Why I will never hire a 'multi-tasking ninja'.

And why you should never be one.

Read time: 4 minutes.

Finding the right balance.

Most digital agencies will have a good mix of Seniors, Mid-weights and Juniors all working together like a well-oiled machine. Everyone knows their place, has their say and is good at what they do. People come and go, but overall the studio runs smoothly.

But every now and then, along comes a 'multi-tasking ninja' who's decent at just about everything they do.

When you lose someone valuable, and you need to fill the hole ASAP, these people are a Godsend. Your nightmares are swept away by someone who has a grip on all your systems and processes the second they walk through the door.

With great power comes great, uh... headaches.

Everyone's best friend

You can breath a sigh of relief knowing that the annoying stuff like server maintenance and software updates are all magically taken care of.

Thing is, this person is now crucial to the survival to your studio. Which means you should never piss them off, even if they're a complete pain in the arse, or worse, they know they are hard to replace.

illustration of a multi-tasking ninja on a computer.

'And just like that—they're gone'

Just like Keyser Söze, or Kevin Spacey's career—or even actual ninjas—studio ninjas will disappear in a puff of smoke and you wont even realise how reliant you are on them until they do. That’s when the penny drops that replacing them is not as simple as just looking around and finding another.

In this scenario, an agency has three choices:

  1. Kiss their feet and give them anything they want to stay. Beg if you have to, and shower them with all your savings. I've heard stories of bosses offering instant $20k raises, just to keep ninjas on.
  2. Focus all your energy on training someone else (who's willing) to get knee deep in all the boring stuff. Good luck with that.
  3. Hire another ninja. If you can spot one.

There's no simple solution.

If a junior leaves, no sweat, you can easily find another willing minion. If a mid-weight leaves, well that's not too difficult either. Seniors are harder, because they bring so much intangible knowledge, experience, and intuition to the table. It takes more time, but you can still find plenty of solid replacements out there.

But how do you replace the Senior Finished Artist / Digital Designer / Art Director / Front-end Dev / Studio Manager / Digital Project Manager / IT guy, who can code HTML, CSS and PHP, fix your NAS, do the backups, order all your new hardware, upgrade your old hardware, fix the phones, buy domains, fix the emails, run workshops, present to clients, write the studio blog, deal with freakish deadlines on media ads, take all the studio photography—and who uses Skip to order and collect everyone's coffee everyday?

You shouldn't. The real question is, "How did your agency get into this mess in the first place?"

man searching in the dark for a replacement employee Good luck trying to find a like-for-like replacement.

Career dead end

Now you might be thinking, 'Hey, seems like ninjas are set for life! Everyone want's to hire them, right? Good thing I'm a ninja who can do everything!'

But I'm here to tell you, if you've got 'multi-tasking ninja' front and centre on your CV, get rid of it now. As far as I'm concerned, that's a one-way ticket to a career dead end.

Yes, you might be eminently employable to a smaller studio who just wants to plug holes, but more reputable agencies are wise to be wary of hiring you. They don't like anyone holding that much power over any given system, and frankly, they are big enough to hire specialists who are INCREDIBLE at their chosen field.

There's just no room for 'jack-of-alls' who are anywhere from fair to competent at most things, when they can attract candidates who have amazing skills in one field.

Work that is done on time, and that fits the needs of the client, is all well and good. But work that exceeds a client’s expectations—that really stands out—is what generates attention, and brings new, and repeat business. For that, you need people who excel in their specialty. In the meantime, the rest of the designers and developers can just pick up the slack.

In my experience, ninjas are also more often the type to strike out on their own, so as a potential employer, it’s a huge red flag. I want to hire someone for the long-term, not a fly-by. Someone who I can pay properly to do a select range of tasks really well, that I either can't do, or don't have time to do, myself. Someone who will grow with my business, not out of it.

Illustration of a finger plugging a leaking tap. Multi-taskers should only ever be a temporary fix.

Learn to specialise

Your best bet to a great agency career is to get really good at one thing, and execute it consistently to a high, or exceptional standard. Whether it be SVG animation, fantastic UI skills, making useful sketch resources, or being a gun copywriter—if you start to build a reputation for having any of these skills, word will spread, and you'll find yourself being headhunted before you know it.

Wait, what about rockstars?

Now they're a different breed alltogether—but I'll leave that for another time.

Ben Stevens is a Digital Designer based in Melboure, Australia.

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