Things I Wish I’d Known Earlier In My Career
We often focus on the latest techniques and tooling, trying to optimize our workflows and processes. However, in the end, every single person has their own goals and ambitions, and too often, our individual goals are left far behind the company’s goals and product development roadmaps.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been receiving a few emails asking about the right ways to negotiate salary, get promoted and notice red flags early. So I thought that having spent around 20 years in this industry, it might be a good idea to write down a few personal observations that I wish somebody had told me earlier in my career.
A Bit Of A Backstory
I started designing and building websites around 1999, just around the glorious era of VRML and Macromedia Shockwave. At the time, I had started my first job in a small digital agency where I worked for a few years all around PHP and shiny new CSS layout — mostly having barely a clue about what I was doing. I was studying computer science, while also earning a bit of money as a freelancer. I did so until early 2006 when I completed my studies and moved on to co-found Smashing Magazine. It seemed to be just a hobby initially, but eventually with the magazine came many products, from books to conferences to the job board and Smashing Membership.
Throughout the years, I would write and edit articles about the web day and night, and I absolutely loved every single bit of it. When people asked me about how many hours do I work a week, I felt a bit confused because all of it didn’t feel like work at all. This hasn’t changed a bit today. Yet around mid 2010s I felt like I’m missing actual front-end work on actual projects. So around 2014, I slowly started working on projects with companies small and large, mostly as a contractor, and often on long-term projects. Eventually, I launched a video course on interface design, and am currently writing a book that I hope to finish by late 2022.
Over all these years, I’ve been working with dozens of companies and organizations, in various roles and projects, from front-end optimization to UX and quite a bit in-between. Over all these years, I’ve been reminding myself of a few observations that I made somewhere between chains of emails and Slack conversations, backroom meetings and stories from colleagues and friends whom I had a pleasure to be working.
We’ll start with one of the most mundane issues that I’ve been noticing repeating over and over again: telling about salary expectations too early in the interview process.
1. Never Tell Your Salary Expectations First
Usually it doesn’t take long until a recruiter or HR manager asks you about your salary expectations or estimated total cost in an interview. Of course, you’d like to make a good first impression, and my first instinct has always been to provide a slightly discounted ballpark figure.
What I didn’t realize for many years is that many recruiters and HR managers have their own KPIs, and often they earn premiums based on how far they can negotiate down the industry’s average salaries or total cost of the engagement. That’s why it’s not uncommon to see experienced professionals being hired for “lower” positions, with a lower salary but similar responsibilities and similar scope of work.
Salary isn’t everything, but it is important. Be very careful and strategic when negotiating your salary. If you are asked about your salary expectations, politely decline that question and ask for an offer first. You first need to assess the complexity of the project and the inner workings and expertise of the team; otherwise, your ballpark figure is just guesswork and often an inaccurate one. Most importantly, never provide a number right away, and defer it to an email that you’ll be sending later. This gives you a bit of time to think and avoid estimates that you might regret later.
Some HR managers will insist on some ballpark figures early. That’s why it’s critical to do your research upfront. Don’t focus too much on your current salary as it might not account for inflation, gender gap, and other costs. Instead, explore what a reasonable salary for your role is and for your level of experience in your region — with Glassdoor and similar sites. You might even increase it a bit to leave enough room to negotiate later.
Even with these preparations in place, though, always avoid exact numbers and provide a range that feels comfortable for you. In fact, a good way of pricing your work is by asking yourself what salary would make you enthusiastic enough to be heavily invested in the product and deliver your best work.
2. Switching Companies Is How You Make More Money
Sometimes the same recruiters who signed up with you one year, getting in touch just a year later, with another exciting opportunity from another exciting company. That’s wonderful for climbing the career ladder and salary increases, yet as a result, often you end up without any ownership at all — just because you don’t get enough time to contribute and see the impact of your contributions in real projects. And to me, that’s always been very important, and more important than the salary.
