The digital consultant learning curve

D'nelle, self-proclaimed digital consultant, at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, May 2013 - that's one heck of a curve, right there

Thank goodness the digital learning curve isn’t as steep as the Gateway Arch

This past month, I’ve been at turns inspired, challenged, triumphant, frustrated, and reassured. From meeting a college junior who’s set to start her own web development consultancy (LLC and all! before she even graduates!), to attending Ladies’ Hack Day… from flying to St. Louis to do some IRL connecting with a couple clients, to celebrating the 10th anniversary of WordPress… May has been chock-full of personal and professional learning experiences. Sitting here at the tail-end of this month, looking back, the topic that has been at the forefront of my mind is the delicate balancing act required of a digital marketing professional.

Basically, how does one fight off the sheer terror of the unknown while believing that the combination of her past experience, intellectual capacity and stubborn determination will rule the day?

As most of my readers know, I am self-taught. Back in the day – when I was but a wee lass, and we walked to school barefoot in the snow, uphill both ways – the extent of the computer class syllabus included Mavis Beacon and The Oregon Trail. I cut my teeth at the (nearly-non-existent) school newspaper’s copy of QuarkXPress and learning to write HTML to make words bold or italic on my GeoCities page. It wasn’t much better when I hit college; since I wasn’t looking to write C++ and wasn’t attending a trade school, I stuck with my english/spanish double major and made do. Making do was a little bit easier, though, thanks to the awesome resources that my university’s student communications department provided – the Adobe Creative Suite and plenty of mentoring. Still, when I went looking for a resource to help me develop a website for the literary journal, there wasn’t much institutional help. Facebook had just opened up to schools beyond Harvard, and if you wanted a gmail account, you had to get an invitation from someone who already had an account. The student communications department was only just beginning to add a digital component to support student publications, but the little literary journal wasn’t exactly the priority. And at that point, I started writing HTML tables and learning about FTP. The rest, of course, is history.

Life as a digital professional is a life lived on a curve

Given what I do every day, I can confidently say that I have been consistently working in this field for about 15 years now. That work has encompassed creating new email accounts, registering domains, setting up hosting accounts, performing basic HTML web maintenance, writing websites from scratch, configuring and editing a CMS, designing new & editing existing graphics, composing & copyediting marketing copy, performing layout/typesetting for print collateral, segmenting email audiences, troubleshooting eCommerce gateway connections, teaching clients how to log in to their Facebook accounts, consulting on website & landing page user experience… I could go on, but hopefully you get the picture.

The sheer variety of what I do every day, if I stop to make a list, is overwhelming (and I didn’t even mention the whole hey-you-own-your-own-business-remember-to-run-it part)… and every day holds something new. Every day, I’m learning how to use a new tool, execute a new bit of code, respond to a new client request, be a better digital consultant.

Let me be clear – if this weren’t the situation, I’d be b-o-r-e-d. What chased me off from corporate america was the mundane, no-new-experiences-here nature of the 9-to-5 grind.

But this does leave me with a complex problem: if I’m not an expert… if I’m not 100% sure of the answer to your question at the time you ask it… if I’m not trained and vetted and credentialed… if I’m not sure of how to solve a coding challenge… then how can I possibly justify being a digital consultant for a living?

The justification, dearest readers, that I’ve landed upon (and feel free to tell me I’m wrong, or volunteer a better one), is that what matters is the willingness to stand up and climb. Not having the answer the moment the question is asked… or pulling the correct code from your brain as fast as you can type it… or having the validation of a diploma. This digital landscape is so new, so raw, and so rapidly expanding, that to consider anyone the all-knowing expert, or to attempt such a feat oneself, is to misunderstand the nature of the entire universe.

When it comes to choosing a digital partner, someone to help you navigate your presence on the internet, the most valuable characteristics you can look for are a willingness to face change calmly and a fearless confidence in their ability to react to that change.

I have to admit that, sometimes, when I’ve tried six ways from Sunday to get a certain bit of code to behave the way I’d like, my confidence falters. And when a client decides to scrap yet another home page layout, my tolerance for change wavers. But never before in the history of history have the answers been so readily at our finger tips. My google-ninja skills are possibly my most valuable asset; more simply put, I’m unnervingly savvy at asking the right questions. May 2013 has taught me that all I require to forge on is a big, deep breath, a little trail mix, and an unwavering faith in my problem-solving abilities.

So, here’s to the learning curves still ahead for all of us – onward, and upward!


by | Last Updated: May 28, 2013 | shop talk