Hiring and Succeeding in a Multidisciplinary World

Decades before the coming of the Internet, we could confidently go to school, get a major, and then get a job in that discipline. I could get a BS in Marketing and find a marketing job at a great company, and know I had learned the basics of what I needed to know to start at a job and suceed from there.
Along comes the Internet which turns this all upside down. I see this everyday in the job postings that internet startups post. Some typical ones:
1. UX Designer – Someone that can do visual design, interaction design, usability testing, and also translate visual designs to HTML/CSS code or Flash.
Internally I cringe when I see this kind of post; when people ask for my help in finding this person, I tell them that they should either 1) prepare for a long wait, or 2) prepare to really be hiring four people. Why the long wait? Because it is almost impossible to find people who can do all 4, let alone even 2 of the job description. Visual designers are trained in visual aesthetics, a discipline that is decidedly non-technical and totally subjective in nature. Interaction designers are experts in structure and how users interact with products and interfaces, which has a relation to but does not need to include visual design. Usability testing requires knowledge and training in statistics and testing protocols, which are even more different than the basic skills required for visual and interaction designers. Argubly, usability testing professionals could require no design sensitivity whatsoever to perform their job well.
In years previous, universities have not adequately cross trained people on all the design disciplines. Certainly even peoples’ brains aren’t generally wired for creativity and technical disciplines together; you more often find a propensity towards one or the other but rarely for both.
2. Internet Marketing Expert – Someone who can do SEM, SEO, Word of Mouth blog marketing, brand management, marketing materials for sales, public relations.
Let’s see, that just about covers the entire old discipline of marketing plus the new ones of SEM and SEO! Even CMOs can rarely say they’ve worked in each of the old marketing roles. If we split it into technical and non-technical, we find that SEM/SEO are on one side, and the remaining on the other side. Now we’re requiring marketers, who aren’t really technical and numbers people, to now engage with numbers and to be experts at it. If we add SEO into the mix, now they have to understand what drives search engine ranking and how to wrangle HTML to make it more search engine friendly.
Again, we mix multiple disciplines, with creative and technical angles, into one person who can do it all. Many more examples exist: SEM Engineer, Web Designer (HTML/CSS + Design), Flash Designer (which requires true programming skills to create Actionscript) – the list goes on.
So why do we have this problem now?
In years past, we would go to college and get a degree and be able to find a job. If we had some area of expertise, like in consumer electronics or fashion, then it would make it easier to find a job in that industry. But crosstraining wasn’t required; corporations would hire people good for a task and there were enough headcount to do so.
Along comes the Internet which screws all of this up. So many changes:
1. Marketing becomes measurable! Now marketing isn’t just about getting awareness out there or subcontracting that out to advertising agencies. You could actually setup technology to get you response information on your marketing efforts. Optimization becomes possible on cost, targeting, and effort. Now you can compute the ROI of a campaign and know which campaigns gave you the most bang for the buck. Given the data of viewers of a campaign, you could target only those customers you wanted exactly (more or less) and be much more exact than saying “approximately 35% of the people who pass this billboard on a given day is a woman”. Effort could then be optimized to those channels and programs to maximize ROI with the least amount of effort. Being a marketing quant is now a requirement or else people don’t like you for the fact that you can’t judge the effectiveness of your own campaigns.
2. There is still confusion on where the new roles lie. Even though there is an M for marketing in SEM, does it belong in marketing or is it more a technical function? Marketing departments now require engineering sub-departments to help them function! What about SEO? That has a marketing application, which is to help drive users to a site through search ranking, but it is a highly technical endeavor, and marketing people don’t have access to a site’s code to alter it. However, traditional engineers aren’t even sure how to perform good SEO. So does it belong in engineering or marketing?
There is even confusion amongst design. In many companies, site design reports to marketing. But designers need to work closely with the product teams in order to be effective. And some design roles require even working closely with engineers to implement design. So should design be in the product organization? The engineering organization? Back to marketing? Even usability testing professionals have a heavy research bent; should that be part of the corporate marketing research group or product group?
Dependent on where the multidisciplinary folks end up, the roles they play and how well they play them are heavily influenced by the orgs in which they sit.
3. Startup fever rises, and everyone needs to be cheap and hire the least amount of folks. So they always look for that one guy to do everything design, or all marketing. Add to that the fact that many entrepreneurs are young and are encountering multidisciplinary roles for the first time, that they do not know that there are multiple areas of expertise that encompass some of these single title occupations.
Even experienced entrepreneurs have to stay cheap, and still try to find that one guy who can help do it all.
4. There is a lack of understanding of these multidisciplinary roles. I find that for design, people want someone to just take care of it all but I end up explaining to them that each part of the design requires different sensitivities and skills and that you can spend 4 years of college and 2 years of grad school becoming an expert in only of the areas, without ever touching the other areas. Even all those disciplines that are lumped under the generic term “internet marketing”, they touch on so many other areas and are sometimes even done better by those who have trained first in another discipline, like engineering.
Yes I’ve been harping on marketing and design, but this also applies to many other disciplines:
Customer Service – traditional customer service department, or marketing communications, or feedback for product team, or customer service via social media?
Engineering – “I want a database engineer that can also do front end engineering…”
Sales – “I want a sales guy who can also do business development, so selling online advertising and also calling on B2B customers…”
…and the list goes on….
The fact of the matter is, for Internet companies, it is almost a must that you be conversant in more than one discipline in order to be successful. Consider two design folks that I know, Irene Au (@ireneau), Director of Google User Experience, and Jason Putorti (@novaurora), formerly of Mint.com and now a Designer in Residence at Bessemer Venture Partners.
Both of them are accomplished designers. Yet both of them have engineering degrees and later got into design. In watching both of them, they were successful because they were able to bridge the gap between design and engineering and create success by melding the two on a variety of fronts, from implementation, to technical understanding, to being able to integrate design and engineering, and being able to simply communicate better with their engineering peers.
Contrast that with some designers on both my old team at Yahoo and in Irene’s team at Google. We both have seen designers who were very talented in their own right but simply could not either survive working on internet projects and/or interact successfully with their peers in engineering and product management. Chiefly we saw this happen to folks that were not able to acquire enough knowledge of other disciplines to be successful.
We can say the Internet has disrupted many old traditional businesses and business models, but I think that the Internet has also disrupted traditional occupations. Companies and their managers need to realize the difficulties of finding multidisciplinary folks and balance that with finding someone with fewer disciplines or doing more internal training to take talented people and adding to their skills. Universities hopefully are adjusting their curricula to reflect that you can’t just teach disciplines the old way; you need to teach them all those new ways that today’s working world requires and demands from its workforce. Workers today should also go out and cross train themselves in multiple related areas, whether it’s on the job or through secondary or self education. Otherwise, you’ll quickly find yourselves out of the job and unable to find a new one…