Episode 141 – Strive For Perfection and Keep Updating Your Skillset with Jono Alderson
Jono Alderson is Phil’s guest on today’s show. He is a full-stack developer, marketing technologist and digital strategists who manages special projects at Yoast.
Jono began his career, 20 years ago, building small websites using HTML. For several years, he applied his coding skills to the world of SEO. He educated himself to the point where he landed key roles at Uninid, Distilled, twentysix and became the head of insight, then head of digital at Lindex.
Today, he codes in numerous languages, is an SEO and analytics specialist as well as a brand and campaign strategist. He is a passionate advocate and participant within the open source community.
(00.57) – So Jono, can you expand on that brief introduction and tell us a little bit more about yourself? Jono explains that he started his IT career working out of his bedroom. There he built little websites using HTML. Over the following years, he dabbled and worked in a lot of different fields. He worked as a developer, got involved in SEO analytics and a lot more besides. Today, he still wears many hats.
Right now, a significant percentage of his work focuses on optimizing for speed across all platforms, including the web, apps and more. He comments that recently, much of what he has been doing feels more like consultancy than web development.
(2.24) – Why do you think you have ended up moving from a technical role into more of a consultancy role? Jono comments that he has actively tried to blend things together. He continues to code, mostly on personal projects, picking up a new skill or language as he goes.
(2.54) – So, does that mean you are deliberately keeping your hand in? Jono says, yes absolutely. He wants to avoid becoming the disconnected marketer who knows just enough to be dangerous, but, not enough to be useful.
(3.22) – Can you please share a unique career tip with the I.T. Career Energizer audience? Jono’s unique tip is to remember that you don’t have to ask permission to do better stuff. This is especially the case in areas like web development and SEO, which are both evolving at a phenomenal pace
Some areas like performance optimization, data and, privacy management are still in their infancy. They are examples of areas where nobody really cares about your background or job title. If you can contribute and are passionate about these things you can work in those areas knowing you will be welcomed.
When you take that passion to the open source market you have a big impact. You can actually affect change, sometimes in a big way.
Through this community, Jono has affected change on some huge platforms and technologies. These are tools that are used by tens of thousands, every day. In virtually every area, the industry is crying out for smart people to get involved.
Jono points out that this is particularly the case right now in the WordPress world. There is a huge amount happening there, around technologies like AMP. Google is heavily involved in, and interested in, providing a faster web experience. So are very active in seeking ways to do so.
But, there are not enough people involved in this field that have the right knowledge. This means that there is a huge opportunity for anyone who is prepared to study a little and acquire the necessary skills.
(5.48) – Are there any ways you would recommend that people start thinking about what they might be able to do? Jono explained that his journey started by looking for the unknowns, the edges. For example, his involvement in technical SEO began with him being curious about what the best HTML practices were for search engine optimization.
He started by digging around in places like Stack Overflow to see what others were doing and better understand what was already happening. Naturally, this led to him getting involved in the discussion and trying things out. He also started sharing his findings and his take on the situation. Without setting out to do so he had become involved in affecting change. Developing things that would, in time, become the standard.
(7.24) – Can you tell us about your worst career moment? And what you learned from that experience. This happened when Jono went from working on small local business sites in his bedroom to working for an agency. His first job was to improve a firm’s website. To enable him to do that, he was given FTP access to the production server. So, he did as he had always done, signed in, identified the bugs fixed them and made some improvements.
The problem was that there was a big difference between the way he worked with his direct local business clients and the way the agency did things. Differences he was not aware of at all. His previous clients paid him then simply trusted him to do what was needed. Basically, he had a free hand.
Whereas, the agencies had a workflow process, that included apprising the client of the changes, prior to implementation. Plus, there were no backups for the site Jono had changed. Everything he had done had gone live without the site owner being aware of what was about to happen.
Fortunately, the site owner did not go mad. However, he did have to put the site back to the way it was, which, oddly meant coding the bugs back in.
For Jono, this was a huge learning moment. It taught him that you need to bring the client along with you. It is vital to build a strong relationship with them and use good storytelling skills to enable them to see what you see and agree to travel in the direction you are suggesting. You have to manage the people as much as the work.
