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Hacking Your Career as a Non-Developer

It’s Monday again, which means another Reader Question Monday.  This week, rather than renew my assault on all things sacred to software developers, why don’t I mount an assault on the design profession?

I’m kidding about the assault part.  Probably.  But today’s question comes from a designer.  I consider this cool because we knowledge workers should band together and because I’m glad that people beyond software developers read the blog and my book.

Here’s the question.

Loving Developer Hegemony – tons to think about.  I would love your thoughts on this situation.

I’ve applied for a green card, but that means I’m unable to leave my current, underpaid job.  I’m also stuck with the ‘designer’ branding through the eyes of execs, and the CTO (owner), who I report to.

What’s the best use of my time?

Inspired by your book I’d like to at least experiment with distancing myself from line-level design work, but I also don’t want to over-work, as my current deal is economically terrible, and I’m obviously an unlikely candidate for promotion.  Is it a matter of smartly deferring loser-work and snapping up, or inventing the ‘best’ projects for me, while cultivating my external network and side projects?

I’ve been pushing your book on the devs I work with – but most of them are too idealistic!!

First of all, thanks for your support buying the book, for reading the blog, and for your question.  Let’s get you some answers.

Examining and Inferring the Nature of Your Organization

First of all, a few things about this scream small-ish, perhaps not super-mature startup type of shop.  Why do I say this?

  1. Executives are interested in what (no offense) some line-level designer is doing.
  2. You regard the CTO as an “owner” rather than a shareholder or even co-founder.
  3. You’re underpaid.
  4. You report to the CTO.

Of course, the operation can’t be too rinky-dink, which I infer from the following.

  1. You say devs, plural.
  2. You have a staff role as a designer instead of a part time/freelance deal.
  3. They’re sponsoring foreign workers.

Why do I mention all of this?  Well, it’s good to establish some axiomatic context for the readership.  But it’s also important to paint a picture related to the corporate hierarchy that I so frequently reference, both in the book and on the blog.

You are, quite probably, in a company with an anemic idealist buffer between pragmatists like yourself, and the controlling opportunists.

Your Boss is Probably a Non-Traditional Journeyman Idealist

Bear in mind, though, that startup culture (particularly funded startup culture) has given rise to a curious phenomenon that you don’t see in established companies.  Specifically, you can find situations where the venture capitalists serve as opportunists, and the founders/executives are idealists or journeyman idealists.

And it sounds like your CTO might be a journeyman idealist.

Why do I say this?  Well, simultaneously being an owner and identifying as CTO certainly smacks of non-opportunist techie.  (And I say this with no derision — I’m the owner and, effectively the CEO of Hit Subscribe but I often give myself the title of CTO since I don’t need to be an opportunist, per se, in a world of my own control.)  But also, having a dismissive outlook on anyone not slinging teh codez is redolent with journeyman idealism.

So let’s recap the probable situation.  You work at a small-ish, new-ish company not in a position to have an idealist management layer.  And your boss is a major buyer in the stock market of programmer meritocracy delusion.

What should you do?

Go Looking for Data

When your boss looks at you, he probably thinks, “oh, that’s the guy that does color wheels and wireframes.”  In other words, there’s a decent chance he views your expertise as something he could easily figure out but just doesn’t have time to do.

You should convince him otherwise.

And the best way to do that involves using data and empirical classifications of your contributions.  Can you quantify traffic to a page that you’ve optimized versus one you haven’t?  Can you run an A/B test?  It’s hard for me to speak to the specifics of the situations, sight unseen.  But you want to find a way to highlight your contributions that involves cold, hard data instead of aesthetics.  This will make a journeyman idealist blink and grudgingly respect something outside of his purview.

That bodes well for your current job to an extent.  But it bodes even better for your career.  Any aspiring efficiencer or free agent should seek to get good at quantifying his or her contributions and articulating a value proposition in a compelling way.

Don’t Worry about Loser Work

Impressing your boss isn’t going to result in him manufacturing some director-level position for you.  The only thing that will have that result is impressive growth of the company, to the point where it needs to start creating an idealist (or opportunist-in-idealist-clothing) layer of management.  And if that happens, you’ll earn a promotion almost by default when you go from “the UX guy” to “Manager, UX.”

But let’s assume that no such growth spasm is imminent.  Your company is going to keep plugging away at its current size and trajectory, more or less.

You don’t need to avoid loser work.  Why not?  Because, if you’ll recall, I advised that aspiring opportunists do this.  But that doesn’t describe you.  You’re biding your time at this company, waiting for your legal situation to change.  You avoid grunt work to avoid being branded an over-performing grunt and having opportunists perceive you as a non-strategic over-performer, destined for lower mid-level management.

But your company isn’t that vertical by a long shot.  And your CTO boss may not even be an opportunist.

So don’t sweat it.  Do whatever makes your day to day most comfortable, and whatever tees up your next gig in the best way.

Prepare for the Future

So, in the end, how should you spend your time?  You should spend your time reverse-engineering your resume based on the next thing you want to do.

Do you want to be a designer at a firm with more upward mobility when the green card comes through?  Do you want to hustle on your own?  Figure out what’s next, and then figure out what you’d need in order to make that happen.  The difference between that ideal version of you and the current one becomes your project.  And you balance making your day to day life palatable with turning yourself into the ideal applicant for your next job.

Focusing on data and outcomes will please you boss and make you more marketable.  So definitely do that.  Avoiding loser/pragmatist work?  Don’t bother.  There’s no upward mobility in your role short of meteoric growth.

You should be focused on your next gig when it comes, and unapologetically so.  Your employer is taking advantage of your legal status to get cheap labor.  You should take advantage of the same to get cheap experience that will serve you later.

You don’t need to be a software developer (or an idealist CTO) to hack your career.

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