between hard and smart work in context of designer?
    Thanks again for for time travelling.

    • 21

      When I talk about working smarter and not harder, I am referring to limiting hours. I work fewer hours than I have ever done in my career but arguably get considerably more done. That is because I am better organised, understand how to reuse work I have already done and know what not to do. If this is something you are interested in I recommend the book Rework.

  9. 22

    Hi Paul,
    Thanks for sharing your experience and advice.
    You just lightened me where I should move forward.
    I came across to your story while searching for design tools and relating news, so your sincere advice touches me even more with a lot of meaning.
    I have 6 years of experience in graphic design and branding. Same as you, I haven’t met mentors or role models. I thought I am not so fortunate in that manner, but I am fortunate to follow you from now on. Thanks so much Paul!

  10. 24

    Thank you for sharing your hard-won experience so vulnerably :) You’ve done a good thing. Celebrate yourself with a pizza.

  11. 26

    Thank you for sharing this experience, sometimes i am shy to share what i learn because my English are horrible, but i love to help other people.

    • 27

      I know it is easy for me to say but don’t let that put you off. Also, there so no reason why you can’t write in your native language. I am sure there are still people who would value your perspective.

  12. 28

    James Hunter

    July 27, 2017 2:05 pm

    Good Article. Actually, we don’t know our real values. Or the company does not allow us to know. They keep our intention in work, while we are working if the company is happy with their employee they will never let him/her know to his/her value. if he/she know the value then we ask for money but in most cases company doesn’t understand. They want keep pressure on their employees!!!!

  13. 30

    Accurate for sure. I always tell young designers that “the soft stuff is the hard stuff,” meaning that your work is probably pretty easy, but getting along with everyone and truly listening and honing in on your people skills are invaluable.

    The last section hit home. For six months, I worked for a criminal. It was demoralizing and embarrassing. And still, some staff has stayed – truly out of apathy and fear. I broke free; they can too… if they really want to.

    • 31

      I remember one of my nightmare bosses would kick me under the table in meetings if he didn’t like what I said!

  14. 32

    This is so true, and so recognizable.
    I am a developer with some 15+ years of mileage, but I feel like I’ve thrown away many years by working for the wrong people.
    Only since a year or 2 I started investing in my own career and started training myself thoroughly (since I now have a job where this is made possible).
    But thinking about the lost years, it makes me sad.
    Indeed it was a bit of fear for leaving those employers, it was the hope things would change for the better…but they never did.
    I didn’t get one decent training day, didn’t get a mentor of any kind, didn’t get time to even do a decent job.
    I invested a lot of my time, my family life and of my sanity and health in those companies.
    Yeah, I did get a decent paycheck, I did get some promotions.
    But then you decide to work for another employer and you realize that you lack so much real useful experience.
    And you also realize that those previous environments were/are so toxic: a lot of back-stabbing occurred, a lack of appreciation existed for the people who did the actual work, but lots of appreciation for the sweet-talkers, and working overtime was the only way to show your commitment to the company, well…”being” there late, not per se working…
    And indeed, it’s not about how many languages/frameworks/… you know, but about being able to work in a team to build some nice solution together, to communicate clearly and to be open-minded and constructive with the other team members.

    • 33

      Although I can understand your feeling that you wasted time at some of those more toxic companies, in truth you did not. Each one was a learning experience about how to manage people and run a business. When I set up my agency everything I did was driven from the premise that I would do the opposite of what I had seen done by my bosses! Even the worst circumstance can be a life lesson :-)

  15. 34

    Hi Paul,
    I am web designer for last 12 years. I also wasted a couple of years, working for the wrong people. I still don’t know, whether I am at the right place or not. Just a position change in my career added “Sr”. I still remember making a website compatible for IE6 :(. What I was doing then, I am still doing now. Some new technologies learned, the curve is still ahead of me. I don’t know where it will take me. Your article made me to think about my career and, made me to look back, Its a very inspiring article. Best wishes.

    • 35

      Thanks, Rohith. I honestly believe that in the current marketplace there is no reason for any of us to stay in a job that we don’t find fulfilling. At the very least you should see what is out there and go to a few interviews. It’s very liberating to attend a job interview when you don’t need the job. It gives you an opportunity to assess other organisations and compare them to where you work currently.