(10.22) – Phil had a friend who ended his career overnight by rewriting the front end of something that was shared by multiple applications, without prior permission. Worse, this product was being worked on by about 100 other developers, at the time.
(10.54) – What was your best career moment? Jono says that actually, he is living it right now. Working at Yoast is an absolute joy.
Prior to this, he has done all kinds of other types of work and all of it has felt flawed. This is particularly the case with agency work, where you are always falling foul of the classic prioritization triangle.
At Yoast, they are defining standards where none currently exist. Leading the way on things that impact a significant proportion of the web, in many cases solving problems nobody even knew existed.
Plus, generally speaking, he can pick and choose what he works on. So, he is able to work on incredibly cool things. For example, right now, he is working on a way to enable any website developer to effectively implement schema.org markup.
(14.44) – Can you tell us what excites you about the future of the IT industry and careers? The fact that there is no barrier to entry is very exciting. Plus, there is something new to learn, every day.
Jono is proud of the way he has grown in the industry and knows that potentially anyone can do something similar. He dropped out of college and started out small by creating websites. Today, he can come up with an idea and develop it 100%, sorting out everything from the architecture and databases to the front end. Despite this, sometimes he still feels like he is falling behind. There is just so much to learn. Things like new workflow tools and CSS he wants to adopt.
He knows that things are only going to get more interesting as IoT and digital assistants gather momentum. Consumer behavior is set to change drastically and do so at a global level. The possibilities are endless.
(17.29) – What first attracted you to a career in IT? Jono says the fact that the things he coded were tangible, inspired him to learn and do more within IT. For him, it has been a great way to create. In fact, the only way he can really do so because he cannot draw or paint to create physical art or make things with his hands. But, he can create something using his coding skills.
(18.09) – What is the best career advice you have ever received? Unfortunately, Jono can’t remember who gave him this advice. But, nonetheless, it has proved invaluable for him.
He was taught to think in terms of “distance to perfect”. So, instead of doing what most firms do, which is to think in terms of what is the minimal viable product you first draw up plans for your perfect product. Taking this approach ensures that you always aim high. Resources may mean that you cannot reach that level. But, thinking like this forces you to push beyond MVP. Inevitably, you end up creating better stuff and stretching yourself.
(19.29) – If you were to begin your IT career again, right now, what would you do? Jono says his approach would probably not be radically different, although he does wish that he had got more formal training. He describes his coding as a bit sloppy and he would also have collaborated more with others. Jono feels that he would have progressed much faster if he had done so.
(20.47) – What are you currently focusing on in your career? Jono says that he is atoning for many years of reinventing the wheel for businesses that are not necessarily having a meaningful impact on the world. So, he is focused on being involved in projects that are going to make a significant difference. To really make the world a better place.
(21.46) – What is the number one non-technical skill that has helped you the most in your IT career? Being a voracious reader of science fiction book helps Jono to recharge his batteries. But, more than that, they feed his imagination and help him to think differently, to think outside the box. This habit feeds into his work and has a positive effect.
(22.43) – Phil asks Jono to share a final piece of career advice with the audience. Jono’s advice is not to settle for mediocrity. Conventional wisdom limits you far more than you realize. You are constantly told not to chase the shiny thing or expect perfection.
In fact, you should be doing both of those things. When you do you will start to shape the landscape around you. You will have to win some arguments to get there and be patient. But, because you are pushing beyond what everyone else is doing you will be the one that makes a significant difference.
Getting involved in Open Source is great for pushing you to come up with ideas and work collaboratively to make real change. Plus, of course, it is a great way to demonstrate your capabilities. To prove what you can do. There really is nothing stopping anyone from doing that.
(3.26) JONO– “You don’t’ have to ask permission to do better stuff.”
(4.58) JONO– “These days, it is surprisingly easy to become a thought leader or a pioneer, an engineer who is shaping tomorrow.”
(9.36) JONO- “Storytelling and relationships with stakeholders and influencers is just as critical as the work itself.”
(11.46) JONO– “We’re defining standards at the cutting edge where no standards currently exist.”
(17.57) JONO– ” Web development, SEO, CSS, PHP suddenly became my canvas.”
(23.59) JONO– “I’m relatively new to the open source space. But I’ve been astounded at just how it easy it is to contribute. ”