Progressing in a User Experience career leads most designers working for companies or agencies (i.e., not freelancers) to a fork in the road. In order to get to the “next level” in your career you need to decide whether you are going to become a manager or master craftsman (sometimes referred to as a subject matter expert). The choice here is stark.
Choose master craftsman and you get to design all day, all the time. You work tirelessly at becoming the best designer you can be but, in most cases, you max out your earning potential and career advancement very quickly. Pretty soon you’re making lateral moves in your career focusing those career changes on the actual material you’re working on rather than a potential “career move.” Often, you end up designing at the whim of the design manager (CD, ECD, etc…) at your current company.
Choosing the managerial path often leads to less actual design work and more administrative work. Resource allocation, mentoring, hiring/firing, performance reviews, project prioritization — the mere mention of any of these phrases to many designers causes them to shut down and start convulsing in the fetal position on the floor. Yet the rewards are different – there is a far longer career ladder to climb regardless of whether you’re designing at an agency or inside a corporation. The effect you have on the design output of your organization grows as well. Your vision and aesthetic drive many decisions and you get to choose which designers to surround yourself with.
This choice is presented to designers relatively early in their career and many of us feel like it’s truly a binary decision. I believe there’s a third option – designing at a startup. Designing at a startup blends the best qualities of both of these career tracks by allowing you to do actual design work yet at the same time your vision and design philosophies get built into the company from a very early point. You determine the design direction and interaction experiences for a brand new product. You actually execute that design and, when the time is right, you get to help bring on other designers to work with you that you actually enjoy working with.
If you’re lucky you get some equity as well and as the startup grows and reaches a point where you’re once again faced with the “manage or SME” decision, you have the option to exit gracefully and move on to the next startup. This approach is not for everyone as the rigors, risk and general lawlessness of the startup environment can drive a designer crazy. But if you’d like to exert more control over a design vision and not be forced to worry about who will staff the upcoming conversion funnel overhaul, it can be a very viable and exciting choice.