David Nuff is a principal at design agency Nuff and part of the Toptal network, where he designs for brands including Cisco, Nestle, and Google. Paul Estes, Editor-in-chief of Staffing.com and host of The Talent Economy Podcast, recently spoke with Nuff about his experience as a freelancer and why organizations are increasingly adopting on-demand, remote talent. The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: As a freelancer, how are you feeling from a work and life perspective during this global health crisis?
A: It varies day to day. We’re all adjusting to some fairly big changes. Personally, I’m being very patient with myself and continually adjusting and calibrating. I feel quite lucky to be in a situation where I’m still fairly comfortable. I’m still working. I was used to working from home, or at least not working from an office. I haven’t had to reach as far to adjust to what’s going on right now as others.
Q: You originally intended to be a computer scientist. Tell me about your journey to design.
A: My father worked for a multinational corporation, and so every few years, we would pick up and move. I grew up with an understanding that the world was a very big place, which I’m very grateful for.
I didn’t really have a concept of picking a lane. My mother was a cook, a nurse, and a teacher at various points. My dad had wanted to be a math professor before becoming an engineer. My family has this idea that arts and science go together and are complementary to each other.
I grew up interested in drawing and in computers. Computer science was something that made a lot of sense to me. I was fascinated by technology and the problems it could solve.
Q: When you were a junior designer, you worked on wireless tech for a bike share company, and it was recognized in TIME Magazine as one of the inventions of the year in 2008. What was that validation like so early in your career?
A: I should downplay my contribution to that particular accolade. I was contributing, but at a very tactical level. The project was going to be a success regardless.
I hadn’t had a design education. I went to school for computer science, but I actually graduated with a modern languages degree. So I was coming out of school as a linguist who liked computers and drawing. It’s not the most conventional hire if you’re a technology company. I think they took a chance on me because they saw I could communicate with the engineers with my computer science background and still be able to bring a level of visual creativity. Not a lot of employers would have taken that risk.
The TIME Magazine recognition essentially gave me a leg to stand on in the future. Until that point, I had no resume and no portfolio. It was also a thing that was visible in the city. I could walk into a job interview and say, “I worked on those bikes outside.” It was proof of higher ability.
Q: Employers often say, “We want diverse experiences,” but when it comes down to it, very few leaders are willing to take that bet on somebody. As you’ve moved to on-demand work, how have you seen clients interact with you, given your background?
A: Especially at companies with an established offering or product, it’s a lot easier to say, “We’re looking for people to slot into this machine and do a very specialized job. We have a secret sauce. We have a way of doing things that is specific to us.” Often, that causes companies to miss out on opportunities to find new ways of working or optimizations or improvement.
If there is a secret sauce, it’s going to come from on-the-job training. It’s going to come from work experience inside the organization. Some companies genuinely have a secret sauce, but it’s trained, it’s cultural, and it’s passed on within the company. Bringing someone in from the outside shouldn’t matter.
I’ve had really good bosses who said, “We can train pretty much any skill. We’re more interested in their ability to learn and work with others.” Once a person is inside the company, they can be taught how to use the tools.
Q: What would you tell executives and hiring managers about your choice to work as a freelancer and on distributed teams?
A: From my experience, when you can set your life up in a way that allows you to be healthy and happy, that’s going to spill over into your work. I spent my entire career building toward a certain kind of lifestyle. I have family all over the world. I have a personal desire to see a lot of the world. So location independence, or at least location flexibility, has been in my personal life plan for at least a decade. The more I’ve been able to build toward that, the more that has fed back into the quality of my work.
I would imagine that applies to most, if not all, people in the workforce. To the degree that they are empowered to build their best lives, they will be able to do their best work. That doesn’t mean every single human being wants to be on the beach with a laptop, which is really not hygienic or comfortable.
I’ve always struggled with that canonical image for a remote worker. I have a MacBook Pro that cost me two months’ rent. I don’t want to put it anywhere near water. I also don’t want to sit on a beach and work. When I go to the beach, I’m on the beach.
Q: What advice do you have for organizations starting to use on-demand talent?
A: Relationships are key. The freelancer has to come in and build relationships from scratch without the scaffolding of being on the team officially. They’re not doing an orientation week where they meet everyone and go to lunch. It’s twice as important to establish good working relationships as early as possible.
I agree with the famous line: If given an hour to chop down a tree, I would spend the first 15 minutes sharpening the ax. I’d spend as much time laying the groundwork and asking the right questions. Most strategic relationships begin with a discovery session, and that’s for good reason. We don’t want to start doing the work and get into the weeds before we really know what the parameters for success are. Invest early in both the relationships and an alignment on what the mission is.
Q: Looking out at the next 18 months, what do you think the new normal will look like, in terms of how work gets done?
A: I think things will evolve, particularly with the amount of teleconferencing and virtual communication that’s going on right now. I think the pandemic has already taught us how connected the world is. Not only are we connected through virtual communication, but if a pandemic starts to spread, then all of our fortunes, health, and economies are tied together. We have the tools to strengthen those bonds and those connections. We may be able to reach each other virtually a lot more, even if we are not physically, geographically as mobile. That remains to be seen.
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