4 min read

Maturing the Culture of Digital

blue background with picture of seeds and a growing green plant

A degree of reckless innovation always drives the growth of new technologies, and the internet and the web are no different. Unfortunately, some digital makers have only existed in this innovation zone—especially those who have launched and grown their careers over the last 20-30 years. For these people, working more strategically and within the constraints of policy and standards norms can feel counterintuitive, flat-out wrong, counterproductive, and counter-cultural. Why? Because so much of digital maker culture has developed during this crazy and wild phase of forming what it means to integrate digital into the everyday experiences of human life. We've created a way of working where the digital maker community (including its leaders) is addicted to speed in design and deployment but largely averse to, and largely ill-equipped to deal with the consequences of this pace. Where we are is a natural right-on-time symptom of the adolescent phase of our industry. And it's time to grow up.

We will have to shift from a relatively accountable-free mindset and mature our digital maker culture to provide the right type of community and workspaces to correct some of the foundational errors we've made in these early days of design and development. Focusing on mistakes in design, development, and cultural mindset is necessary not as a way to point fingers and cast blame but because it helps us understand what has been done and how it happened. Once that understanding is clear, we should be better equipped to dismantle and alter the negative dynamics and keep what we've done that is scalable, safe—and profitable if you're in business.

From my seat, a few topics in particular foster the right conversations that get to the heart of digital maker culture's less mature and counterproductive aspects.

Talk to and Understand Each Other's Work

Many problems with digital products result from a lack of communication on digital teams—not because quality products are difficult to conceive, design, and ship.

The silos of content, technology, and design have distinct operational functions on a digital team. But, these silos are also the root of many harmful dynamics. For example, designers design experiences that force the perhaps unethical use of user data—because they have no understanding of their design's technical and data-related implications. Conversely, tech teams can often limit what can be done with content and data in ways that are fiscally counterproductive and sometimes unnecessary, in an attempt to eliminate risk instead of manage it. So, try to think about and evaluate the experience holistically. That means everything from the bottom of the tech stack to the data and metadata, content, interface, etc. Some of my most gratifying moments working with organizations have centered around watching people light up and connect as they begin to understand and talk about how their work comes together. Creative and informed options for making what they have better appear easily, and the possibilities surrounding what can be designed and built in the future become richer.

Do You Have the Right People and Skills to Mature?

Most digital teams are staffed by leaning-forward, build-and-release types of folks. Interestingly, even at the most senior levels, this release focus drives the conversation and the priorities around staffing and budgeting. Taking a more mature approach requires the ability to step away from an operations-centric perspective and look at the big picture—which, of course, includes product release but also factors in longer-term and more strategic considerations like scalability, sustainability of the business, ethics, and safety, along with a view toward keeping the innovation pipeline open and connected to more established parts of your digital portfolio. But many of today's digital and design leaders have earned their position by climbing through the ranks of hands-on work. And they sometimes have difficulty understanding their own bias toward operations instead of strategy and other more holistic and mature organizational considerations. One helpful approach to addressing this dynamic can be to bring in and connect with leaders whose careers were not formed in the fray of digital culture. Sometimes these people can see apparent gaps in strategy and flaws and unhelpful dynamics in operations and culture. The bonus is that there is also bi-directional knowledge sharing.

Maturing the Digital Maker Culture

Digital maker culture has, at its core, a deep, almost mystical, belief in the guru. We have creation myths that equate innovation and the design and build of digital products with a singular, quirky, blazing-fast wildness that manifests in mind-blowing and highly profitable products. In our myth, an extraordinary genius (usually casually dressed—unless they're not a man) swaggers down from the mountaintop of Platonic technological forms with a new idea tucked in their hoodie pocket. Add some seed money, stir, check for seasoning, stir some more, add a couple of rounds of venture funding, and then one day, a technology unicorn magically appears. The rest of us line up, wide-eyed, ready to get a piece of it.

This, of course, is not how most products and successful companies are built. It takes hard work and a village of skills and perspectives. Even then, the most innovative ideas can trip on the uneven ground of bad timing, bad luck, and poor leadership and business execution. Other ideas never make it to the field owing to a lack of access to resources, often resulting from personal circumstances and bias. We know this, yet this fantastic myth still drives our culture and the way we work.
The digital maker community should not continue to support these distortions. When we do, we give up our agency to make a difference, and we shirk our responsibility for helping to create some of the negative dynamics we see online. We're saying that the guru makes it, and only the guru can fix it. I don't believe that is true. We made it, and we can fix it. I think each of us has the skills and experience to shift and mature how we work so that what we make is better and safer—and we are the majority. We only need to act.

Do you understand the implications and consequences of the work that's in your hands? Are you staffing for a more mature approach to managing your digital portfolio? Are you considering how digital maker culture has impacted how your team works together? Perhaps it may just be time to consider creating a space for these conversations on your team.