Finding Your Professional Path
This is a write-up of a keynote I held at Hyper Island on October 4 for the students of the Digital Media Program on the topic of Professional Paths - e.g. reflections and discussions around choosing a career. Questions and discussions are removed for clarity.
Life is full of questions. One of the most important questions is, what will you spend your life doing? If you think I’m joking, maybe taking all of this a bit too seriously, I’ll let you in on a secret, I am.
Over the course of your career, you’re likely to changes jobs, companies, personal and professional interests tens of times. What you spend your life doing is important because you will - most likely - spend a lot of your time on this earth doing work. Thinking ever further, who you spend your time with and what you do with that time, are equally important questions.
Life is a journey that we are embarking on, today, and we’ll start with these three things.
The Digital Industry – Past, present, and what I think is the future. For a younger-aged industry, it has changed a lot over the course of time and will likely change even more going forward.
Evolution of Roles - I want to tell you about my career up until today. As someone who’s been employed, managed people, been let go, let people go, freelanced, worked as an in-house consultant, worked in offices and remotely, supported one-person companies and massive corporations to boot, I have a decent amount of insight to share.
Your Role – Let’s have a conversation. I want to learn about you, your interests, and discuss your role within the digital industry. While it’s likely you’ll change your career many times, having a plan is a good idea.
The Digital Industry
We are embarking on a very young industry. The digital industry - even if you include CD-ROM's, is just a baby, perhaps better stated, an embryo. Depending on how you ‘slice the cake’ it's an industry that's roughly 25-35 years old. Compared to industries such as industrial design, which originated in the 17th century, or design and branding, whose practices date back to 2700BC, it's no wonder that we're all occasionally confused about the roles and purpose of what we're doing in the digital industry.
So, if you're feeling insecure about the digital industry, find comfort in the fact that this is the beginning for all of us. While I may have 20 years of experience creating digital products, the industry as a whole is a baby, and to be honest, so are we.
Even though babies scream, and for lack of better words, shit themselves, they are also full of life and energy, and are eager to learn. The digital industry is no different.
You find yourself here today, attending Hyper Island, because you too will learn to walk alongside us in this new age of technology. With all of the amazing opportunities to try new things, explore and create, you can become a part of the journey.
In the past 20 years since I’ve graduated from Hyper Island, the journey has been remarkable. Back then, things were quite different from what they are today.
Evolution of roles
In August 2002, I began working as a designer at an agency in Stockholm, called Projector. Our business designed, managed and developed corporate and campaign websites, either in Flash (now outdated), or just plain HTML. This was 10 years before there was any discussion about Responsive Design. At this point, a typical project was run by three to four people at best. There was a designer (me), a project manager, a developer, and for bigger projects we added a copywriter. For the biggest projects, there would be multiple people with the same role (two designers, two developers, etc).
So the typical project was the following equation:
Designer + Project Manager + Developer = Product
Fast forward to today, and each role has expanded into niched variations, each of which with their own niched variation, of a niched variation. You get the point.
Today, a designer can be an Information Architect, UX Designer, UI Designer, Product Designer, Design Director, Art Director, Senior Art Director, Creative Director, Executive Creative Director, Content Designer, Design Researcher, Design Ops, Motion Designer, Design Lead, UX Lead, Design Manager, Design Producer, Graphic Designer, iOS Designer, and Visual Designer...
2005: I'm a web designer
2009: I'm a UI designer
2011: I'm a UX designer
2014: I'm a product designer
2021: I'm an experience sommelier
— 🎃 Tomb Frighten 💀 (@tomcreighton) May 31, 2017
We see this trend in other roles as well.
All of these roles will continue to expand into new territories as we're moving into new digital arenas. Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook are all betting big on voice assistants, so we'll soon see more job postings for designers for voice-enabled personal assistants and developers for AI-powered micro-banking. As digital becomes a core market for more and more companies, it's not just agencies (and freelancers) that needs these skills - every company will need them. In fact, most of my friends that work in digital are no longer employed by agencies but by banks, magazines, insurance companies, and retail. Digital will no longer be a separate area within these companies; it will be the core.
