The Future Wears Many Hats

many-hats “I wear a lot of hats,” is the sort of phrase that makes people cringe. The idea immediately brings to mind a one man band- along with all the obvious negative connotations. How good can the music sound when you’ve got cymbals strapped between your knees and you’re carrying five instruments? Point taken, but there’s a major flaw in that logic, I think. It turns out that the one man band, like many business analogies, is not as applicable as we might think.

The guy with the bass drum strapped to his back is saying “look what I can do.” In our business, though, we ask “what do you do, and how can we help you do it better?” In media production, the client relationship is at the core of everything we do, our purpose and our mission. As the needs of our clients grow and shift, we must adapt, expanding our skills and capacity to fit them.

For nearly half of my 23 years in this industry, I was a single-discipline specialist: video post-production. That extended beyond pure editorial, but by and large the skill set included editing, color grading, effects, and some graphics work. Meanwhile, I was building interactive projects in Flash, PHP, mysql and jQuery for years without making much noise about it. This was mostly out of curiosity or for fun, projects for friends or small-to-medium freelance gigs. Then I got a fateful call from a long-time client. Their web developer had flaked on them and a deadline was looming. “I know this isn’t what you guys do, but … can you help?”

I agreed and dove into the project as soon as I hung up the phone. I might have felt a subtle impression on the top of my head that afternoon. I had donned a new hat. Thus began my multi-hatted life. I almost never leave on time, but I’m nearly always busy. Busy means useful, and, for me, that’s all that matters.

I’ve started noticing this sort of thing more and more. The trend-line on this goes back decades and it’s pointed decidedly up and to the right. The future, in other words, wears many hats.

We used to think of a debate between specialists and generalists, one or the other being more useful given any specific set of circumstances. But now, with businesses becoming ever-leaner and the necessary tools getting cheaper and more widely available than ever before, that boolean seems more than a little simplistic.

Gear, long the separator of the pro’s from the Joe’s in the media production industry, is barely relevant now. These days, the coin of the realm is the trusted vendor relationship. We serve that relationship through the work we do, addressing pain points and catching new business along the way. We can’t do that if we blindly stick to respective lanes.

Gone is the false choice of “deep and narrow” vs. “shallow and wide.” If anything, being really good at a single very specific thing, while laudable, limits one’s usefulness in today’s business environment. A team of multi-disciplinary professionals is more flexible and agile than one made up of narrow-field specialists, more apt to respond to changes in the market.

Keep learning; keep experimenting; and keep client needs at the center of it all. In the end, it doesn’t matter if you wear many hats as long as you look good in all of them.