How to be a generalized specialist and why

“Me, a specialist? Oh no. I’m just a web designer, mate!” Contrary to popular opinion, web designers — the much maligned sub-species of the greater spotted graphic designer — can be specialists, much like anyone else. But does it pay to be a specialist in the noughties?

This is a pressing question for some, but not me. I’m happy in my skin, being a generalized specialist. And I’m not alone, either. Of my kind, their are many.

A brief history of specialization from a generalists perspective

When I started Octane back in ’99, I had every intention of offering a load of different services — everything from video production to 3D visualization and animation, right out to interactive CR Roms, as well as web design. Why no mention of web development? That didn’t come about until about 2002, about the same time my offering began to slim down into something resembling what Octane offers now.

The fact of the matter is, I just couldn’t do everything, not unless I had loads of time and loads of money. Money? For the software to back that proposition up. In reality, I had a finite supply of the former and hardly any (certainly not of the disposable variety) of the latter.

Over time, my proposition was whittled down, not simply because I wanted to focus on the things that interested me, but the things people kept asking for and I was in a reasonably good position to commit to, without wasting either their time or my own.

Now, some of you may be thinking to yourself: “What the hell has liking something got to do with doing it?!” I do what I like — in a very literal sense. If I don’t like doing it, or don’t want to do it, I don’t. If chasing the pound means selling my happiness, then I stop, sit down on a spare patch of grass and watch that gold-coloured coin just roll away in front of me.

It is entirely possible to be a specialist in a number of areas, but not a huge number, or you’re just over committing yourself, no matter how talented / quick you are.

I don’t see many out-and-out specialists these days, not out in the wild. If they exist, they’re usually on a payroll somewhere, where the weaknesses of their narrow field of occupation aren’t so badly exposed, and they remain insulated by other specialists, who together form a greater whole. That’s fine for an agency of 3-5 people, but for outfits like mine, it’s neither ideal or possible.

So how do you become a generalized specialist anyway?

I’m fortunate in that what I do either sits beneath or bestrides other disciplines and professions, depending on how you go about your thing.

I suppose when I talk about a generalized specialism, what I’m really saying is: your knowledge is like the root of a plant, probably not too deep like a weed or a tree, but deep enough so that the winds of client inquiry and project-related problems won’t blow you away.

Make your specialisms overlap

For instance, if you’re a head of marketing, you can employ a web designer or a web developer to realize your internet ambitions.

In another instance, if you’re a web designer like I am, what you do is a function of marketing, so therefor you can reach across into adjacent areas, such as social media, internet advertising etc, to bolster your proposition.

Similarly, web development will bring you closer to IT (though not too close, thankfully), since it’s more than likely you’ll be interfacing with servers, internal networks and their specifics.

With that as a background, and knowing your client needs.

Build a proposition from a specialism

You can start to build out your proposition around those needs and then target certain areas so that your knowledge is deeper and more complete than their current needs require.

So why do this? Because once you understand more of what is possible, you will then realize how you can offer your clients more. However, this does require an element of vision; the ability to anticipate the future direction of your clients.

Recycle your specialisms

Sometimes, you’ll get the direction wrong, but hopefully not by much. And, if you’re smart, you’ll play around with the timing of projects so that what you know can be applied to more than one client at the same time, amplifying the return on your invested learning.

Sounds easy, yeah? Well, it’s a skill that comes over time. If you’re not adept at dealing with your clients face-to-face, or have trouble imagining what they might or might not like, then that too is an area of generalized specialism you need to work on.

Jack of all trades and master of none?

I’ve got letters after my name. Those letters represent 6 years of my life. After all that time and effort and all I get is a lousy degree?! If I’d wanted a masters degree, I’d have needed to invest another 2 years of my life.

It was said by Doctor Watson that upon meeting Sherlock Holmes, he knew nothing of the motion of the planets. Yet in his defense, he got by. Why? Because he was a detective and not an astronomer.

As you can see, the level of commitment required to be a master is not inconsiderable. So don’t worry, Jack! Learn what you need to know, and know enough to know you maybe don’t know enough and you’ll do just fine.


Creating a Landing Page for Twitter, Facebook

Congratulations! You and your staff are on Facebook and Twitter. Now what? Chances are, there are people out there who want to know a little more about who you guys are and what you do. But, as part of a corporate entity, it’s not just the individuals they’re interested in, it’s your company, too. So what do you do?

Twitter, the global social networkAssuming your staff’s Twitter / Facebook profiles are company owned, you could just point all their visitors from Twitter and Facebook to your very corporate “About Us” page, but that’s often a little staid and obvious. This is about social networking, and each person you designate as customer facing is just that — a person.

