Web dev and specialization: Being a unicorn

Nov 04, 2014 | Posted in code, user experience
Poor dead unicorn

Thinkgeek Canned Unicorn Meat, www.thinkgeek.com/product/e5a7/

When is a unicorn not a unicorn?

This fall I attended a UX (user experience) meetup in Seattle. When people asked me what I did for work, I told them I was a full-stack developer with a specialty in UX. (In other words, I do both UX/UI — front-end design — and back-end programming.)

“Oh,” one of the UX designers told me, “you’re a unicorn.”

The first time I’d been called a unicorn was last summer, when I’d guest visited a UX Immersive course at General Assembly (I was teaching a Web Development Immersive there at the time). The UX class had ooh-ed and aah-ed and, I have to admit, it had made me feel kind of special. The more than fifteen years I’d spent as a web designer/developer were being given their props. But I was wrong.

When I was labeled a unicorn at the Seattle meetup, I’d immediately felt as though I didn’t belong there anymore. It was clear this person didn’t consider me a UX colleague. I was a web developer who dabbled in UX.

Then I remembered that the same thing — only the other way around — had happened at the end of the Web Dev Immersive course I’d taught.

At the end of that twelve-week course, I’d made the decision to teach my students some rudimentary UX, which I believe is crucial for all developers to know — in the same way that UX and visual designers should know some rudimentary programming. We need to be able to walk in each other’s shoes. Suddenly, in my students’ eyes, I wasn’t a programmer anymore — I was a front-end person. And for the last two weeks, they were dismissive when I spoke to them about programming. It was an odd way to finish off the course, but I chalked up their reaction to the panic they were feeling about having to go out and find jobs.

Last weekend, however, I was at the yearly Tech Jam in Vermont and ended up talking to a fellow web designer/developer. He asked me what I did and I told him. And he didn’t blink an eye. It didn’t seem at all strange to him that I worked on both the front and back ends of web creation.

Why? Because he was my age — over forty.

Back in the day — say, 1996 to 2006 — the best web creators were expected to be able to do it all. It was a bonus for an employer to be able to hire someone who could design a site and code it, as well as build a solid back end with a database. There was a separation between those who did server work — operations, or dev-ops as it’s now called — but many of us learned how to set up servers, too, myself included.

Why were we so diversely skilled? Because we had to teach ourselves. There were no web design or web development programs in college then. When I taught a college-level UX class in 2002, the term user experience didn’t even exist yet (it was called human-computer interaction). If we wanted to build a website, we had to do it from scratch. And what we didn’t know, we had to figure out.

Of course this is still the case. The name of the game for web creators is learning the latest technology running down the pike. And the web design/dev world has exploded over the past six or seven years.  There are an ever-increasing number of web design and web application frameworks to aid in development for both desktop and mobile.

What’s changed is that many people specialize right off the bat, choosing to learn either design or UX or front-end coding or back-end programming. Which makes sense because that’s how the web education programs are designed. In fact, I recently told a couple of college girls not to worry if they didn’t know both front end and back end — they would learn over time. I told them not to be daunted when they see an ad for a job that lists four different programming languages plus UX expertise. That employer isn’t really looking for all those skills, just a few of them plus a willingness to learn.

And maybe that’s why the term unicorn leaves such a sour taste in people’s mouths, why it’s said with a combination of disbelief and derision. As web creators, we see job listings asking for an impossible skill set, whether our skills range from design to development, or not.

I may be a “unicorn,” but I don’t have all those skills either. And even if I live to be a thousand, I’ll never learn all there is to know in the world of web. Which is one of the reasons why we do it, right? Because it’s ever-changing.

So maybe the next time someone calls me a unicorn I should laugh and proudly say, yes, that I am. But I’m the real sort, not the myth you read about.

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