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  • April 17, 2014

Everything I Know About the Web I Learned on the Job

When I graduated college with an English and Fine Arts Degree, Decorative Illustration my school’s career services office didn’t know what to do with me. They handed me a giant book of jobs for English majors. Nothing interested me, but I wasn’t going to let some lady in a university office dash my dreams. I went to and found what seemed to be my dream gig at a startup. I applied, selling myself as a creative type eager to learn anything and everything.

I got that job over 15 years ago, and I’m happy to report that that description of me still hasn’t changed. I’ve always wanted to learn on the job, and I still do. Somehow, I’ve made a career in an industry perfect for learning while working.

Observing: How I learned all along

From day one in my career, I’ve learned everything from (how to be dangerous with) HTML to Photoshop to event project management. I’ve also had the privilege of learning how businesses, universities, and brands are managed. This is stuff they can’t teach you in college. While I accomplished some of my self-education through online tutorials, conferences, and classes, I did most of it by simply observing people, conversations, organizations, and situations.

I recently attended a client-led conference on economics, a topic outside the realm of what typically interests me. I went as an outsider, a guest there to observe. I suited up (you read that right) and learned everything I could from the presentations and the people around me. In some ways, I was doing on-the-fly ethnographic research: meeting people from an entirely different industry, asking questions about their experience with the organization, and talking to them about the relevancy of the web to their work. The experience was truly interesting and will serve as solid background for how we approach parts of our project.

Everything I’ve learned about business and various industries can be attributed to the work I’ve done for them on the web. Not only have I learned the basics of the web and the core of my craft as a project manager, but I’ve also learned what makes organizations tick—what makes them unique. How their constituents view them, and how they view themselves. It’s fascinating. The jobs listed in that career advisor’s book back in 1998 would have never provided this kind of opportunity.

Embracing discovery

Project discovery is full of learning opportunities. We dig into research, review analytics, and ask a ton of questions to truly understand what makes a client organization successful. Our research yields insights about management, the construction of business goals, and technology’s application to those goals.

I’ve participated in hundreds of stakeholder interviews in my career, and almost all of them have been eye-opening. Some of the most enlightening educational opportunities in my career occur during these fact-finding missions. I’ve learned about everything from business processes to corporate hierarchies, to detailed market-research findings and first-hand, deeply personal stories. Each call is rich with information to be applied to our projects and also throughout my own career.

I’ve found that questions like these sparked the most unique and informative conversations with each stakeholder:

  • What is your experience with projects like this?
  • What excites you about this project?
  • Is there anything we should know about how projects like this one move through your organization?
  • What factors could hinder this project’s success?

Bottom line: When you ask the right questions of your client, you’ll build a stronger knowledge base about their business and how your work can help them. And when you can also find a nugget that follows your own interests, that’ll make for a conversation that benefits both your project work and your own education. Double win!

Jumping in the deep end

Another great way to learn is through necessity. When I was starting out, if we needed to figure out a site’s hierarchy, I built a site map. I didn’t know what a site map was, but I knew we needed one. So, I figured it out. I taped pieces of paper with labels on a large wall in our office. Later, the team needed help making Flash animations. I took a two-day course, and two weeks later, I turned out a flyover of a bowling alley complete with a voiceover done by yours truly. Would I ever publish it now? Hell no! But I was proud of it at the time, because I threw myself into the situation, learned what I needed to succeed, and got it done (on time and under budget, I might add).

Throwing yourself into your work and learning on the job can be frustrating. But learning a new skill or new software feels rewarding and empowering.

Learning from others

One of the greatest benefits of working with a team is having access to knowledge outside of my area of expertise. As a project manager, I have learned so much about design and development through my co-workers on project work. If I ever have a question about a technique or technology, I ask. I urge anyone who is part of a team to do the same. Being inquisitive and sharing information on a team not only improves capability within a team, it builds trust.

No matter what you do or where you’re employed, there are always opportunities to learn. Try looking outside your role and keeping up-to-date with business and technology news, trends, and blogs. Nothing is more valuable, however, than closely observing situations, asking questions, and finding new learning opportunities during your regular 9-to-5. It can make the difference between feeling like you’ve got a job versus building a career. Let’s face it, we all look forward to retirement. But if your career is successful in that you’re constantly learning, maybe we should consider retirement as graduation.

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