Your role - What are you interested in?
As the number of roles and titles will only continue to grow, it can be overwhelming to even start to think about what kind of work you should be looking for - or aiming towards. If we’re talking about the journey, this is the start. I encourage you to use the time at Hyper Island to try everything. I know from my own time at Hyper Island that I got really tired of hearing “this is the time in life to try everything”, which is what I just told you to do, but once you’re employed, you'll miss the freedom of this time in your life. Much to everyone’s surprise, I wish that I’d experimented more with different things.
I think you wanna look for the intersection of what you're good at, what you enjoy and what way you can create a value for the world. And in my experience, if you don't find something at the intersection of those three, it's hard to really have an impact. I think most people kind of just fall into what they work on. They don't give it much thought and there is benefit to that. Sometimes you actually have to just try stuff to figure out what you like. But I really do think it is worth upfront thought about what you're going to spend most of your waking time doing.Sam Altman
Let's say that you are good at programming. While you may not deeply enjoy doing it, you may enjoy the process of solving technical problems through developing software. If there's a market need for this, you have all the ingredients you need for a successful career. You might really love writing poems, but maybe there's not enough interest in your poems for people to pay for them. That's ok, you can continue to be a poet on the side.
The power of Hyper Island is the talent in your class. While Jessica doesn't know Sketch or Figma, Johanna does. Björn doesn't know how to write CSS, but fortunately Emma is a killer at it. Set up your own workshops and learn from each other outside of the curriculum. Regardless of what career you end up choosing, you'll work with people (or super smart AI robots) - so working together and teaching co-workers are two crucial skills you can use to grow.
Okay, so you have an idea of what you're interested in, that’s great. Now it’s time to specialize.
Here's what my friend Dan Mall thinks:
Try to become an expert at something that nobody else is good at. If you try to become Java Script expert, well there are many Java Script experts that exist.
That's going to be a hard path for you to traverse. But if you could become the Java Script expert for travel sites, maybe none of that exist as much. Think about narrowing your positioning and finding that expertise within a niche.Dan Mall —
Further supported by Sam Altman:
Most people understand that companies are more valuable if they are difficult to compete with. This is important, and obviously true. But this holds true for you as an individual as well. If what you do can be done by someone else, it eventually will be, and for less money.The best way to become difficult to compete with is to build up leverage. For example, you can do it with personal relationships, by building a strong personal brand, or by getting good at the intersection of multiple different fields. There are many other strategies, but you have to figure out some way to do it.
Most people do whatever most people they hang out with do. This mimetic behavior is usually a mistake—if you’re doing the same thing everyone else is doing, you will not be hard to compete with.Sam Altman
I encourage you to use this time to build crazy stuff, and use online communities, like Makerpad, to understand how things work. Then, make a plan. It doesn’t have to be for the rest of your life, but if you're just going from one thing to another, it'll be hard to grow your work into a career. That being said, let me tell you a couple of things about my career leading up to today.
Not long ago, planning your professional path was pretty easy. Basically you got a degree, hopefully got a job that you did not hate and for the rest of your life, went to the office and sat behind a desk. Today, this scenario has become somewhat more nuanced. Within the digital field, you'll find everything from individual consultants charging premium rates, to freelancers utilizing websites like Upwork and Fiverrrr. More and more companies, such as Basecamp, Buffer and Invision (who are 800+ employees, all remote) are recognizing the benefits of a remote workforce.
Before we head into the pros and cons of remote working, let's back up to 1999, before the new digital age, when I had only heard of this place in the south of Sweden called Hyper Island.
