In Praise of Interdisciplinarians

While I’ve always loved learning, my attitude towards school was usually less than positive.  My high school was certainly academically rigorous, as it was one of the top five in the state.  But in its pursuit of that goal, my school celebrated and promoted a kind of achievement that was heavy on standardized testing and highly-structured classes set to guide young minds along a straight-and-narrow path into hallowed Ivy halls of higher learning.

It was a game, and a rather boring one, I thought.  Learning in discrete blocks — French, then History, then Music Theory, then Math — with each subject in its own separate silo, a student’s competence (or lack thereof) in each area helping to nudge that person into a specific collegiate track.  But I wanted French AND History, mixed together.  The Science of Music.  Peanut butter in my goddamn chocolate.

So it’s hardly surprising I was drawn to the early Internet, where a mid-90s web job consisted of a little Perl scripting, a little graphic design, and a whole lot of making-shit-up-as-you-go.  Need to promote the new Frank Zappa album with some 30-second song samples?  No problem, boss!  Teaching myself how to encode, optimize, upload and embed audio files, all long before the era of online tutorials and YouTube video how-tos… well, that was just all in a day’s ]webmastering work.  The means were largely irrelevant to the end goal of creating something cool for the user.  (And yes, online audio, even in 30-second bursts, was pretty cool back in the Internet Stone Age, circa 1995.)

It took a number of additional years for me to figure out that it was the “creating something cool for the user” part of what I did that interested me most.  And so, like a lot of people, I started specializing, concentrating my skill development in the area of user experience accordingly.  But I always hung on to the coding know-how, and some of the design theory, always trying to learn more about those disciplines from job to job.

Folding these newfound bits of knowledge into my work, and practicing new techniques, I found that I was:

a) creating even stronger and more fully-realized solutions, and

b) making some people a bit confused, nervous, or both.

Through years of experience, I had specialized myself into a fairly tightly-defined role.  And doing something that is not in your job description — something that is, in fact likely part of someone else’s — can prompt a reaction not unlike that of my poor high school guidance counselor upon her being confronted with my proposal for a semi-self-directed course of inter-disciplinary study.

In spite of such hurdles, I’ve been lucky enough to work with a number of other web hybrids: developers with an eye for design, database architects passionate about taxonomy, and visual designers with a flair for information architecture.  And you know what?  Those extra interests made those people especially engaged and invested in the final product, which benefited greatly as a result.  In fact, a few months ago one of the first YouTube developers wrote this great blog post about hiring front-end engineers, in which he highlights the value of potential candidates who possess artistic interests and/or UX and design skills.

So here’s to all the interdisciplinarians, the not-easily-categorized, the hybrid web workers.  By connecting our interests together, we’ll always end up creating something cooler for the user than if we’d stayed between the lines of our own roles.