Helping clients as a web generalist

A friendly little debate about the death of web design came up based on a post by Jeff Croft and a response by Jeffrey Zeldman.

First, I like the old school nature of this exchange happening on blogs as opposed to just being a Twitter back and forth. Second, it’s really more a conversation than a debate anyway, which is cool.

Without speaking for them, it seems like Jeff and Jeffrey have already come around to the conclusion that they mostly agree so that’s all good.

I’m not here to argue with anybody either but I wanted to throw out a quick thought or two on being a web generalist. I’m not sure what I have to say is right or relevant, but it’s what comes to mind for me anyway.

I agree with what I think Zeldman and Croft agreed on, which is that there is plenty of work out there for the web generalist with a diverse skill set. What I want to mention is that if you’re going down that path, there’s a certain mindset that might be helpful to keep you both sane and employed.

Here’s a problem: If you’re a web worker and you follow a lot of web guru type folks on Twitter, you can easily get the impression that “you’re doing it wrong” in every aspect of your work. After all, if you’re following the best PHP minds, the best JavaScript minds, the best CSS minds, the best content strategy minds, the best WordPress minds and on and on… well, you can’t possibly be as good as those specialists are at each of those things when you’re trying to be a generalist.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed in that way, which I have to figure must be pretty common, it could be because you’re looking at things from your own perspective. That’s natural right? After all, you are you.

But what might be more helpful is to think about things from the perspective of a person trying to start a business or build a web presence for an existing business. The client.

For a non geek, or even a somewhat web savvy business owner, it’s impossible to focus on running a business and at the same time have command of all the technical skills needed to build and run a web presence.

These people need help. And they don’t just need it from specialists who understand all the nitty gritty details of JavaScript. Or how to make WordPress do anything that can be imagined. Or CSS. Or PHP. Or Rails. Or whatever.

The business owner needs help from all kinds of people with all kinds of expertise.

But most business owners can’t go out and hire a team of specialists, much less have any chance of coordinating all those experts in a way that will result in everything working together in a coherent and strategic way.

Somebody has to understand the big picture well enough to figure out what’s needed, not just what it possible. And what’s practical, not just what’s perfect.

For some clients, that means hiring an agency, where a director of some sort will lead a team of specialists. For other clients, that means finding a go-to person to build something that might involve a bit of WordPress knowledge, some writing ability, enough Photoshop skills to make some images look decent and the CSS chops to make it all responsive.

(Usually the former means larger budget and the latter means smaller budget but that’s not always the case.)

What I described above for the one-person generalist operation might start to sound like too much stuff to know, but here’s the thing: If you can do enough different things well enough to build what one client truly needs, that’s marketable. It’s not about being the best in the world at some particular aspect of things. It’s about helping that one client get the best website for his/her particular business.

Don’t worry about solving all the problems. Go solve one person’s problem in the best possible way it can be solved today, with the resources the client actually has, not in some “everything has to be perfect” world that doesn’t exist.

When you do that, you’ll be doing something that has value. You will have helped someone build/grow/sustain a business. And when you do that for a real person, he/she will almost always feel quite comfortable paying you with real money. In my opinion, this is a good thing as it allows us to buy shoes and food and Neil Young albums.

I’m convinced that there are tons of people out there who need tons of web work done. Whether you’re a solo generalist or part of a full-service team of specialists, web design is about helping people figure out what they need, and then building that thing in a way that fits the resources and constraints of the situation. I don’t see that kind of work drying up anytime soon.

5 Comments on Helping clients as a web generalist

  1. Scott says:

    Zeldman just linked to this on Twitter, and I gave it a read, and it’s a good (and reassuring) read for me.

    One thing I wonder though is if you’re not perfect at these things, how would you explain them away in, say, a job interview at an agency or someplace? Maybe I’m overthinking it, but there seems to be an expectation of flawless work that you’re putting out there. But say I’m using too many nested CSS selectors on a site where I’m not only doing front-end, I did the visual, the WordPress integration, some custom PHP, etc. All things considered, it was a major project that I’m happy with that I want to feature, but there’s probably things that I did that could be done a different and far better way.

  2. Kim says:

    Wow! This is me. I’m not a super coder or designer but I work personal with each client to provide what they need. After 15 years if building websites for small business it’s good to be reminded what I do has value!

  3. Kim says:

    …and apparently lack proof reading skills….

  4. Hey Kim. Don’t sweat any typos. This is not a formal place. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment. Nice to hear the post rang true for you and glad you’re out there helping people get stuff done.

  5. Hey Scott. If I understand right you’re asking what if you build something that’s not perfect but demonstrates a wide variety of skill sets, but then when you go for a job interview, you maybe don’t feel any aspect of the project is good enough to show off?

    I may not have that right but if that’s the question, I guess it kind of depends on whether the job is for a specialist job or a generalist job.

    If you’re trying to get hired to do a lot of different kinds of things, then most people (at least the ones you’d want to work for) will understand that you aren’t going to be an ace of every aspect if you did all these different things. One thing that helps here, in my opinion, is to be upfront about that and point out that you balanced all the different concerns and handled the whole thing (or led the whole thing or whatever you did).

    If you’re going for a specialist job, you can show the same stuff while focusing on the part they are interested in, but you can also be upfront in the same way by telling the potential employer something along the lines of “hey, I know I have a ways to go at skill X but here’s what I can do so far and a year ago I knew nothing about it. I’m really interested in skill X and I feel like if I could get in here and work with people who know more than me I can really get better and better and do some great work for you.”

    In job interviews, it’s important to be honest with stuff like that and not try to paint yourself as something you’re not. After all, if you get the job you’re going to be working there and it’s going to be pretty obvious pretty quick what you can and can’t do.

    It’s not unheard of for companies to hire somebody even if they don’t seem 100% ready to hit the ground running today if they see some promise and reason to believe the person will make a great employee down the line, especially if the organization has the resources to help train you up.

    Part of what I was trying to say in the post is don’t worry about getting everything perfect. While you certainly want to put your best foot forward in a job interview, nothing/nobody is perfect, and the interview is also an opportunity to explain the thought process behind your work. Sometimes that can mean more to a potential employer than the details of the finished product.

    I don’t know if that’s exactly what you were asking but I hope that helps a little.

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