Facebook, the global social networkSo rather than have a catch-all web page or blog article that just lumps everyone together into an amorphous blog of “we” and “us” business speak, why not let those people write something of their own in an article of their own? Why not let them talk about themselves, what they do, their interests, why they’re on Facebook, Twitter etc (here’s where corporate guidelines will need to be observed, to ensure some degree of consistency) and what their follow policy is?

If the social web is about the conversation, then what’s the conversation worth if we don’t talk to people? As I’ve said for years, people must first buy into people before they buy from people.

Taking things a step further, I’d recommend letting your team add photos of themselves, to give that personal touch, so that those in their social network can see the person they’re communicating with. Then add links to those personalized web pages into Facebook and Twitter, and voila! Everyone has their very own ‘landing page’.

What should a landing page include?

  1. Start with something about you and your role in the business.
  2. Then follow with something about you and your own interests, either within or outside the business.
  3. Talk about why you’re on Twitter / Facebook and what you intend to get out of being their.
  4. Discuss your follow policy — how and why you choose to follow certain people, and whether you reciprocate their following you.
  5. The advantages of having landing pages

There are possible other advantages here, too. For example:

  • If you choose to have each landing page as a blog article, then you have a collection of articles enriched with information about key members of staff, which will greatly increase the chances of your website being found. Let’s say you have a very active social networker on your team, having their name more visibly attached to your business increases your search visibility and helps with the smooth transition of trust between both you and your staff.
  • If you have a socially active team, active in different social networks, your business stands a much greater chance of being exposed to a far wider and deeper audience, of not just prospective clients / customers, but of suppliers, industry leaders and possible future employees, or perhaps investors.

In creating landing pages for Twitter, Facebook et al, you’re people first and business second. And since business is all about people, coming second never looked so good.


How to use LinkedIn to promote your business

LinkedIn is fast turning into a great place to meet exactly the right kind of people that can benefit your business most. Be they prospective new clients or staff, suppliers or respected industry leaders. For purveyors or information, LinkedIn can also be the venue to share what you write about.

LinkedIn, the professional business network

Earlier this evening (which, by the time you read this will be the day before), I found a question on LinkedIn’s Q&A, asking: How do you promote your business / services / blog using LinkedIn?

Posting your blog articles and services web pages on LinkedIn

I thought this was an excellent question, so I decided to reply, and offer that reply here for all to read, but expanded with more detail.

Posting to related groups

It’s tempting to join a related group and just post your stuff there. While that is a legitimate avenue for promoting your articles, I would suggest you do so only when your article offers something, like advice, help, tips etc. Something people will find useful.

Some people can — and will — interpret the posting of your articles to groups as being “spammy” and overly self promotional. Often, the people that are being spammy don’t follow up any of the comments.

That’s the problem with pushing articles about your services — they’re out-and-out self-promotional. The focus needs to be on adding value to the members of the group. Give them something to remember you by.

Of course, there are exceptions, but you need to be totally sure you’re offering something that will really help people out and not come over as being just another sales pitch.

Posting to the Q&A

I personally answer questions on LinkedIn’s Q&A and reference some of my own articles, if (again) that article offers specific and related advice, particular to the question.

So by all means, post links to your own articles and web pages, so long as they’re relevant to the question and likely to help in answering it.

The goal is to be useful — I also post links to articles, written by other people, which helps demonstrate impartiality on my part.

Trust is a quality of relationships that doesn’t come quickly or cheaply, and isn’t bought, sold, nor is it transferrable. So ultimately, this is an exercise is acquiring trust.

Posting to your status

The status update is a good, simple method to promote your articles, but you really need to be already engaging with people for them to want to engage with you — it’s essentially like Twitter, so the same rules apply.

I use Twitter, and use HootSuite in particular, which is a web application that enhances Twitter by offering a lot more features, such as options to schedule messages (otherwise known as “Tweets”) and a option to shorten URLs so that they fit into the 140 character allowance.

HootSuite also allows you to connect to your LinkedIn account, so you can post messages straight to your LinkedIn profile’s status. I personally use this sparingly, instead only posting messages / updates that are specifically related to Octane and my business activities in general, or articles that people will find useful.

A recent example being an article on how to stop eleven hidden security threats, which came on the back of my own article offering seven security tips for your computer and the web.

My recommendations for posting articles and web pages to LinkedIn are:

  1. Try to avoid posting general and off-topic status updates and instead focus on updates that a particular to you and your business activities.
  2. If you post to groups, follow up any comments. Sounds obvious, I know, but you’d be surprised how many people just “fire and forget”.
  3. When answering questions in the Q&A, why not suggest an expert? You’ll be helping to build trust with the person you’re suggesting, while demonstrating that you’re a good source for referrals.
  4. Also, whatever you do, if you see a odd or apparently naive questions (of which there can be many), don’t be tempted fire off a glib or dismissive comment. LinkedIn is, after all, a network for professionals — so leave the stupid remarks to the amateurs.
  5. Use something like Clicky web analytics to monitor the click activity of your articles in real time, in addition to using Google Analytics. Why? When you see clicks come in from a group, for example, follow the link back to see If there have been any comments and reply.
  6. If you’re using a link shortening tool (like bit.ly or ow.ly, which is part of HootSuite) ensure you have an account with them, so you can view their own click traffic statistics.