My family got our first desktop PC sometime in the mid-90's. While I primarily used it to play Captain Keen and UFO Enemy Unknown, I also started playing out with Photoshop. I hung out in a lot of online chat communities (IRC) and got into the hardcore / straight edge music scene. Within the scene, there's a strong DYI culture so making flyers for shows, writing and designing a fanzine and even creating custom covers for mixtapes (you guys must think I'm a 100 years old now) was all a given so learning Photoshop through my passion was effortless.
In 1997, if you knew Photoshop and the basics of HTML (in fact, there wasn't anything besides basic HTML at that point) you were essentially a web designer. Through some connections, I managed to get a couple of jobs designing websites for companies when I was still in high school, but I had my eyes set on Hyper Island. As soon as I had finished high school I applied and was luckily accepted (I didn't really have a backup plan). Back then, Hyper Island was just 45 people and Karlskrona. With all of the changes I’ve seen coming back year after year, I can say that many things are still the same, namely, the culture, the ambition and the human nature of learning through experimentation and exploration.
From 2000 to 2002, I attended Hyper Island, completed an internship in London, and met my wife-to-be (making my decision to attend Hyper Island the most important in my life). Following graduation we decided to move to Stockholm during a difficult time for the job market. Just a year after the ‘dot-com’ bubble burst, I managed to find a job in an agency as a designer. For the next six years I moved around, working at three different agencies – one smaller, one medium-sized, and one network agency (BBDO). My professional moves were never a conscious choice but looking back on it, the dots line up.
In 2008 my wife and I moved to the south of Sweden and I started working for another large agency in Copenhagen (Bates Y&R). About two years in, I wanted to do something else. I had always dreamt about running my own agency, so in 2009, I decided to start working for myself.
At the beginning of my solo-career, I thought that working by myself would be temporary, expecting that one day, I'd begin to hire people and eventually build an agency just like the ones I had worked at. Of course, the difference being that mine would be so much better; no more office drama, no more bureaucracy, just fun work!
Coming from a family of business owners, my views on business ownership were taught to me at a very young age. It was expected that I would follow this same path, differently of course, but the same. My parents both built companies with a traditional model that accomplished goals with the help of employees and led to professional successes. As their son, I believed that it was only a matter of time before my business would follow suit. As the years passed by, I realized that I kept coming up with excuses as to why it wasn’t time to grow my staff. Subconsciously, I was inching away from the traditional way of doing business and eventually realized that I had absolutely no desire to hire anyone, ever.
As a freelancer, I can be my own boss and not have to be anyone else’s. I am not responsible for anyone’s income. This frees me to make decisions quickly. I can work from anywhere, and can even choose if I want to work today! This is something I truly love.
Staying small is the choice I've made and it allows me to be flexible.
“Being small is nothing to be insecure or ashamed about. Small is great. Small is independence. Small is opportunity. Celebrate it…It’s truly to your advantage.”Jason Fried
If I were only allowed to give you one piece of advice it would be this... Be open to change. What you think your future holds for you could be very different than how it will actually pan out. And that's ok. Follow the flow, don't try to swim upstream.
That said, freelancing is at times... is a struggle.
Freelancing in a nutshell:
how am I going to pay my bills I don't have enough wo-OH GOD TOO MUCH WORK HELP
— Kelly Vaughn 🐞 (@kvlly) September 11, 2019
I still struggle with the ups and downs of freelance work. It is so rare to have "the right amount of work" even after having a 10-year streak of profitable years in business. Honestly, I still freak out about every six months. Luckily, the choice I made to attend Hyper Island and the life partner I found there help in those situations.
The freedom I have in running my own company also comes with a ton of anxiety about whether or not I'll be able to stay in business. I revel in being able to work remotely, but I miss having colleagues. Working on shorter term projects is a lot of fun - starting something new always is - but that means I need to find new projects more often. Simply put, every choice made comes with consequences and understanding them and their impact to you will help you make the right decisions. If you want that Creative Director title, understand that there will be things that you need to give up.
People want to start their own business or become financially independent. But you don’t end up a successful entrepreneur unless you find a way to appreciate the risk, the uncertainty, the repeated failures, and working insane hours on something you have no idea whether will be successful or not.
