Interview with Eric Miller, 4/22/2013

Contact Information: Eric Miller is the owner of Squishymedia. Eric has spent fifteen years in interactive media working in a variety of design, technology, and project management roles. Since starting Squishymedia in 2001 he has worked to build a practice that makes a positive contribution to our communities through the successes of our clients.

Eric suggested this discussion of Tech related employment, specifically in relation to two recent articles published by Mashable and Fast Company.

 

What is your role in “technology”?

I’m the owner of a small web application design & development agency. Ultimately my job is to continuously learn from peers, industry news and activities, and our design and technical specialists about the technologies and to interact with clients to learn about their problems, then thinking about how to use the tech to solve the problem. Nowadays I mostly fake it when it comes to specific technologies; I haven’t coded in a couple years and the others in our shop are much, much better at it than I am. I’m more of a translator between the client organization with problems to be solved and the staff in our agency working on solving those problems.

 

How do you see “Technology” as an employment sector?

As an avid mangler of metaphors, I guess I’d lean towards surfing as a decent place to start describing how I personally think of individuals managing their own careers in technology.

Positions tied to particularly in-demand or fashionable skillsets come in waves, and some people are in the right place to capitalize on it. More precisely, that the individuals who are repeatedly successful in finding positions in the industry (at least, in my corner of the industry) are ones who have been able to sense how to sync up their skills and interests and past work with the current demand for skills. There’s a confluence of technical background, personal interests, timing, and dumb luck at work here. If you’ve developed skillset X, and there’s suddenly a demand for skillset X, you’re set. For a year or three. Then it’s on to the next wave.

If you get the hang of it, it’s great. The hours are good, the money is good, the work is good, and the worker is the one largely in control of what they do. That said, I’m not sure this pattern is sustainable, either for people over the long term, or for a broader cross-section of workers.

You mention not being sure if “this pattern is sustainable”. What do you mean?

To complete the murder of my earlier metaphor, we can’t all spend our lives bobbing up and down on the water working hard to find the next gig. Continuously going at full speed in a career is tough to maintain mentally. People might want to slow down for a bit when they start families or need to focus on taking care of an aging parent. People get older and aren’t always interested in spending their nights and weekends reading up on the newest technologies. People might want to stick with what they’ve gotten good at doing for a while rather than putting all their spare energy into learning whatever’s shiny and new that moment. I think it’s really a continuous challenge for individuals to balance staying current with having a sane workweek, and to do so for decades at a stretch.

Given that Tech (and, as I see it, all business at this point) is about “newness” and successive generations grow up to take over the role of 80 hour work weeks and ocd/striving for success, do you think the work environment is going to change to allow individuals work-life balance?

I really don’t know how the need for balance will trend over the long term — there are a lot of factors at work. Businesses do have the option of offering full benefits and 30 hour work weeks and above industry average salaries and catered daily lunches if they don’t mind watching their overall profitability and competitiveness get demolished. At the other extreme, businesses can pay minimal salaries and expect their people to turn in 80 hour weeks, and that probably works for a short time until everyone quits. Companies have to constantly triangulate between the competition, the expectations of their staff, and market conditions. Individual employees do the same calculation regarding their personal careers and what they’re willing to do, either for the short term or the long term.

 

What percentage of the population in America do you think has the skills to take on the jobs listed in the Mashable article?

 

Anyone could learn the vocabulary of the technologies, which I’ll define here as, say, a software application or a particular coding language. The technologies themselves aren’t all that hard. The underlying skill that makes the people really good at what they do isn’t technical, but intellectual. Does their mind have the ability to naturally break down difficult real-world problems into conceptual objects or database schema as a software developer does? Or as an organizational challenge, like an information architect? Some people have a resume with years of job experience and reams of technical acronyms listed as skillsets, then you work with them and you realize they don’t have the ability to apply them to solve a problem. Others may not have the certifications or experience or background in a particular programming language, but they just get it at a fundamental level, and they’re brilliant at solving problems.

Our twelve person firm is mostly comprised of people in those roles. They’re all brilliant at what they do. And they were hard to find. Not because we couldn’t find people with a particular type of SQL (a database) listed on their resumes, but because it’s hard to connect with the people who have figured out how to consistently bend SQL to the will of a client or a problem.

