Monday, April 04, 2005

The Independent Eye

A raging discussion in the SIGIA mailing list has me scratching my head.

Beginning as an innocent question from someone looking for information architects or UX designers in New York, the thread quickly evolved into a freewheeling discussion on employment issues. And what really puzzles me is the emphasis on full-time, traditional employment rather than freelancing.

Hasn't anyone read Dan Pink's Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself? Or any of Tom Peters' books?

I don't mean to diss the majority of UX professionals who are gainfully employed. Bully for them! But the age of perceiving full-time employment as somehow better or more secure than independence is over. Those of us who suffered under dot-com layoffs ought to be the first to understand that.

Whatever our employment status, we're all independent contractors/freelancers/professional service firms today and need to think and conduct ourselves accordingly.

After more than ten years as an independent, I think this boils down to two key strategies:
  1. Do everything you can to build your knowledge, expertise and experience.

  2. Do everything you can to build as big a personal network of quality people as possible.
The first means weighing every job or contract possibility by its potential to advance your marketability. Will you gain additional experience? Does it expand your palette of skills? Are there excellent opportunities for training or education, especially on someone else's dime? Will it stretch and challenge your abilities? Is it a WOW! or ultra-cool project that you'll be able to brag about? Will you work with someone you respect? If so, go for it with gusto, whether it means traditional employment or working as a contractor.

The problem with traditional employment is that it's too easy to become ingrown. Your personal network can easily shrink to those you work with every day. That's the kiss of death in today's economy where jobs are much less secure—and new jobs/engagements are so often linked to the people you know.

Six years ago, I was there. I had given up my independent practice to work for a long-term Client. We did award-winning stuff, but I found myself out of the loop—until a reading of Tom Peters' The Brand You 50: Or: Fifty Ways to Transform Yourself from an 'Employee' into a Brand That Shouts Distinction, Commitment, and Passion! convinced me I needed to make a move. I'm forever grateful to the Director of IA at a (now-defunct) Web consultancy who brought me in as a contractor. It led to a network of contacts that continues to yield much work.

So when evaluating a job or engagement, ask yourself questions like these: Will this grow my personal network? Are these the kind of people I want to include in my network? Are these people well-connected in my field? Will I have opportunities to meet and work with a variety of talented people? Are there potential mentors here? If you like the answers, this might be the place for you.

I love freelancing, but if a "real job" came along with terrific possibilities for gaining experience and contacts, I might take it—although I'd still view it much like a long-term "freelance" engagement. There are too many exciting things going on to remain in one place for too long!


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