In the industry, it’s common to be jumping between companies every 12–18 months, and in fact that’s how you usually would make more money. Sadly, what I see as a result is that when some of my colleagues look back at their career, they realize that it’s difficult for them to feel some sense of significant achievement and pride for the incredible work done — mostly because they never had a change to really finish what they started. Undoubtedly, these achievements reflecting in the incredible wall of incredible companies on your CV, but this often doesn’t turn into some deep feeling of self-realization.
If you feel valued and appreciated, the team is great and salary is fine, consider staying in the same company for around 2–3 years. Feel free to take job interviews in-between, of course, but you do need a bit of time to become fluent and proficient in a specific company’s context. Once you are, either grow in your company or do switch to another challenge. Just make sure it doesn’t feel like it’s too early.
3. Pay Attention To Your Job Title
We often think that titles don’t matter as much as the work that we are actually doing. Yet throughout the years, I’ve been proved wrong over and over again. Titles do matter. In fact, in many large companies and organizations, titles define salary levels. It might feel acceptable to start from a lower position and grow your way into a senior position, yet in practice, it’s much more difficult than I have anticipated (more on that later).
Be very careful and strategic about the role that you apply for and the role that you are given in the contract. There are significant differences between UX Designer and Senior UX Designer roles, for example.
At first, this seems very obvious, but for a long time, I didn’t really pay attention to it until I noticed significant differences in salaries between people doing similar work but hired for different positions. This also applies to responsibilities and, most importantly, your position in the team.
4. Keep Record Of Your Achievements
So why is it so difficult to grow from one role into another? Well, we often think that if we just work hard enough, we will get noticed, and we will be promoted to senior positions, with the salary and responsibilities adjusted accordingly.
However, your growth heavily depends on how attentive and caring your managers are. Sometimes you might indeed get noticed, but more often than not, you won’t. Managers change, companies evolve, teams get restructured, and as these changes are happening, you might not ever get to be promoted. Because everything is shifting all the time, and with all the managers coming and leaving, it’s difficult to stay on track around the right time for your promotion or raise. That’s why many people choose a safe strategy and raise salary by jumping from one company to another every 18-24 months.
Many companies have feedback loops (“one-on-one” s, 360 reviews, etc.), where you get feedback from your team and from your managers a few times a year. This is a great opportunity to raise the question about your personal growth and what you need to do to move to the next level. Use this opportunity in your favor.
Maintain an up-to-date record of your achievements, milestones, projects and learnings, workshops and trainings you’ve attended, articles you’ve written and talks you’ve given, your help with onboarding new employees, your contribution to weekly UX meetings, etc. (a Google Doc would do). This will help you argue better during salary negotiations. You have to be proactive about your salary increase — you are unlikely to be promoted on your own, so make sure that your managers provide time and space for you to bring up your question about your career, personal growth, responsibilities and salary.
5. You Can’t Have It All
Who doesn’t want to have a lovely combination of ownership in the team, a decent salary with stock options, stability, great managers, fantastic people, and a good work-life balance? It was quite a surprise to me that getting everything neatly packaged in one job opening was quite an unrealistic expectation.
In a start-up environment, you might have a lot of ownership, but with it often comes slightly chaotic management with last-minute changes and mid-night fixes.
In large corporations, you would have a reasonable salary and stability, but you probably won’t feel like you make significant contributions to the product. You are likely to be working on tiny adjustments, often not even knowing if your work will ever see the light of day. However, you learn a lot from your team and grow significantly as a professional.
As a contractor or freelancer, you always need to chase your projects, and with it comes a healthy dose of accounting, estimates, scopes of work, and eventually, last-minute changes and deadlines. Sometimes you might have too many projects, and the next month you might be looking for work. This adds to the pressure and stress levels that you might want to avoid.
What about agencies and outsourcing companies? Frankly, I wish that in my early 20s, I’d have worked with them more than I did (just around a year, really). Mostly because I’d love to have learned more about different knowledge domains to be able to apply this knowledge to my ongoing projects. Right now, every time I have to deep dive and learn a lot about every single industry, and this takes a remarkable amount of time and effort.
