10 Jan

An Unstoppable Combination

Most people I know who work on web products focus on a single skill, like design, then work hard to become really good at it. They even make it a part of their identity when they proudly state, “I’m a designer.” I know that’s what I did.

At least until a couple years ago when I started to get interested in development. When I first expressed interest in learning to program the common response was “why?” After all, I had a skill (design) that was in demand. Why learn something entirely new?

I started caring about the entire product. Not just what it looked like, but also how it was used, the stability, security, and most importantly, if people actually paid for it. That required a new set of skills. In order to have a true product focus I needed to learn programming and marketing.

Normally design, development, and marketing are found in three different people, but they are all learnable skills, right? So why couldn’t I become good at all three?


Learning Development

Feeling confident in my design ability, I started on development next. At the time I was very interested in designing iOS apps, so developing them as well was the next logical step. At first progress was slow. I started by designing an app and then gradually implementing more and more of the design in code. This slowly got me familiar with Xcode and Interface Builder as well as Objective-C. After a few months I was trying to develop my own apps (with a lot of help). 1.5 years later I had three apps in the App Store. Each one I had designed myself and done the majority of the development.

But what good is a product if no one knows it exists?


Learning Marketing

With a few products released I knew it was time to focus on marketing. I started by finding sites that would be interested in writing about my latest app (Commit) and sending them an email. Nothing complicated. A few sites wrote reviews, which grew into reviews on sites like TUAW and Lifehacker. This showed me what was possible, and I started to put more effort into learning.

Then I learned something critical: teaching is the best form of marketing. I’d been told this by many different people, but it wasn’t until early 2012 that I took it to heart and started acting on it.

These lessons ultimately led to writing two books on design (The App Design Handbook and Designing Web Applications) that have together made me nearly six figures. I’ve also grown a popular blog, built up email lists, and actually made a small name for myself. Pretty crazy, right?


Focus on your weakest skill

The books have been such a wild success that I realized I’ve made a lot of progress learning marketing. That means it’s time to spend more time where I am currently weakest: development. That’s where The Web App Challenge comes in. I am going to be working on a new Ruby on Rails application to continue learning to program. Really it will take all three skills to make the project successful.

I find it beneficial to periodically evaluate your current skills compared to where you would want to be, decide where you are weakest, and focus your energy there for a while. This constant rotation will make sure you don’t neglect a particular area for too long.


One person can have all three skills

The biggest myth I hear often repeated is that designers and developers are two different kinds of people (and marketers are another species entirely). I don’t believe it. All three are skills and they can be learned, even mastered, by just one person.

I still have a long ways to go, but I’m working hard towards that goal.

If you want, add your best resources for learning design, development, and marketing to the comments.

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12 Responses to “An Unstoppable Combination”

  1. Great piece Nathan. I am on a similar journey myself professionally. Since there is a so much to learn, have you looked into meta-learning ? Its suppose to give tips how to learn fasters and focus on what is critical for mastering a skill.

  2. Great piece, Nathan. Where did you start with development? By that I mean, when you started with iOS or Rails, were you already to develop in another language?

    I spent all of last January with Rails, and while I did get a surprisingly long way, it was obvious that it would require a lot of time to get the basics, let alone get competent.

  3. Great post. I think is awesome to have this kind of freedom to do everything you want with don´t actually need someone else but do you miss be in a workspace surrounded of good people, each one with their skills?

  4. Mitch says:

    Nathan, thanks for your thoughts and vulnerability. Some of us are sitting on the sidelines with ideas, getting ready to pursue a path similar to yours, and it’s encouraging to know that it can work out really well. I am just starting to learn to program, in response to a concept that I want to build, so I’m not in the same boat in some ways, but reading your recap of 2012 was pretty encouraging, as was this post.

