If you want to pursue full-time employment in the web design industry but not in an agency, then chances are that you’ll be looking at working as an in-house web designer or developer for an internet based company.
This type of role comes with its own lists of benefits and challenges to consider before throwing yourself headlong down this career path.
Today we’ll be exploring all those areas in detail and we’ll also be asking other people in the industry for their experiences to get a broad overview of the entire subject.
Whether you currently work for an agency, as a student, or as a freelancer, there should be some relevant and important information here to keep you interested!
Stepping Into an In-House Environment
Working as an in-house web designer for a company is very different to working in an agency environment. Here, you’d better get used to being the “tech guy” pretty quick, because the people you work with aren’t web designers at all.
Coming from an agency background the prospect of an in-house position can look appealing because you can pretty easily become the most knowledgeable person at the company on the subject of web design, and run your own agenda – to a certain extent – on that basis. Coming from a student or freelancing background, the process of working nine to five may be daunting but the prospect of working for an exciting company who are outside of your niche may be exciting enough to attract you.
A huge benefit to working in-house is that you get to see a project through and continue to drive the innovation forward for a single company on the web. At an agency you might just do the build, but in-house you make an ongoing difference each and every day.
Rick Nunn works in-house as the Senior Web Designer for an International Courier Services company and he talks about why he feels this is important:
“I thoroughly enjoy being an in-house designer, it gives me the ability to work on much larger and more complex projects for much longer periods of time than would ever be possible as a freelance designer. I’ve been working on one particular project for nearly 18 months now, seeing this project evolve from an idea into something that works so well and has such a large (and happy) user-base is awesome. Being involved from the really early stages is great — you really get emotionally invested with the project because you know it’s going to be a very large part of your life, that’s great for me — it pushes me to work harder and smarter.
You also get to try things and take risks that you wouldn’t be able to do as a freelancer and then react to those things directly from customer (as a posed to client) feedback. Did I mention working with a team is awesome too? Well it is, sitting round a table with passionate designers and developers discussing a new feature, or function, or whatever… will make you want to be more awesome. I’m not saying it’s all roses, there are things I miss about being freelance bug there is no substitute for seeing a company successfully progress as a result of work you have poured yourself into.”
What to Expect
As an in-house web designer you’ll probably form part of a very small team – indeed, on most occasions, possibly even just you. This can be a challenge in terms of not having a larger support network but it can also be a benefit because you will typically represent an entire department and for that reason have much closer access to the head(s) of the company. If you’re looking to advance in terms of pay level and responsibilities then this certainly isn’t a bad position to be in.
Another benefit of working in-house is that you can make yourself incredibly valuable to the company if you want to be. Whip out some Google Analytics advanced user segmentation data to show where the current site is under-performing and what steps should be taken to improve revenue and you will almost certainly impress your boss. In fact you can use this strategy in interviews if you want to really impress, the author of this article has successfully obtained several jobs this way.
Japh Thomson has seven years of in-house experience as web developer, he offers some words of wisdom with regards to things to expect and some main benefits of this career path: “One of the best things about working in-house is working in a team or across multiple teams where everyone is serious about what’s getting done, and the time pressures are less, really gives a good atmosphere for making sure the job is done right. The converse of the above, is that it can also end up with the “design by committee” approach, which is not so much fun.”
Gavin Elliott is new to working as an in-house web designer but has some incredibly valuable input on the subject when talking about the benefits of this type of work: “You have the utmost respect from people within the business because they’re not designers. They trust what you say but have their own point of view. It’s like having your own in-house usability test. You have enough freedom to push your own ideas and work on things that excite you, you can push your own design style a lot more.”
Luc Pestille has just over a year of experience working in-house and he had this to offer about the benefits: “Being answerable to the same company as the product you’re building is for – your boss can be a lot more lenient. Not having to deal with clients in the traditional way is a wonderful thing if you’re as introverted as most of us technical/creative people.”
Challenges to Overcome
Unlike when working for an agency, you probably won’t have a very structured day-to-day work life. You are the project manager, the designer, the developer, and everything in between. It’s up to you to take the flimsy and sometimes poorly thought-through ideas of the people higher up in the food chain and turn them into a reality. Or at the very a least a working concept.
One of the other biggest challenges to overcome is that, as mentioned, you’re the tech guy. You are no longer a user experience professional, a graphic designer, a Ruby developer, you are just a tech guy. What does that mean? Well, it means that when the printer stops working, you fix it. When Skype is acting up, you fix it. When a router is jumbling up its network addresses, you fix it. No, it doesn’t matter what you say, because even if you have no idea how to do any of those things, you’re still deemed to be the “most capable” person in the office when it comes to anything that uses electricity. You can come up with as many metaphors as you like to explain the situation, hell you can even design some t-shirts, but it won’t help. This is one that you’ll just have to put up with.
John Slater worked in-house for a company for just over a year and his less-than-positive experience is an important contrast to some of the benefits already highlighted. John says:
“There are a few major problems designing in-house. I found working on the same project quite fun initially as it allowed the project to expand rapidly and become something I could be proud of. However after the honeymoon period I found working on the same project over and over again quite tedious. I often felt like I was moving in circles with the website and although I spent every waking moment designing and building the website it felt as if it was going nowhere.
My second peeve with in-house was the all famous “Design By Committee”. The internal projects would be tweaked and then the boss would review it, get everyone involved and we would be back to square one making the same changes I made 15 revisions ago. Despite many many meetings to discuss the website we had little progress in the 10 months we worked on the project.
My final pitfall has to be leaving the company with nothing to show for it. I had worked there just over a year and worked endlessly on this massive website for a big company, and yet when I left the company the website was still sitting internally awaiting further changes before it could go live. This made it extremely hard to convince prospective employers that I was efficient and hard working, it also left a rather big void in my portfolio, a void that could have been filled with one year of work.
This was just my experience, I’m not going to say that the company was managed in a perfect way, it wasn’t, so this may just have been me working for the wrong company on the wrong project. My whole in-house experience has made me think twice about taking an in-house job, client work allows me to be more creative. Which is what I want.”
Future Career Moves
Working in-house is fairly limited in terms of future prospects. Most of the time you’ll come into the company at a level that’s either as high as you can ever go, or one step away from it.
The only long term benefits come in the form of salaries and bonuses. If, however, your career focus is as much on being an entrepreneur as it is on being a web designer, then everything changes substantially.
Working as the in-house web designer for a startup can teach you an incredible amount about starting and running a business that will be absolutely invaluable if and when you set out to do the same by yourself.
This post was authored exclusively for WDD by John O’Nolan, a core member of the WordPress UI Team, writer and entrepreneur based in Surrey in the United Kingdom. John loves to talk to people, so why not follow @JohnONolan on twitter too?
What do you think? Have you worked in an in-house environment before? What advise would you offer to someone who is about to do the same? Let us know in the comments!