Who you are is defined by the values you are willing to struggle for. People who enjoy the struggles of a gym are the ones who get in good shape. People who enjoy long workweeks and the politics of the corporate ladder are the ones who move up it. People who enjoy the stresses and uncertainty of the starving artist lifestyle are ultimately the ones who live it and make it.
This is the most simple and basic component of life: our struggles determine our successes. So choose your struggles wisely, my friend.Mark Manson - The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck
Whatever type of work you choose, no matter how or why you chose it, there will be pros and cons. You'll have to learn to enjoy the struggles, combat the anxiety and stress, and focus on the WHY you are doing it. To generalize a bit, the generation before me all hated their jobs. It was a necessary evil to get paid, end of story. Now the kids today seem to think that a job is something that should be fun and a unique experience at all times. The truth, however, is somewhere in the middle. A job CAN be fun and an experience, but it's probably not going to be that way everyday. Sometimes work is just work.
It’s difficult to do a great job on work you don’t care about. And it’s hard to be totally happy/fulfilled in life if you don’t like what you do for your work. Work very hard—a surprising number of people will be offended that you choose to work hard—but not so hard that the rest of your life passes you by. Aim to be the best in the world at whatever you do professionally. Even if you miss, you’ll probably end up in a pretty good place. Figure out your own productivity system—don’t waste time being unorganised, working at suboptimal times, etc. Don’t be afraid to take some career risks, especially early on. Most people pick their career fairly randomly—really think hard about what you like, what fields are going to be successful, and try to talk to people in those fields.The days are long but the decades are short
This quote brings up something that is near to me. You see, I don't spend as much time thinking about how to excel at my work as I do about how I can work better, how I can improve my process. I realized early in my career that I am not the best designer. I think I'm a good designer, but there are a ton of those out there. What I'm great at is communicating with clients, setting expectations, and running a tight ship. This means I keep my promises and give my all. This mindset applies people in every industry. Here's my hero, Jürgen Klopp (manager of Liverpool FC):
“I’m old enough to know that I give this job everything. I’m not a genius, I’m not perfect, but I give the club 100 per cent. If that’s enough, great. If it’s not, then it’s just the problem of the situation."
Likewise, being a good human who is dedicated to their journey will get you where you need to go. No matter your career path, whoever you work for, your skills as a designer, developer, or something else, it all means nothing if you don't carry that drive to be the best human you can be. If you ever find yourself in a place where your skills are valued more than you as a person, perhaps it's time to consider if this is where you should spend your time.
I’ve hired a few people in my time.
I’ve never been disappointed by hiring someone who is less technical but is a great human who cares for others.
I can teach tech pretty easily.
But boy have I seen people who are strong technical people with toxic attitudes destroy a team.
— Brian P. Hogan (@bphogan) September 15, 2019
What story do you want people to tell?
I choose to always speak in an open, personal, and professional manner whenever I'm talking to my clients. This tells my story, my promise to the client. It's important to always know what story you want to people to tell about you. You have to decide for yourself otherwise others will do it for you. Either way, a story will be told. Make sure it's in your favor.
(I had a cut down version that ended after roughly 5 minutes)
I think it's important to think about the word promise. It is a term that means you pledge to do, bring about, or provide something. In our case it's a statement you are making to your client on what they can expect of you. Mine is pretty simple, but it guides every business decision I make.
My Promise to My Clients: I promise that my clients will always get an agency-quality delivery while keeping communications positive and open-minded. My promise is not to be one of the best designers, but I'll deliver the best solution for them. I'll stay true to my promises, add value, and do it all without the bureaucracy or a buttoned-up personality. Looking at the things my clients tell me, it's seems like I'm succeeding with my promise!
