How to be a unicorn (and why you should)

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April 09, 2015
How to be a unicorn (and why you should).
Once upon a time, there was a mystical creature known as the Unicorn. This beautiful developer/designer/interface specialist/content creator/etc. was much beloved by everyone in the industry... until they were hunted into extinction. What happened to the once ubiquitous unicorn, and why is the term experiencing a growing resurgence today? It has a great deal to do with the increasingly efficient tools available to web professionals, as well as an improved awareness of just how important cross-discipline experience really is to a team of any size.

Every story has a beginning

The conditions that led to the initial appearance of our beloved Unicorn were the meeting of technology and business practices at just the right moment. The internet was in the throes of its fondly remembered Wild West phase, where .com’s were hot money and anybody with a knack for basic code could pick up a text editor and create a functioning website. This was a time before the majority of the industry was devoted to theory on the roles of UX and UI as a full-time position, before Foundation or Bootstrap, before parallax scrolling was a twinkling in anyone’s eye. On the one hand, there were a lot fewer resources for starting in the web industry; on the other, the limited amount of technology readily available to even the best professionals meant “web design” was widely considered a whole skill set, as opposed to the more nuanced modern-day varieties like front-end, back-end, design, interaction, native apps, and beyond. Further encouraging the creation of the Unicorn was the adoption of this strange and unknown internet technology by companies around the world. Whether you sold services, subscriptions, physical goods, or anything else, everyone was buzzing about getting on “the Web”. Very few businesses, large or small, were able to say they had someone already established internally who could be responsible for their online presence. A lot of hiring was due to happen in short order, but just how much? Many staunch traditionalists still held fast that the internet was a fad. Many others were on board, but had absolutely no idea what kind of work went into a website, or how many people would be needed to fill those mysterious roles. When word began to get around that there were spectacular unicorns out there, who could handle the whole thing from front to back and save a business from hiring a whole team, you can imagine the explosion of demand.

The Web grows deeper

For a time, this model sustained itself fairly well. Skilled web professionals were recognized, if a little overtaxed, and the Web continued to expand. As time moved forward, though, things began to get more complicated. Users and creators alike began to see the potential for even more amazing experiences and services. Designers wanted to move away from the clunky Web 1.0, and closer towards the traditional freedom of print and physical mediums. Businesses were excited to be able to reach more people in more unique ways, increasing their profit margins with whole new audiences. Before long, a unicorn developer had to handle way more than they ever had before. Planning organized user experience documents, creating text case user profiles, designing mockups in multiple graphics programs, integrating social media engagement based on advertising goals, and the list goes on. As more and more was expected, the pool of viable unicorns shrank. Since the business goal of a unicorn was efficiency and cost mitigation, those who persevered were not rock stars, but rather slow, outmoded equipment. When a unicorn finally broke down due to overwork, a new one was shuffled in, hopefully nearly as good as the last. Eventually, the unicorn largely faded from the professional industry at large, except in small freelance outfits and young start-ups just making their way without a big budget.

Our story doesn’t end here

In the last few years, however, the idea of the unicorn has been making a remarkable come back. What had once been ironic references to days gone by were now genuine questions about the viability of a new and modernized unicorn role. Even for web professionals, what’s old can be new once again. Like the first coming of the unicorns, this opportunity is the same meeting of technology and business interests. This time, however, both elements are well aligned and predominantly benefit everyone involved, unicorns and the outside world alike. Technology has come leaps and bounds forward since the early days. Developers can now leverage semantic markup, style sheets, script libraries and more to make their job organized, efficient, and less about re-inventing the wheel every single week. On top of better code, the greatest minds in the industry have given us a never ending rainbow of frameworks, content management systems, style guides and more to act as rock solid bases for each of our products, as suits our needs per project. Even the software we use to do our jobs is growing smarter and more helpful. While visual editors still have a long way to go before their code is of much use for production, we have mockup tools that can put out passable testing code, and design suites that spit out incredibly useful references to jump start our style sheets. We’re at the start of an era when a unicorn can do many different tasks, not because it’s so easy to master very limited technology, but because the technology itself has become advanced enough to actually aid us intelligently in our goals. Things had to get a little complex before returning to a simple and intuitive experience for end users, but we’re the better for it each and every day.

Broader industry, greener pastures

While the technology is a huge boon, the possibly greater cause of the return of the unicorn is that there's a new place for them to call home. Business demand for the original unicorns drove the market to be cheaper, more ruthless, and efficient with a new technology. Now that the professional web industry has begun to stabilize in its own right, a lot has been learned. The new role of the unicorn is no longer that of a single, disposable miracle worker. The ideal web technology team is a literal herd of unicorns. In the interim years, businesses swung hard in the opposite direction, attempting to assemble teams of incredibly focused, single-skilled professionals that would somehow band together to create a perfect product, without ever stepping on each others’ toes. Herding cats, basically. While every team ran a bit differently, the standard state of affairs was a series of walled-off departments that communicated only in set channels, and communication flowed generally in a single direction, from a business-goal-focused starting point, to the end point of whichever QA employee was last to check off his predefined goals. Then, things started to change. Coming out of hiding, the once proud unicorns had found a new niche for themselves. An extremely skilled back-end developer was able to weigh in on discussions with the design team thanks to his experience with a previous freelance client. A content writer provided that “Aha!” moment for a user experience designer based around maximizing the company’s message in the wire-frame placement.

Unicorns and you

Striving to diversify your skill set is, honestly, always a good idea in the long run. Like a stock portfolio, it helps ensure you’re never completely ruined if a single element goes bad. Whether you’re already happily employed, looking for work, or striking it out on your own, being able to both talk and walk multiple disciplines will open doors you never expected. The connotations of being a unicorn do have some downsides to be aware of. Most of these fade as you become more established in a career or with regular clients, but they can be stumbling blocks early on. First and foremost, many clients may see a lack of specific specialization as a bid for quantity over quality of your own experience. Remember, the new goal of the unicorn is to be as self-sufficient as possible, while being able to apply that experience and mesh with a complex team when needed. If you’re freelancing, or in a small business, sell yourself as a one-man solution. No complicated bureaucracy, no miscommunications on final products. You are able to visualize and create a cohesive, efficient product and then make it happen, all on your own.

Trotting towards the future

All of this isn’t to say that becoming a Unicorn is an easy path to success and fortune. There are lots of web teams out there who are still stuck in the walled-garden model of not sharing interdisciplinary abilities amongst the team. Being able to recognize these possibilities, and make the most of the ups and downs of any of them, will always be your best tool as a professional developer, designer, or any other specialty. Always be on the look out for these amazing opportunities, though. Even if you’re completely new to the industry or are incredibly skilled in one area, these open pastures are an irreplaceable opportunity to work with people who are often very good at the interdisciplinary model, and have a lot they can show you. Featured image, unicorn image via Shutterstock.

Chris Landtiser

Chris Landtiser is the internal UX / UI enterprise specialist for the Huron Consulting Group. His mantra in work and in life is always \"Keep It Simple\". Follow him at @Landtiser for thoughts on the web industry, gaming, and his over-sized cat.

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