I’ve worked in UX for just over ten years now, the web industry as a whole for roughly 18, and computers as a whole since I was knee-high to a grasshopper.
I’ve never worked for an agency.
And the thing I’ve noticed the most about speaking — outside of the sheer terror and exhaustion of it — is that for some people it appears to be required and for others it doesn’t. And it seems to be about exposure.
Exposure is that thing where you want to give people who don’t work with you on a daily basis, or even frequently, enough of a good experience when they do work with you that they remember you as one of the good ones. Generally you need exposure to people with authority, whether that’s the authority to hire and fire you or the authority to choose you for a specific project. But exposure to peers in your field (or even those your junior) as well as peers in fields adjacent to your own, is never bad. You never know when those folks might actually turn out to be one of those people in authority.
My first eight+ years of UX were in-house at a company whose UX staff, if you included the writers, averaged around 200 people.
My entire career at that location, I did not give a damn about exposure, in fact, I did my best to avoid it. If my peers and my chain of command knew I was doing good work, that was good enough for me. If I sought exposure for anything, it was my ideas; I didn’t care if you remembered anne gibson, but I did care if you remembered that Information Architecture can make or break a website, and that when you worked with me you learned a little bit about how to lean on the “make” side of that equation.
Some might say that I was naive. Some might even say that my lack of exposure explains why my career growth stalled for a few years. They would be wrong.
It’s been my experience, as an innie, and talking to other innies, that visibility to the outside world is a bonus to the company more than it is a path to career growth. The people you need to impress are your peers and your boss (and your boss’s boss), because they control both the day-to-day of your working experience and the overall impression the company has of your skills and value. You can be published and write talks and do things that make you better-known in the industry if you want to, but it’s not required of your job. (In fact, a few of my managers have thought it was detrimental, because that was time I could’ve been spending on the year’s Project Death March instead.)
At best, innies give back because it’s ethically the right thing to do to ensure we can share our knowledge and learn from each other. At worst, we give back because we’ve worked with a lot of outies who haven’t a clue and we’d really like some better-trained prospective employees please.
On the other hand, I’m working and talking to more people with “outie” (aka “consulting” or “agency” or “freelance”) experience than I’ve had a chance to do in earlier parts of my career, and I’m beginning to get an appreciation for the value that comes with it for those careers. Having an industry-recognized member of the team can help the agency find customers, and is even more powerful for the consultant, or the freelancer. Keeping one’s name in the social media feeds or magazines for good work can accelerate that process. Being [big name person] is significantly more valuable than being “the next [big name person]” both in credibility and in monetary reward.
This isn’t to say that an outie’s messages in a talk are any less valuable than an innie, or that an outie’s morals and values about contributing to the community are any different. Both an innie and an outie can choose to write a talk, submit it, get accepted, rehearse, and present it, all because the message they’re bringing is valuable to the community and they want to change the community with their words. Similarly, both can wish to work with n00bs who have more knowledge, and choose to educate for that reason 😉
But whereas the outies I talk to often say things like “If I don’t get more exposure this year, people are going to forget my name,” or “I’m not going to be as big as [big-name person here] if I don’t get more speaking gigs”, my mindset is mostly “If I don’t get more exposure this year, I might actually get my shit done.”
For a while, I thought that outies were a bit arrogant, always worried about their ego and their community rank. But I’ve come to realize that most of them are terrified that without name recognition they’ll be unemployable. My security as an in-house designer for two solid and growing companies has provided me the privilege of never worrying about the next contract or the next gig unless I wanted to move on. And while I don’t write to forward my career, my writing here in other places certainly assisted me in getting a better position than I may have gotten as a no-name designer churned out from the innie world.
So this is me, learning a little late that there’s no shame in garnering exposure, and maybe even some advantage in doing so. But also this is me, recognizing that if I had to pound the pavement to bring in work, I’m woefully unprepared both to handle the work of doing so, and to handle the anxiety that comes with it.
To all my outie friends, I wish you smooth submission processes, many acceptance letters, and nods of recognition whenever your names are mentioned. May your roads be paved with success, and should your soles wear down, may you find a nice department at an innie where you can pound the pavement a little less.