Anton is a renaissance man. It’s rare to find someone who can help in so many areas at such a thoughtful and high level of quality. Anton makes any team better.Dan Mall
Anton was thorough and a pleasure to work with. He’s a great collaborator and partner to work through product solutions alongside. He does what he says and never misses a deadline, an unfortunate rarity these days that you don’t have to worry about with Anton.Travis Schmeisser
I am enthused and impressed by how Anton chooses simplicity over complexity and keeps the design interesting, appealing and accessible. Furthermore, he is a humble and unassuming person that is a pleasure to work with.Hubert Kjellberg
Humble and personal, deliver on time and a wide array of skills.
So, what's your story? What's your promise?
Planning Your Path
So far I've told you a bit about my experiences regarding the industry, I've told you a bit about my background, looked at the pros and cons of being employed vs. running your own company and remote vs. on location, and talked about what struggles you're willing to accept in order to reach your goals. For this final section, I want to focus our attention even more on you and the future of our industry. But first, I want you to think if you're interested in a job, a career, or a calling. Let me clarify a bit:
Your job is what you do for money. It will be 9 to 5 and, eventually, you will be always awaiting for TGIF. Most people end up doing this for their entire lives.
Your career is a step above a job where you seek advancement both personally and professionally through promotion or other means. You could find a job that's also your passion. A professional soccer player is probably not playing for the paycheck alone, they're playing because they love the game. I do what I do because I love working with tech and understanding how users think (and because I hate poorly-designed websites!).
Your calling is what what you would do even if you weren't financially compensated. It is intrinsically fulfilling to you. You don't care if it's Monday or Friday. It is something that "fills your cup". Think of a doctor working for Medecins Sans Frontieres or people working at homeless shelters... or better yet, think about Greta.
You're probably thinking something like "have I missed my calling?" or "I think I only have a job, not a career". Don't lose faith or feel bad. These aren't ranked in any order. Having a job can be a great thing as long as you have other things in life to lift you up. A career is wonderful if you are confident in your passion and want to grow with it. And a calling, well, that's not a prerequisite to having a great life. Honestly, would you all be sitting here if you knew your calling? No, you'd be out there making it happen!
What kind of work do you want to do?
The things you design will end up affecting millions of people's lives. Countless experiences will be created through the work of your hands. For this final chapter of the day, I think it's important to talk about the future of technology because you, yes YOU, are our future.
”We don’t design just apps or websites, we design habits and social behaviour.”
We're in a dangerous moment in human history. Technology is advancing fast than ever before and that is shaping our social behavior. Ask yourself, have we considered the consequences fully? The companies developing these technologies are guided by profits (and rightfully so), but as designers, engineers, and managers, we need to take responsibility for the work we ship.
Take as an example a feature introduced a year ago by Google, Google Duplex:
The "person" calling to make the appointment isn't actually a person. It's a virtual assistant with a natural sounding voice that even has quirks like euhm and ahaa to make them sound more human. How could any really tell the difference if it wasn't announced?
Google Assistant making calls pretending to be human not only without disclosing that it's a bot, but adding "ummm" and "aaah" to deceive the human on the other end with the room cheering it... horrifying. Silicon Valley is ethically lost, rudderless and has not learned a thing.
— zeynep tufekci (@zeynep) May 9, 2018
When humans can't tell the difference between a machine and an actual human, what's next? Now we're seeing AI generated videos published by disreputable organizations spreading messaging that is meant to deceive. With as little effort as a click, these can be spread through Facebook, Google, and every other social platform to affect millions if not billions of people. We know how fast something like that can spread. A recent study finds that at least 70 countries have had disinformation campaigns through social media, (including Sweden) that affected elections.
So, what does your moral compass tell you? Over the years, I've worked with many students at Hyper Island and, in some modules, with real clients. I've seen students who don't want to work with alcohol companies or energy drink vendors. I've seen others who don't have any issue with working with political parties or betting sites. And truth be told, there are those people who would work with Satan as long as the money or exposure is worth it. Again, I don't want you to think there are any rights or wrongs here. I wouldn't think bad of a person if they went to work for Facebook. I just want to challenge you, as designers, to think about where we stand and what change we want to see. The things we create, have consequences.
