Are you competent?

Seriously, think about it. Of course, we all agree on the importance of being competent, but what are we actually doing about staying competent? Most of you will probably say, “I stay competent by practicing my profession.” That sounds reasonable, doesn't it? But is that enough to stay competitive, to be considered for the work that is interesting and rewarding?

Most of us don't spend much thought on formal training and educating ourselves. Sure, when a new technology or product comes on the market and makes an impact, we often feel the need to learn about it so we don't look like fools when it comes our way. This is particularly true for complex products such as control consoles, media servers, and design software.

Take control consoles as an example. While you may specify a certain console, there is always a chance that it will be substituted by another “just as good” console when the vendor realizes he's overbooked. The console may indeed be just as good, perhaps even better. But if you don't know how to use it without constantly referring to the manual, you're in trouble. That's why good console operators and programmers try to master more than one console. They may be a real master of one or two but at least know their way around a few more. This broader competence increases their competitiveness and thus market value.

But what about training in other, less obvious, yet equally important, areas? Many, possibly the majority of the people in our industry, are self employed. They need not only to be good professionals in their field but also good managers of themselves. Time, money, and other resources are always in limited supply, and there are those less glamorous tasks like bookkeeping and billing to deal with. Sure, some of them can be outsourced, but certain skills are really crucial to master if you want work to continue coming in and hopefully keep you moving up the ladder in your profession.

There are a small number of very prominent designers who regularly get hired for major productions such as televised shows, Broadway musicals, and big budget world tours. What keeps them getting the first call isn't only that they are very good designers. There are probably at least a dozen equally talented and skilled designers for each one of those "brand name" designers.

No, what keeps these designers getting asked first and paid top money is that they are also skilled at managing the peripheral activities such as presentation, social skills, networking, (no, not the computer kind), and no doubt, time management and budgeting too. Some of them do this by themselves, and some have assistants to do the grunt work, but they are very much aware of the importance of these peripheral tasks.

When I occasionally meet these “brand name” designers, I am generally impressed with their outgoing personalities, no-nonsense attitude, and conversational skills. They also tend to take some care in their appearance (though in this industry, that has a lot of leeway) and arriving on time.

Some of you might feel that this is largely irrelevant to the fine art of design. Perhaps it is, but this is show business, not show art. Tough as it may sound, you're not hired to make a great artistic statement; you're hired to make a contribution to a group effort, to ensure that a production is so good that it provides a good return for the investors, whether producers, record company execs, band management, or whoever writes you the check for the gig.

Does that sound too crass and commercial? Well believe me, having broad competence and social skills as well as technical skills will get you much further than only being the world's most brilliant expert in a narrow field.

So, going back to those skills that are directly related to your profession, are you updating your knowledge on a regular basis? I believe very strongly in continuous education, apart from the normal on-the-job learning that goes on in our everyday life.

You really need to continually invest in yourself. Just like a manufacturer needs to invest a certain percentage of net profits into research and development, you need to invest a small portion of your net income into your personal development. Without doing so, you are really standing still while others move forward and eventually pass you by. And this is a slow, subtle slide that you might not notice until it's too late!

So what to do? The good news is that people are starting to realize this, and training courses are very much in demand. The manufacturers that have made a sincere effort in training programs see a direct relationship between these and a reduction in the amount of support they need to provide.

The better trained the people who use the equipment are, the less the chance of last-minute emergency phone calls for support. It also helps sell products since a well-trained and experienced operator/programmer can be an excellent advocate for the product without being perceived as a salesperson. And isn't it fair that those manufacturers who take the time and effort to set up good training programs should be rewarded for it?

Many manufacturers' courses are free of charge. You need to get yourself to the location and pay for accommodation, but that is usually not too financially straining.

There are also courses within the industry apart from the ones focused on products. The Broadway Master Classes is a very good example. Here, students as well as professionals can learn from the masters and network with their peers and exchange experiences and ideas.

When it comes to more general skills, such as communication, presentation skills, and time management, there is no shortage of courses and training programs. You need to choose carefully though; there are some great ones and some less than great ones. There are audio books on some subjects, perhaps an alternative to music on your iPod when you travel or commute?

“But I have no time for training!”

Seriously, you need to schedule time for your own personal development. If you're very much in demand with work on back-to-back gigs, well then you can afford to take some days off each year to train. If, on the other hand, you are not booked solid, there should be time as well as a very good reason to improve your skills and thus improve your market value.

Trust me, once you've started to make a conscious effort to improve and expand your skills, you will wonder why you didn't start earlier.

Mats Karlsson is product manager for creative light imaging at Barco and can be reached at mats.karlsson@barco.com.