16 March 2014
Design Practice

My Advice to Young Designers and Developers

I meet them on a regular basis, tech-savvy teens who've been coding websites from an early age. They'll often seek my advice about breaking into the industry. Should they continue their studies or jump straight into the labour market? I usually tell them that ability trumps education and I don't put much faith on the current raft of tech degrees. So I'd prefer to see three years of experience than three years of study.

That being said, I'll also point out that University is about much more than just acquiring a skill. It's a formative experience that will shape your attitudes for the rest of your life. It's also a huge amount of fun, or at least it was in my day.

As University becomes more expensive, it's understandable that people question its value. So it makes sense for many young designers and developers to skip higher education in favour of the workplace, and who can blame them? As somebody who was earning less than '300 a week throughout most of my twenties, I can't imagine what it must be like for a twenty year old to earn that much a day freelancing.

However I worry that in the rush to join the establishment, people may be missing out on formative experiences they'll never get back.

Now I don't want to romanticise low paid jobs or suggest poverty tourism for the soon to be tech-elite, but there's something to be said for getting by on minimum wage to enforce a respect for money. There's also something to be said for working behind a bar, in a call centre or any number of service-based jobs to instil a sense of empathy for other people.

If you're interested, I've worked variously at a chip shop, a supermarket, a warehouse, a watch factory, a restaurant kitchen, a bank, a call centre, a travel agent, a farm, a hostel and various dive centres around Australasia. In all of these situations I met interesting characters and learnt valuable life lessons.

The tech-sector is a wonderful place to work, but it's also a homogenous and often self-entitled one. So I wonder if the young engineers making their way down to Silicon Valley may have been better equipped to handle the ire of ordinary San Francisco citizens if more of then had tried living in the city on minimum wage themselves?

When I'm asked for advice from school age designers and developers about breaking into the industry, my answer is usually the same ' 'don't rush into a career at 18, only to look back when you're 28 or 38 and wonder where the time went.' 'Instead', I'll suggest, 'why not take a few years off to go travelling?'

I know it's a clich' but travelling really does broaden your horizons and expand your mind. Not only do you get to meet new people and experience different perspectives on life, but you also get to reflect on the choices you've made or are going to make. For instance I was convinced that I wanted to be a pilot at the age of 18 and even took up flying lessons. However it was only through travel that I realised what a mistake that would have been and what I really wanted to do with my life.

By comparison, the majority of people I know who went straight into a career ended up hating what they did for a living, but only realised this once it was too late. There really is no rush to start down the career path, so I find it weird how many people are settling into their careers so soon. It's something I associate more with my parents or grandparents era and is oddly conservative.

More importantly, travelling is a lot of fun. It's also something that gets harder to do as you progress in your careers, buy houses, raise families and settle down. So it's something I always recommend people to do when they're young, or risk missing out. After all, the tech industry will always be there, but you only live once so you may as well make the time count.