Smartest in the Room

One of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to make since becoming a freelancer is how I shape my attitude when working with others.

You could certainly make the argument that a good attitude is required whether you’re a freelancer or on staff and you would be absolutely right. However, I found it tough to hide my contempt for others on my team who couldn’t grasp how web works. I think it had a lot to do with knowing I was the “smartest” in the room on the topic and I hate being that person. If anything, I enjoy being in a room full of others much smarter than myself and feeding off their knowledge. Either way, it’s a terrible posture to have.

It’s easy to forget that not everyone is web savvy these days. Developers are getting younger, startups are launching every two seconds and the average person spends at least three hours online every day.

But that doesn’t mean people “get” the web. Heck, many of us that make our living developing the web don’t fully get it either. It’s a freaking jungle out there and we’re all trying our best to make sense out of this evolving beast called the interwebs.

Regardless of how much we know as web designers and developers, we are not excused from treating those who need our help like idiots. I was surprised when this tweet from Brad Frost popped up in my stream:

Let me start by saying I respect the crap out of Brad, even though he doesn’t know who the hell I am. He is truly moving the web forward and his resources have pulled me out of some deep shit in the past.

Honestly, I missed the point he was trying to make the first time I read it and confused it as an elitist reaction for a project that was beneath him. He elaborated on it further though, and now I understand that he was simply expressing his disgust for the way the project was put together. Instead of listing specific project requirements when hiring a developer, it would be wiser to include her in defining what those requirements are. The email request put the metaphorical cart before the horse, thereby suggesting that Brad’s work (and all web professionals by extension) is reduced to pixel pushing.

I get it and I agree.

But I also think it’s our job as consultants to educate and encourage. The reason companies hire people like me, Brad and any other web professional is because they know they need help, even if they are not sure what that help is exactly. Brushing off an opportunity to kindly correct this sort of ignorance is a double whammy that not only perpetuates the behavior, but gives web designers and developers a poor reputation. If we’re not careful in the way we treat others, we’re doomed to be lumped with IT gear heads everywhere as being annoying know-it-alls that no one wants to interact with.

I’ve been on the other side before, having been in a position where I had to hire out work that was over my head. It’s tough asking for help when you’re not an expert in thing you need help with. For all we know, it was the receptionist who has never touched HTML that was put in charge of asking Brad for help and merely copied and pasted what her team told her was needed. Yes, it’s shitty, but I’ve seen it happen.

We’d all like to see less of these emails. But it’s up to us to play the role of expert, be the smartest person in the room, and kindly redirect the conversation to something more productive and fruitful.

✏️ Handwritten by Geoff Graham on September 13, 2013


  1. # September 17, 2013

    Hey Geoff!

    Thanks for writing this up. I totally agree with everything you’re saying.

    The way the email was structured definitely frustrated me, and in retrospect I should have been a little more pragmatic with how I shared it. I got a lot of people who laid it on thick that “it must be nice” to turn down potential work. I realize now that the way I reacted to the email was very much a reflection of my busy schedule. And yes, I’m thankful to be in that position.

    If I were looking for work I would have handled that email a lot differently. My correspondence would have taken your article’s advice and gone to great lengths to help them better understand what they need and why. That’s what I spend my days doing anyways, trying to help people make sense of our modern Web landscape.

    I absolutely agree that it’s our jobs to help educate clients, teammates, and ourselves. The only thing I’ll say to be careful about is that not everyone can/wants to see the light. I’ve exerted a lot of effort trying to help some clients, potential clients, and coworkers and sometimes at the end of the day some people just want things fast, cheap, and painless. So while I try to do what I can to educate those, I try to be gauge how receptive they are to change.

    Anyways, thanks for writing this up. I think we’re all on the same page!

    • # September 17, 2013

      Thanks, Brad! We’re definitely on the same page and, in fact, I figured your tweet was more of a hurried share than a rant on potential work. I eventually *got* it but don’t think everyone else did.

      I’d be interested in hearing what you think differentiates potential clients who want to learn versus those who don’t, based on your experience. In other words, most clients I talk with want fast, cheap and painless, but some actually come around to partner on getting the job done right. What signals that adoption or reluctance? I would read that post. :)

      Thanks again for following up!

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