Jacks of all trades

Back in the day I read an article about how, in the future, web professionals would be mini organisations themselves.  In effect, the skills pertaining to web design and development, and content creation would reside in a single individual and people who could demonstrate this wide range of skills should launch and manage their own companies and move beyond the bloated web oriented organisations that one could see dotting even the post Y2K bust landscape.

Very soon, I read, web professionals would throw off the yoke of corporate life and start building small and nimble organisations with a wide plethora of services to offer.

The author of the article lauded themselves as an example of the coming revolution.  I was so intrigued that I visited the web site of the author and was immensely disappointed to find out that they had been, let us say, economical with the truth.  On viewing the ‘about’ section I saw that the author of the article had in fact hired separate design and development experts to help him create his site.  Whilst he was providing the ideas and content, they were obviously the ones doing the creative design and technical plumbing to meet his brief.

To say I was livid is an understatement.  The author had misrepresented the truth and I promptly hacked out an e-mail to the magazine. Finger pecking at my keyboard ferociously in my utter disgust at this person. I can’t remember exactly what I wrote, but I know I let the guy have both barrels, and I made a point of not buying the magazine again.  Well, for a number of years at least.

Months later I found out that my e-mail had been published and that one of the defences employed against my tirade was that that author was simply guilty of trying to make his organisation look bigger than it actually was and that the web designer and developer mentioned on his website were not his employees but freelancers in their own right.  Still. The experience was enough to put me off the idea of small organisations for a long time.

Fast forward eight or nine years and I find that I’m perhaps approaching the spirit of what that article was predicting. It may be that in my case there was some sort of sub-conscious self-fulfilling prophecy dynamic at work.  But its not only me.  An exceedingly high proportion of my colleagues have left the “safe” jobs they once had and embraced the concept of a petite organisation with a broad base of expertise.  Even a brief analysis shows that many of my competitors are not too dissimilar from me.  We are our own CEOs.  Our own Marketing Department.  Financial Director. Chief Information Officer. Search Engine Optimisation and Social Marketing experts.

I find it easier to think of it like this.  Some singers do just that.  They sing.  They sing a song that somebody else wrote dancing a dance somebody else choreographed to music somebody else produced using instruments somebody else played in a video which they’ve let a director conceive and execute.  But the truly talented artists aren’t singers at all.  They are multi-faceted.  They place themselves at the centre of a whirlwind of creative activity getting involved at each stage in the creative process and driving the direction, in many cases famously demanding absolute perfection.

Take a look at your record collection. Remove the one hit wonders.  Now. What’s left?  The Beatles?  Madonna?  PrinceJustin TimberlakeMichael or Janet (but definitely not La Toya) Jackson? EminemMetallicaKate Bush and/or Tori AmosJay-ZGeorge MichaelBeyonceCliff Richard?

Now, you might not personally like some or all of these these artists.  But they represent the ideals of a small powerhouse of creativity with a wide skill set (various combinations of singing and song-writing, instrument playing, music production, creative dancing and so on) and a refusal to compromise on the aesthetics and creativity of their particular expression of art.  And they’ve been around for literally decades. In many cases they continue to appeal to ever more successive generations of music lovers.

Many of these artists take calculated risks which only highlight their growth as creative types. Michael Jackson embraced both pop and rock, and even took a punt on New Jack Swing. Prince has delved into funk, rock, house, jazz and blues.  The Beatles – individually and collectively – experimented with concept albums and different music recording techniques and instruments. Heavy-metal rock-gods Metallica delivered a heart-rending string-laden ballad to both the delight and disgust of their fans. Jay-Z, a famous and long serving hip-hop artist successfully became the headline act for Glastonbury, a festival that has traditionally been rock, pop and alternative music focussed.

You get the point.  Those artists who demonstrate a broad and constantly evolving set of skills and creative vision demonstrably deliver consistently excellent results over the long term.  Though I admit this is far from a scientific study, I think you will see it holds true by just looking at your own record collection.

It’s no accident that people with wide ranging skills can better control and execute a creative process than a person who is simply great at a single thing.  Consider the Pop Idol/X Factor proposition. Sure.  Chico is fun (1 album, 3 singles), and Gareth Gates, is, ahem, “cute” (3 albums, 9 singles). but Will Young (5 albums, 14 singles), is still successfully writing and recording his own songs. Even Jeremy Clarkson loves Will Young!

Now to return from my music based tangential metaphor.  Whilst the author of the article that got me so hot and bothered were themselves not quite the embodiment of the prophecy they were making, there are many companies that in fact now are.  And the Internet eco-system is all the stronger for it.

If you are looking to build a web site yourself, you may well find that one person is all you need to help.  Or, sometimes, chaining together a network of people may be what is called for, especially on larger more sophisticated web sites.  And I’m happy to be a link in a chain.  For instance, though I’ll blog till the cows come home, I would not consider myself a skilled copywriter, so I’ll happily design and build a website from scratch, but if you need some professional copy, well, I’d rather find somebody else to help with that.

We each have individual skills, but we should also know our own limits and not be afraid to hand over those parts of the creative process which we know we are not particularly skilled at.  Whether you are a client, colleague, or competitor, my skills may overlap at some point with yours. But where our skills diverge, well, that is where we can help each other. And isn’t that, in the end, how the web eco-system will sustain itself and evolve?

Even multi-millionaire superstars don’t do everything themselves. Why should you or I?

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Do what you love. Love what you do.