What does it mean to be a coder (code poet? code monkey?) to me “code” as a job is HUGE – people make software, websites, CRM systems, to name a few – what does your code turn into?

In our case, we’re designing and building web-based applications. Most of them are designed to work well on desktops, laptops, and mobile devices. Our clients are primarily government agencies and healthcare organizations so there’s usually a lot of complexity to the projects that we do.

A coder is really just a writer who thinks in an extremely structured and explicit way in order to articulate a client’s process in code. A coder (we call ‘em developers) is primarily responsible for taking specifications and mockups and turning them into running applications. That’s done with a combination of prewritten modules, application frameworks, databases, and custom coding. The developer’s job is really just trying to find an optimal implementation. Every project is different and will involve different combinations of those different components. The creativity of that process is what engages most developers and gets them excited.

There’s beauty in well-written code just as there’s beauty in a well-crafted turn at the end of a New Yorker fiction piece. They just sit at opposite ends of the explicit / inferred spectrum.

 

Given your statement about some people have inherent skill and some don’t, how would you suggest a person without the cred gets into one of the Mashable-listed jobs?

 

I’d like to think that aptitude for highly technical work (or the seeming lack thereof) is not an immutable characteristic of a person. Few of the people in our office have formal technical training backgrounds. I was a music major myself. Though I do wonder if the specialist roles in the industry are harder to get into now that we’ve gone through a couple waves of technology hoopla and firms have started to look for telltale signs of credibility in someone’s background. While there are degree programs out there, it’s so much better to actually find a way to do the work and have a way to present it so that the technologist community can apply it to their work and interests. Entry-level developers can learn code by going to websites and participating in open-source communities. Beginning designers can start posting their work for critique. Writers can contribute to industry blogs. Learning by doing is still a very viable way to get into the industry, though I wouldn’t say that it’s easy or simple.

 

How did you get into the “industry”?

 

My experience in the industry started fourteen years ago when I got tired of an clerical job and so I taught myself HTML and built a few websites.

If I were listing off the key events and experiences that led to me doing what I’m doing now, the list would look something like this:

  • Go to college for music, eventually realizing that I was a lousy musician
  • Move (physically and mentally) as far away as possible from past experience to chase personal interests
  • Get bored
  • Learn an in-demand technology using online tutorials
  • Get a job based on the in-demand technology
  • Get overly comfortable in the job
  • Get fired
  • Freelance for a while
  • Get serious about building a business

 

That, and reading Slashdot, Nettime, The New Yorker, and The Economist. That’s what I did, anyway.

 

Regarding Specialist Roles – do you feel you are in a “protected class” as owner of the company/client mediator/having been in the business for so long?

 

Depends on what you mean by protected class. Sure, I’m personally insulated from certain vagaries of the market because we’re lucky enough to have established a track record, a body of work, a reputation, and a degree of social capital in the industry and within our client communities. But I think it’s also fair to acknowledge that in some other ways a company owner is more exposed. When the client lawyers come calling on a contract dispute, or a client fails to pay for months and you’re wondering how you’ll make payroll next month, that’s all going to fall on the owner.

 

What point did you think I was trying to get across when I posted the links? There was something you wanted to address about tech jobs…?

 

I’ve sensed a degree of frustration when talking to smart people who might do very well in this industry but don’t know how to get in, and I’m not sure the answers are simple.

In my experience, successful designers and developers and information architects and content strategists have all developed really, really sophisticated intellectual faculties for reprocessing the information coming at them. I’m not quite sure how to change that fundamental requirement for these technical jobs.

Obviously, English majors and anthropologists and social workers have developed those same faculties but applied to fields which aren’t at the forefront of technology-mediated change across the economy, so the opportunities aren’t there.

I think the industry would benefit from providing more opportunities to talented people who can’t necessarily cite a list of technical acronyms as a skillset. But it also falls to the individuals to start figuring out how they might be able to adapt their skillsets to move into technology if they’re so inclined. Looking up people on LinkedIn with a particular college degree to see what path they followed, that sort of thing.

