An Impact Event: Surviving The Shift From In-house Developer To Digital Agency

Joe Cook
August 9, 2022
Asteroid belt

So, there’s this asteroid. It’s a giant asteroid. It knows what it’s capable of and stays in its very specialized orbit. The distance it’s traveled has allowed the asteroid to become very good at what it does, even if what it does is limited, and the closest astronomical objects have no idea what exactly that is. It’s comfortable. Content. And occasionally a little bored. Cruising along at 25 miles per second – or slower, depending on whatever motivation Dr. Yarkovsky provides.

Then along comes an impact event. It could be from another, less traveled but faster asteroid, a triangle that shoots destructive vectors, budget cuts, and department consolidations, or the drive for that asteroid to break out of its long-term, comfortable, and occasionally dull orbit. Maybe all of the above. 

That impact event breaks the asteroid into dozens of smaller pieces, each with its own trajectory and rotation. The pieces move faster. They have more variety. While they all come from the same, relatable space, one focus has become many.

You see where I’m going with this, right? 

Transitioning from an in-house developer to a member of a digital agency is no easy task. If you haven’t experienced both, I can tell you that it felt like night and day. Not even two sides of the same coin. More like two sides of two completely different coins. Which side is “shiny” and which is “scarred” is up to the individual. It does depend on the developer to explore which works best for them. Here’s how that happened for me, along with some tips based on that experience.

Not long ago, I was unhappy with my long-tenured in-house position – a lone developer on a marketing team that had recently undergone drastic changes. The duties changed. The team changed. The tech stack changed. It was an impact event considerable enough that I decided to make my own change.

Within a few months, I left that in-house, comfortable-but-stagnant position and joined the team here at Code Koalas. Within the first week, I convinced myself I didn’t belong here, one-hundred percent sure I would be let go at any time. And it stayed like that for a year. Not because of anything the team here said or did – on the contrary, they were nothing but supportive – but because everything about the new position felt different. EVERYTHING.

In place of a single, familiar company – one whose mission and brand have been progressively absorbed into your everyday thought process – you have potentially dozens of clients with their own branding and missions. Every time you work with a new client, it’s like starting over. You have to learn about them, what they want, where they want to go, and how they want to get there. And it’s different for each. You should also come to terms with occasionally working with a less than appealing client or two—no need to sugarcoat it. Not every client will bring that uber-fun, high-profile project. But they deserve as much focus and ingenuity as anyone. The key is to embrace variety.

There may have been a single, specific tech stack and a basic workflow at that previous company. And after many years of working in those areas, you’ve become somewhat specialized in them. You call yourself a “WordPress developer.” Maybe even going so far as to throw “PHP dev” on the pile because, hey, you’ve created some templates and fussed with the DOM. Only now, every tech stack and coding language could be on the table. Even the one you specialize in feels different because the projects are much more complex. Sure, the agency will most likely specialize in a few languages, and the individual developers will bring with them their specific backgrounds and skills. Skills those developers become the go-to team members for. But if you personally want to succeed, it’s crucial to open up your skill set past whatever you used to specialize in. Adapt – and spend some time on every tech stack the agency uses. Should the need arise, you want to be able to contribute to all manner of projects coming down the pipeline. You don’t need to be a Master of All, but adapting on the fly becomes the most valuable skill you can have. Get the basics, find your way around, and Google the rest.

As far as I’m concerned, the single most crucial variable to surviving this shift is the support of your new team. Deadlines can come faster. The pressure can feel like a jackhammer, and combined with every new thing you need to learn, the sea level can rise rapidly. But here’s the difference, unlike before, where the people around you – or the vast majority – maybe had no clue exactly what you do here, you are now surrounded by team members with the same primary job as you. In addition, fellow developers who may have more experience in those areas that are new to you and who can offer support and learning opportunities can point you directly to snippets where they accomplished something similar to what you may be working on. Some of those developers could have gone through the same seismic shift when they arrived at the agency. 

A final note: the previous paragraph contains a caveat I have not experienced but have heard plenty about. Not all agency teams can be as supportive as mentioned above. Many have prioritized competition over collaboration, pitting team members against one another in a game that only measures results and nothing else. Motivation, by way of fear. Sink-or-swim on your own. It’s an environment not limited to development houses. This type of environment can foster a less supportive group, with members less likely to ask for assistance and others even less likely to provide it. Some will thrive in these environments. The hyped-up asteroids that have a passion for crashing into others, knocking them off course in order to maintain their own. Workplace survival becomes a game. My survival can be directly traced back to that previously discussed, all-for-one, surprisingly supportive team. Ultimately it’s up to you to decide which works best for you and seek those opportunities. In the current state of our profession, I believe BOTH types are abundant but maybe not as easy to identify from the outside.

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Ryan Wyse