  16. 36

    Shahil Khan

    July 28, 2017 1:10 pm

    Nice article loved to read and thanks for sharing your advice, sure it will help the newbies to code just like me. Thanks…

  17. 37

    Matthew Trow

    July 28, 2017 6:05 pm

    So many truths here.
    I’m a bit of a dinosaur in this industry, my first website was in 1995, that same year, I got a job at a design agency interested in pursuing ‘this website stuff’. Total wild west back then, where agencies would charge per text bullet point, or per image, as they struggled to apply the world of print to digital.
    That mindset stuck around far too many years.
    I recall having standup arguments with a boss back in 2006 about ‘pixel perfect’ web layouts. He won, I spent many frustrating hours, days & weeks struggling to get exactly the same look and feel across different browsers.
    Those of you that remember ie6, hah, that was easy compared to ie5.5 for MacOs.

    The point Paul has about pushing beyond your job description, I think, is the most important take home from this article.

    The pace at which careers change in the digital industry is insane, the only way to survive and prosper, is to push yourself out of comfort zones.

    So long as you are supported in this by working for a good company, or having understanding clients in your own company, this is probably the most rewarding aspect of your career. It’s constant new stuff, learning, experimenting, collaborating.

  18. 38

    Thanks for the advise, i’m realy young in programming world and i found that it’s realy difficult to think that i have something to share with other. I was think that every body around are better than me

  19. 39

    Great article! One of the best.

  20. 40

    Great article. There’s a lot of excellent advice here.

    I especially like the idea of committing to put yourself out there. Too many of us are trained to be scared of and subservient to the needs and wishes of a boss. Taking control of your own career is critical to success.

    The best piece of career advice I’ve ever read is from the First, Discover Your Strengths books: “Figure out what you are good at, and get better at it.” I’ve never had to look at another self-help book since reading that. It’s a lifelong process, but if you can do that and put yourself out there, that’s a great place to be!

  21. 41

    An awesome & truly experienced sharing. I feel most of us have gone through that phase at once in the career. It’s just a matter of time that how quickly you observe that stupidity and make yourself clear from those obstacles.

  22. 42

    My start in web design, was study graphics, work for a marketing agency, then as the web picked up speed more and more clients asked if we could build a website for them. Back then it was anyone who wanted to have a go. And for a long time I was pretty good at it because the websites were all about design, I was a web designer, golden ratios, colour balance, negative space, photoshop etc. But as time has gone on I have been required and expected to become more and more a web developer, more and more coding, and a faster and faster rate. I can dabble in Jquery, a bit of JS. Front end is this weird hybrid where you are expected to be highly creative visually but also have high competency in programming. I wonder how many people have both aptitudes in abundance. I certainly don’t, I am a visually creative individual with limited talent for anything mathematical. Despite my efforts to learn I just hit a barrier everytime beyond the basics. So now I am trying to move away from web developer, I don’t think web designer even exists as a role anymore. Into UX, UI, I know enough of what the goals are, what the components are, to be able to communicate with the client on requirements, to design a service and oversea development.

    • 43

      Michael Snow

      August 1, 2017 2:19 pm

      I’m one of those who is proficient at both design and coding, but I also work with people who are just designers. One person in particular has become quite successful. He came from the print design world, and then got into designing websites when his clients started asking for them. I also have a print design background, and had done work for him over the years, and let him know I was coding websites. That was 15 years ago, and it has become a successful partnership. He still knows absolutely nothing about coding, but knows that I will reproduce his design with 100% accuracy, or else let him know why some things can’t be done in a certain way. He knows his clientele well (the world of nonprofits) and knows what type of websites and designs serve them the best. I keep up on the latest coding trends, and construct websites that always meet or exceed the functionality and user-friendliness they are looking for.

      If you can find a coding partner you work well with, then there is no reason you can’t be successful. Knowing what your (and your coding partner’s) skills are, and finding the right market that needs those skills, can open a lot of doors for you.

      • 44

        Some positive thoughts, and good to hear people can find their niche. For me my current role has some design not much, and each week its learn a new script, a new library, development environment. Great if you like new stuff every week, or you can see the commonality in different languages, else it is very frustrating and demoralizing. My greatest successes each day are the drawings I make whilst on conference calls :o)

  23. 45

    What a great read! I just got into web dev after a decade of doing random things and part time jobs. Now I can’t get away from it. I still have ways to go to learn, especially after moving into a different country with different tech environment. Back in the states, there were developers everywhere waiting to help. Here, only a hand full of developers are excited enough to meet and discuss about new tech. Reading this article and the comments (equally great as the article) truly motivates me to continue on searching, teaching, and learning in this new environment.

  24. 46

    Thanks for sharing Paul, very encouraging. I just ran out from a comfort zone, which is my previous company, I have been worked there around 6 years. Then start to face the ‘nasty’ people in a new company, I keep mostly to myself in the pass year. Now I start to work in a new industry, also seek for and attend UX seminar & talk.

  25. 47

    Thanks Paul, you really opened my eyes and the way you suggested is really good.

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