One of my hobbies is buying, selling, and collecting vintage watches. I've been getting a bit more serious about it over the past few years, and recently I've considered hanging out a shingle on the Web so I can share my collection, advertise some pieces for sale, and list others I'm looking to buy or trade.
If I'd built my own personal watch-nerd website five years ago, I'd have fired up a text editor, written the HTML and CSS from scratch, set up a server, transferred the files to the server, and launched the site. I'd have made updates manually without using a content-management system. I'd have designed everything just right by myself, down to the pixel. That's how I learned my craft in the mid-'90s, it's how I designed websites for clients in the early 2000s, and it's how I've designed apps more recently.
But while I was pondering putting up this gallery of vintage watches, I realized something about my skills, my interests, and my priorities: They've shifted. As my company, Basecamp, has grown to 50 employees, I've taken on more of a big-picture leadership role and less of a designer role. In the process, I've gotten better at some things and worse at others.
Yes, I could still build a website by hand from scratch, but it would take me longer than it used to. Skills are like muscles. They never completely go away, but if you don't use them, they lose mass, tone, and tightness, and they don't push you as far as they used to. What's more, the technical aspects of website design have advanced so much in the years since I stopped practicing that I've lost touch with some of them.
Coming to terms with this was illuminating. On the one hand, I was a little scared. The very things that got me to this point in my career were no longer my strong suits. How did that reflect on me? Was I a relic? How did my employees feel about that? They'd surely noticed.
On the other hand, I felt a little liberated. I used to be militant about building websites manually. As long as I was a practiced builder, that was how I always did it. But now, because I have less interest in doing it that way, I am open to other possibilities. I checked out some of the latest content-management systems and template-based design tools, like Shopify and Squarespace, and I found them to be fantastic--flexible, powerful, and fast. Rather than feeling like I was taking a step backward by using an off-the-shelf solution, I felt like I was moving forward, quickly. This was good.
I also had a deeper realization: I'm not the same person I was five years ago. Leadership will do that to you. I still love design, and, on a conceptual level, I think I'm actually better at it than I was before. My eye has gotten better, my sense of proportion has improved, my instincts are sharper. But more important, I've shifted from being a person who builds to being one who pulls together other builders and helps guide them. When Basecamp releases great work, my new skills as a facilitator are part of what's made it possible.
Losing the foundation of what got you where you are can be frightening, but it can also be advantageous. For example, I'm currently working with a couple of our designers on some hairy problems that are hard to solve when you're in the weeds on a daily basis. Now that I'm not doing the work, I can take a look occasionally and see a problem with fresh eyes and often help find the solution. I'm further away from the work, but closer to the problems. And, it turns out, that's a good place to be.