The combustion engine which is destroying our planet’s atmosphere and rapidly making it inhospitable is working exactly as we designed it. Guns, which lead to so much death, work exactly as they’re designed to work. And every time we “improve” their design, they get better at killing. Facebook’s privacy settings, which have outed gay teens to their conservative parents, are working exactly as designed. Their “real names” initiative, which makes it easier for stalkers to re-find their victims, is working exactly as designed.Mike Monteiro
What’s our responsibility?
I think we can all agree that technology is exciting and inspiring. However, the old rule still applies: just because you can, doesn't mean you should. With the impact of tech on our daily lives growing strong every day, we are setting ourselves up for some challenges ahead. The shift is just starting.
In mature disciplines like law or medicine, we often see centuries of learning incorporated into the professional curriculum, with explicit requirements for ethical education. Now, that hardly stops ethical transgressions from happening—we can see deeply unethical people in positions of power today who went to top business schools that proudly tout their vaunted ethics programs. But that basic level of familiarity with ethical concerns gives those fields a broad fluency in the concepts of ethics so they can have informed conversations. And more importantly, it ensures that those who want to do the right thing and do their jobs in an ethical way have a firm foundation to build on.
But until the very recent backlash against some of the worst excesses of the tech world, there had been little progress in increasing the expectation of ethical education being incorporated into technical training. There are still very few programs aimed at upgrading the ethical knowledge of those who are already in the workforce; continuing education is largely focused on acquiring new technical skills rather than social ones. There’s no silver-bullet solution to this issue; it’s overly simplistic to think that simply bringing computer scientists into closer collaboration with liberal arts majors will significantly address these ethics concerns. But it is clear that technologists will have to rapidly become fluent in ethical concerns if they want to continue to have the widespread public support that they currently enjoy.12 THINGS EVERYONE SHOULD UNDERSTAND ABOUT TECH
UX doesn’t end at the edges of the screen. Every decision we make can potentially have a negative or positive impact on people’s lives. We must wield this craft responsibly w/ our ultimate aim being to help this & future generations live more meaningful lives beyond the screen.
— Nick Finck (@nickf) September 6, 2019
Exercise: Why, How, What
Simon Sinek, author of "Start with Why", designed a great exercise for communicating more purposefully. You see, when we spend time thinking of solutions to problems, we tend to think about 'What' and 'How' first. However, we need to consider the 'Why' before all other things and this is the incredibly difficult to fully understand and get right. I like Simon's approach of starting with 'Why'. Here's a brief rundown of how it works:
Looking at the outer circle, your 'What' is what you do. This could be as vague as 'a developer' or as specific as 'a freelance PHP developer'. If you haven't yet decided what you do quite yet, you at least know what you WANT to do.
The next ring in is a little trickier. 'How' is what you do that sets you apart from your competition. This is what makes you unique. It could be that you work exclusively with travel sites or specialize in UX driven, simplified solutions. Now, it's ok to not know what this is for you yet as defining your self and communicating it is a learned skill.
At the center is your 'Why'. Call it whatever you want - purpose, cause, reason - but it is the core of what you do and who you are. Be very careful not to confuse your 'Why' with the need to make money. That is the RESULT of your understanding your 'Why' and executing your 'What' through your 'How'.
Take a look at Simon Sinek as he explains in more detail how this works:
Now, let's think about what your 'Why', 'What', 'How's' are. Take this time to think about what story you want people to tell and why you want them to tell that story.
The two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you figure out why.Mark Twain
So to wrap up, here are three things for you to think about:
Try a bunch of different things to know what you enjoy. Only when you know what you enjoy doing, you can become truly great at it.
Understand why you want to work.
Define your story. Regardless if you're running your own company or getting hired, you'll have to sell yourself. Someone will have to choose to pay you for the work you're doing, so make it supereasy for anyone to understand.
Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.*
Thank you for your time.