Above all, make yourself a resource to other people, so that they value your contributions, and in turn value you.


7 security tips for your computer and the web

Keeping yourself and your business safe and secure is essential, right? So why is it so many people use obvious, sometimes dangerously simply passwords? Here’s a few ideas on how to keep yourself and your business website safe.

But first, a story. Well, before the story, let’s have some background:

“According to a new analysis, one out of five web users still decides to leave the digital equivalent of a key under the doormat: they choose a simple, easily guessed password like ‘abc123’, ‘iloveyou’ or even ‘password’ to protect their data.”

When I first read about some of the terrible passwords people are still using, I really wasn’t surprised.

Shh .. can you keep a secret?

In one notable, recent example, I was asked by a former client to “fix” a web application I was developing so there was only the one username and password for everyone. At the time of being asked, I’d only set one account up, but someone had decided to share this account and soon after, people were signing in with the same account details.

The problem is, due to the security options I’d put in place, each person that signed in signed out the one previous. This was because the system couldn’t deal with two people signing in with the same account details. The client was dismayed.

“Why can’t we all sign in with the same details?”

They asked.

“Because the system doesn’t allow more than one person to have the same username and password.”

I replied.

“Can’t they just type their name in after they’ve signed in?”

They enquired.

“That’s the whole point of having a username; so the system knows who each user is.”

I replied calmly, trying not to sound patronizing or condescending. But the question, I suppose, is: why did they refuse to have a unique account for each member of staff?

Being a very large business that bestrides continents, they have thousands of staff all over the world, so issuing usernames and passwords for each member of staff would be a considerable undertaking, one their own IT people refused to manage, even though it was firmly within their remit. And, ultimately, no one could be bothered with having a new account to remember, on top of the ones they already have.

In the end, I came up with another solution, one that didn’t rely on usernames and passwords, one that was arguably as secure, but came with unique problems all of its own.

7 ways to keep your computer safe and stay secure on the web

Consider what you stand to lose if someone snags the password for your computer. For most people nowadays, they stand to lose just about everything.

So what can you do to stay safe and secure on the web? Here’s a collection of ideas for saving and storing all of those usernames and passwords to all of those websites and web applications you sign up to, as well as staying secure while using a computer:

  1. Avoid obvious passwords — OK, this is obvious by now, but do not use regular names (your own, for example), words (“duck”, “apple”, “tea”, “foot”, “dog” etc), notable dates (your own birthday, or national events) or sequential letters and / or numbers (“qwerty”, “123456” or “abc123”) for passwords.
  2. Password protect your computer — Most computers (such as Microsoft Windows, Apple Mac OS X, Linux etc) have user accounts. Don’t use the default account, because that’s often the master administrator account. Instead, leave that alone and create a new one, just for you. Then, set it up so you have to sign in every time your computer restarts.
  3. Be careful in public — If you’re sharing a computer, or using one in an internet cafe, do not allow the web browser to save your details. If someone else uses that computer and visits the same website, they could, potentially, sign in as you.
  4. Do you own a Mac? Then go into your Applications folder, then the Utilities folder and find the Keychain Access application. By default, many applications store your details there. You can use Keychain Access to add Secure Notes and new Password Items, to store your details securely and safely. Also, you can use Keychain Access to retrieve account details, should you forget them.
  5. Managing passwords on Microsoft Windows isn’t quite as straight forward; there isn’t an equivalent to Keychain Access. But there are tools built in that do help keep you safe — here’s how you manage stored usernames and passwords on Windows XP and Windows Vista.
  6. Don’t share your accounts with other people — Sometimes, you’re rushed for time and someone needs to get into application X right away! Sign in for them, let them do their thing and then make sure they sign out afterwards.
  7. Passwords on paper won’t do — Scribbling passwords down on scraps of paper, stuffed into draws isn’t optimal. You’re either going to lose them, or worse, someone will find them.
  8. Complex is good — When choosing a password, remembering it isn’t the most important thing, not with the plethora of options for securely saving them to your computer. So choose one that’s more than ten digits, a mix of numbers and letters, both upper and lower case. Some software will even let you use punctuation marks and accents, like [email protected]£$%^&*()¡€#¢∞§ which is even better, because then you have password that contains more combinations than there are grains of sand on every beach on earth.