There is no magic space where you can have it all. And more often than not, it’s not really needed. Figure out what is important to you. Personally, I’d choose to work with good people on a great product over salary and stock options any time of the day. The choice of the company would be influenced by this very decision.
What’s the best option? There is probably none. To myself, I’d recommend to start out working in an agency or outsourcing company. Learn different knowledge domains, learn how the business works, get to know skilled people, and make connections.
Then move to a product team to see how products are built and maintained and how teams are working together. Then switch to a larger company to learn from incredible people and understand slightly more complex sides of the product and business.
Eventually, either become a consultant or build a company of your own or move back to a product team. This might not be for everyone, but it would make me have ownership over some parts of the product, feel stable, learn, and be surrounded by people I can learn from.
6. Pay Attention To Your Estimates
As humans, we are incredibly bad in estimating work, and the best way to get better at it is to break down the scope of work into smaller units of work. Many managers assume that just because we have around eight working hours a day, we are actually working productively during that entire timeframe. That, however, doesn’t account for so many things, from routine messaging on Slack and urgent errands to sick days and interruptions.
When asked to estimate the amount of time you need to deliver, I always try to count on around 6–6.5 productive working hours a day. Feel free to underpromise and overdeliver, but always include the cost of over-delivery in your estimates.
I definitely spend more time in spreadsheets these days compared to the early days, and that might be one of the bigger changes throughout the years. It pays off to invest enough time into writing detailed scope of work, explaining:
- how you understood the problem,
- what the solution requires (with a breakdown of tasks),
- what your assumptions are,
- how you are planning to solve it,
- when customer’s (timely) input will be needed,
- what the milestones and timeline are,
- what delivery date we commit to (for the fixed scope),
- how the pricing and payment are going to work.
Most importantly, make sure that everybody understands that you are estimating delivery for a fixed scope of work, and late changes will be expensive and might delay the delivery. In fact, you might want to repeat that last sentence multiple times in your scope of work and make sure that you get an unambiguous sign-off from your client (preferably with a signature).
7. Test The Company During Your Probation Period
We often think about the probation period being a test for us as employees, but you can also see it as an important test for the company, too. Watch out for red flags: do people leave for strange reasons? Do managers change frequently? Are designers and developers being listened to in the company? What are some of the recent changes that were implemented based on users’ feedback?
Engage in conversations about what the impact of work is, just to make sure that you don’t put your hard work and efforts into something that might not even be worth your energy. You are talented, skilled, and hard-working, and there are plenty of good uses for your skills out there.
8. Think About Passive Income Early
When you are in your 20s, it’s easy to dismiss the notion of passive income. After all, you have all the time in the world to make your financial decisions later. But I can’t stress it enough: do think early about your passive income — the earlier you start investing into ETFs or creating digital products, templates and books, the more you can accumulate over the years. That’s a valuable — and the most important — investment of your time for the decades to come.
Your best asset is the time you have, and the longer you keep investing, the more impactful your interest is going to be after just a few decades. You don’t need much money to start building up your passive income. Even putting aside $100 a month will pay off long term.
Also, find like-minded people and start cultivating your user base. Once you know what you like doing, try to do as much as possible around that niche to make sure that when the topic comes up, your name, or the resources that you have created, come up along with it.
This requires visibility — writing, publishing, releasing, and open-sourcing. Set aside a bit of time every week to invest in it — it’s worth every second of your time.
Of course, everybody has their own experiences, so the things I’ve mentioned here might not be quite what you’d recommend and might not align with your current situation.
However, I strongly believe that many of these points will be important to consider or think about before switching companies, confirming an offer, or passing the probation period.
Further Reading on Smashing Magazine
- “Rekindling Your Passion For Web Design,” Jeremy Girard
- “Ten Tips For Aspiring Designer Beginners,” Luis Ouriach
- “Why Collaborative Coding Is The Ultimate Career Hack,” Bobby Sebolao
- “Work-Life Balance: Tips From The Community,” Ricky Onsman
- “Launching Your Design Career: Which Type Of Education Is Best For You?,” Alec McGuffey