 

Do you think the industry is biased towards men? Particularly white men? Someone commented on Racebook about the Mashable article featuring all white men except for one woman. Also, most everyone is aware that wage gaps still exist, but …

 

In this case it’s even worse — they picked stock photography and put the woman in the design role, reinforcing an industry stereotype. We make fun of stock photography showing a diverse group of ‘businesspeople’ (read: models) in a ‘meeting’ (read: glass conference room set) and it’s the same four people: older white guy, attractive younger white woman, Asian man/woman, handsome black man in suit. These terrible stock photos tend to get slapped up on home pages or diversity campaigns for lily-white, overwhelmingly male companies, and it’s just not okay.

I’m really proud of the fact that my firm has a 50/50 gender balance. We’re not so great on other types of diversity, but we’re in Portland, Oregon. We can’t win them all. But I have caught myself even recently falling into stereotypes; automatically assuming ‘he’ for a DBA, for example.

As far as the wage gap goes, I don’t know that it is as big an issue at the macro level; people know the industry salaries and there’s not much jerking around of people on that. That said, the bit in the Sheryl Sandberg book about salary negotiations is illuminating about other individual factors that are a lot harder to untangle.

 

I was just going to ask if you are or have read Lean In.

 

We bought copies for everyone in the firm. I just finished it this week. I liked a lot of what she had to say about engagement — though her chapter about equal partnerships made me cringe a couple times.

 

What about it made you cringe?

 

I wouldn’t think she’d need to spell out basics like “wash the dishes occasionally” to men at this point. At the same time, I wasn’t as comfortable with some of the traditional gender roles she implicitly accepted in that chapter. I could have happily skipped that part.

 

How do you feel about the Mashable piece? Does it represent your industry?

 

That Mashable article — it’s a lightweight piece and doesn’t even touch what it’s like to be at a startup. Working at a startup is a completely different proposition from, say, taking an in-house software development position at a government agency or a large multinational. You might use the same coding languages on occasion, but that’s about it in terms of similarity. They tend to attract people with very different professional mindsets and career objectives.

 

How did you get your business started? What were the challenges you faced? Was there a “big break” moment (if so, what was that like)?

 

I had gotten into the industry during the dot.com boom. After the implosion in 2001 I had a freelance practice that was slowly growing. We really started getting some traction when I decided I wasn’t ever going to make everyone happy, so I’d only do the projects I was most interested in. It’s funny how saying no can be liberating and can help develop focus on doing better quality work, and eventually I was lucky enough that we got traction in a couple specific industries we wanted to work in. No real big break moment. That’s different from a lot of other agencies, however, who can be made by landing one big account.

My biggest challenge was teaching myself as I went and doing it all by myself for many years. Businesses are a lot easier to run if you’ve got some knowledge about cashflow management, HR, marketing, contracts…the boring essentials that can sink a business if you don’t pay attention.

 

“One Big Account” sounds like Mad Men. Do you see a parallel in what you do to what Don Draper and crew do in fiction-land?

 

It’s not all that fictional when it comes to the dynamics of building and growing an agency, which is subtly different from the considerations and dynamics associated with professional services firms, consulting firms, or technical service vendors. Agencies are a bit more dependent on portfolio and relationships and the types of clients you work for, possibly more so than, say, an IT firm which does stuff like phone system installations or call center support or server administration. It takes a lot of effort to get to the point where work comes in by referral rather than cold calls or blind RFP responses. And you want those jobs that come in by referral because you’re usually on a good footing with the client from the start. It’s a tricky thing to build.

But if there’s a single thing that keeps me up at night, it’s the ‘what if’ scenarios similar to the storyline in Mad Men where they lost the Lucky Strike account. I’m responsible for the salaries (and the mortgages and the retirement funds and the insurance coverage and the vacations) of a dozen people, so it’s my primary responsibility to make sure our agency doesn’t find itself in a bad situation because of a client leaving or a late check or a contract dispute. So I cringe sometimes when I see Draper & Co. in that situation. I can understand.

Ultimately, though, I consider myself to be very lucky. I love what I do, except for the parts that suck like dealing with insurance policies. I learned that I wasn’t going to be able to find a creative voice in music, but I did find it in the creative act of making websites and applications happen. So I guess I’d just hope that readers of WORK might not think of getting started with a technology career as something imposing and impenetrable. I’ve personally had a positive experience coming in from outside and building a creative career in technology, so I know it’s possible.

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