Got a security tip to share? Let us know how you stay safe…


How to protect and profit from your ideas

The greatest prize I possess isn’t my computer, nor is it my programming skills, or even my experience — it’s my ideas. My ideas are what have kept me in business all this time. How you work those ideas from imagination to reality decides whether you profit from them, or watch on as others walk away with them.

Your ideas are your most valuable assets, even if you don’t realize it. But even a great idea is nothing if not acted upon. Sometimes, it’s necessary to share an idea, to make it real, but there are hazards to sharing ideas; you’re effectively giving them away.

“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason so few engage in it.”Henry Ford

Crucially, it’s all about how you share an idea. And the best way to share an idea is to sell it to someone. No, I don’t mean to put a price tag on it and then hand the idea over once they’ve paid you, although that’s not a million miles from what happens in the end.

When I say sell, I mean to pitch an idea, as in to a client. A client will come to me with a problem, or a set of problems, and I’ll have a think about how I could fix those problems as quickly, efficiently and cost effectively as possible.

As was the case with the To Book hotel booking application I developed for Premier UK, when I came up with a very efficient way of processing bookings that kept the user on one page, minimizing the number of actions (and by extension, the number of clicks) they had to make.

The client calculated that using this one feature often shaved off between 30 and 60 seconds per booking, which is a massive time saving when you’re dealing with hundreds and sometimes thousands of bookings.

Would you like to know more about web applications, or perhaps you’d like to know what a web application is? Read on to find out more.

Protecting your ideas from theft — the big tease

Clearly, this is a very valuable idea, but it’s an idea that only really worked within the context of the web application itself, although I’m sure someone could easily replicate the idea elsewhere.

The thing is, once you come up with all of your clever and innovative solutions, the trick lies in how you pitch those ideas as features of something much bigger.

You want to say just enough to tease them with the benefits and the potential for cost savings, efficiency etc, but not give them too much information that they could go elsewhere with your ideas, leaving you out of pocket.

Using project management to profit from your ideas

For a business like mine, the up-front innovative thinking is a legitimate cost centre; one that requires your valuable time. But it’s hard to put a cost to those ideas up front, so you’re best bet is to recover the time from within the execution of the project itself, over time.

But the challenges are still present, even once the project is underway — what’s to stop a client committing to work, you spending a month implementing your ideas, and then having them walk away without paying a penny? This is why you must break the project down into key stages and charge based on the completion of those stages.

By doing this, you’re financially insulating yourself and at the same guarding your ideas. Typically, I’ll withhold the major ideas until later in the project, but this does depend on the client.

Would you like to know more about projects and payment planning? Read on to find out more.

Balancing your ideas — protection against exposure

Ultimately, it’s a balancing act. On the one hand, there’s your ideas and your natural urge to protect them, and on the other hand, before a client is prepared to make a decision, they need to know what that idea entails.

A good relationship with a client is always going to be the more ideal start to any project, but even that is no guarantee. So do you consider some kind of contract? Many businesses think this kind of formal arrangement will scare a client, but I’ve found many appreciate the effort and understand the potential protection a contract offers.

Those that dislike contracts might not be the best client to get involved with; are they really all that trust-worthy if they squirm at the prospect of putting their name to a mutually protective contractual agreement?

NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement)

You could also consider a NDA, or Non Disclosure Agreement, which could work within a pre-existing contractual agreement, and be applicable to a specific project only.

A NDA is essentially a brief that often contains commercially sensitive and very specific technical details. The purpose of the Non Disclosure Agreement is, as it’s name suggests, to ensure you do not disclose anything outlined within the agreement to which you’ve put your signature to.

IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) contract

Let’s imagine you need to use a third party to help out, perhaps providing programming services. Also, the client has come to you with a NDA, which you are obliged to sign. There’s a chance that during the course of the project you and your third party:

  • could be providing intrinsically new methods / ways of accomplishing certain activities;
  • as well as using code used elsewhere, from within previous projects of your own;
  • and perhaps using commercial code for specific functions.

In these situations, you need to draw up an outline of who owns what aspects and which parties are entitled to do what with the various parts of the project, and perhaps for how long. If the client is willing to fully compensate you for your efforts, then fine.

However, if there are portions of code in there that belong to you or someone else, then some licensing arrangement may be required.

So the purpose of an Intellectual Property Rights contract is basically to protect the rights of your work, otherwise referred to as IP, or Intellectual Property.

Final thoughts

All of the above are personal / professional experiences of my own, drawn from over ten years of being in business. And as is the case with anything that involves contracts and signatures, it’s best to speak with a qualified legal adviser first, to ensure you’re using the right language, and that your agreements are enforceable, should either party break them.

Above all, don’t be put off by the pit falls and legal machinations. Just keep your mind open and those ideas flowing. You can always deal with the legalities later on.