  5. Jody Schofield says:

    It’s interesting to hear some of your back story. I’m coming from 20+ years as a developer and now want to improve my UI/UX design and marketing skills. Interested in learning more about your Journey. Best of luck Nathan! Jody

  6. Alberto Plebani says:

    Hi Nathan, one can learn all the 3 areas, but it is really hard to understand all of them well and deeply; it is possible to learn them with different degrees of knowledge so you have to decide if it is worth to learn all of them or demand specific work to someone else. But when you feel that you want to know every aspect of your product/work, i think you are becoming a “product man” (as the very positive Steve Jobs’ definition of a “product man”), and this is very good!. I’m a java sw developer and i worked on enterprise web applications, but i didn’t focus only on the “backend” so i learned a lot about the client side programming and design too and during the last year i developed some mobile apps. Development knowledge came a lot from books, online resources (loved dzone.com refcards), opensource projects (teach you a lot), support sites like StackOverflow and specific technology related blogs; design knowledge came from smashingmagazine and others online reources (such as twitter bootstrap at least to get the technical part of web design); market knowledge…well, i still have a lot to learn here, but lot of blogs (like this!) where i often find links to other people’s blog both in comment or in article’s quotes, startup oriented sites and also stanford online courses (really good resources!). But definitely, my most important source of information for all of the three areas is news.ycombinator.com (which brought me here about one month ago!). Hope to read your next article as soon as possible!

  7. “Teaching is the best form of marketing” – well said. Well done on a brilliant year

  8. If it’s just one person, they HAVE to have all those skills. Even if someone can’t do one of those things (and has to outsource) an understanding of it is still necessary. I’ve worked with designers who can’t code and coders who can’t design—it’s shit soup every time.

  9. While I somewhat disagree with you, I still think it is a good piece of writing.

    I do agree that some folks can master everything and anything they set out to do but the majority are unfortunately stuck in one track. I can go into details of why that is, but at a high level, it has to do with “will” and discipline. Also, willingness to explore and to “fail” (there are no failures, only learning opportunities) and not be bothered by it.

    It sounds cheesy but the only constant is change. You seem to have embraced it. Most people do not :(

    Good luck!

  10. Lucas says:

    I’m much in the same situation of being a designer now wanting to delve into development. One of the walls I seem to hit on a regular basis is “where to start”. There is so much to learn and I find it overwhelming to the point of paralysis at times. Did you follow any sort of routine, pattern, specific resources, series of tutorials? Did you set up a plan like “I will spend x hours per day learning Y”? How did you decided what the starting point was? In another one of your posts on productivity you mention focussing on “the right thing”. In these fields which seem to change daily, how do you determine what that is?
    Congrats on all of your success, it’s quite inspiring!

    • I go through that overwhelming paralysis too. I’m in the process of learning recording/music-making software along with re-learning how to draw on a tablet.

      I never knew where to start. So I just started looking for articles or videos on people who were already doing what I wanted to do (which wasn’t easy because it has to do with new ideas for visual novels/graphic novels/comics with the burden of our sex phobic society/censorship/etc).

      Consider your learning style. Some would rather read. Others, watch a video. I need both. Youtube has been great for tutorials and some users are very helpful. Another source I discovered about a year ago is Lynda.com. It’s a software learning site. You can watch some videos free. They also have varying subscriptions, with and without practice files you can use along with the instructor. You learn by (pre-recorded) video. It is very well organized, which impressed me a great deal. Nothing gets in the way of learning like visual clutter and people who ramble. Pros make their videos (so you may like it better than youtube’s random stuff). Others have sites where they compile tons of helpful tutorials (like learningcoronaDOTCOM for Corona SDK). It’s just a matter of wading through searches and sites.

      If you just choose a spot, dive in and take bite sizes, you’ll, hopefully, hear your gut begin to guide you. Once you’ve gained momentum in that area (your gut), you should feel less stress/paralysis as your plans come into focus.

      Also, use your bookmarks! Even a year later, you can go back and realize you had a better resource than you first thought. I hope this helped a little!

  11. Enjoyed reading this, as it is how I operate! Necessity made me learn all kinds of things: replacing my own brake pads, blower motor, and other simple auto repairs, having no money for my first computer and fixing an old discarded one (which led me to building and understanding them better), drawing, music, whatever.

    With there being so many ways to distribute and sell, I finally have hope for my future. Employment outside of the home – when you’re a single parent to a severely disabled child – is impossible for some – so I decided to create my own job. Being your own boss means you have to be super motivated and aware of your precious time. You have to take breaks to consider problem solving from various angles. Sometimes I google (it’s how I got to this site) and sometimes I meditate. (I also have a Wanda Carter poster on the back of my bedroom door to keep me focused).

    And I agree with Lucas – your story is inspiring. Thank you!

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