Innies and Outies


I’ve been thinking on this a little bit lately. I’m just about to make some more changes at work, and I have to admit, for a while there I was toying with becoming an ‘innie’.

There is something quite seductive about having the access to resources that innies have that outies never really get. Especially if you work somewhere really big. You might also get to work on stuff that *really* matters, that makes a difference to lots of peoples lives every day. This is pretty powerful stuff.

But… at the end of the day… you only get to work on more or less the same stuff, month after month. You can look forward six months into the future and have a fairly good idea of what you’ll be doing. This, for me, is the downside.

That, and I was never really sure that I wanted to back one company hard enough to commit to them with full time employment. (And they say men are the ones with commitment issues!)

Yes, I’ve been an outie almost all my career. I started off as an innie, but that job ended with a retrenchment (which I think was a good thing and I’m pretty sure didn’t scare me off the innie thing). And I’ve just chosen, again, to be as outie as you possible can be – to freelance.

(For those of you *completely* lost by this innie/outie business – an ‘innie’ is someone who works within a company as an Information Architect, Interaction Designer, User Researcher, etc. An ‘outie’, on the other hand, consults or works for a consultancy, and does IA, IxD etc. on a project by project basis usually as contracted by the large company.)

Are innies and outies different kinds of people? I think, perhaps, they are.

Innies must surely have a lot of patience for internal politics. In many cases, they have a slow moving ship they need to gradually turn around. They need to work very hard, often, to make the business aware of their presence and their importance, and to be able to get involved with the decision making early enough to do their job. They need persistence. They need to be happy to work with the same people for long stretches, even if those people cause them great frustration. They need to be able to deal with bureaucracy that often flies in the face of what they are trying to achieve.

Where innies must manage lack of change, many outies have the opposite problem – never ending flux. They not only have to adapt to new projects but often whole new industries every few months. New teams of people to work with, new sets of politics, new priorities, new objectives, new obstacles, new challenges. Often times they have the same challenges as innies, but they know that these will go away as this project ends and the new one commences. And they can always just fire the client if it gets extreme. Outies, as a rule, require more developed ‘consultancy’ skills – the ability to ‘manage’ clients, to sell ideas, to gain confidence in their abilities and their approach.

I was recently at the Enterprise 2.0 conference in Boston where I’d been invited to speak. There were a lot of ‘innies’ at that conference. A lot of big company innies. I have to say, by and large, it made me happy to be an outie. I felt that being an outie makes me more agile, more connected, more responsive – I feel a drive to keep in touch with what the rest of the world is doing, where I got the distinct feeling that there was a lot more navel gazing (sorry) going on amongst the innies, and that when they did look outwards, they never looked too far.

Sure, their projects may be the really large important ones. They may might be building a space shuttle. But perhaps some part of the innovative work that I was able to do on a much less ‘important’ project will one day feed into the design of a very important project. Who knows… maybe one day they’ll outsource the space shuttle? :)

It is my suspicion that, even if you have worked as both an innie or an outie, you know which one of these you *really* are. That you’re more one than the other.

I suspect that having the experience on both sides is a very valuable thing. Perhaps I should do more ‘innie’ work. But, at the end of the day… I’m most definitely an outtie, and that’s how I do my best work.

How about you?

Image Credit: Mr Truffle @ Flickr

10 thoughts on “Innies and Outies

  1. I have to say that I never really considered that distinction until I left my “innie” job over 6 months ago. I like not having to deal with politics and endless “selling” of the value of what we were doing. Now I really like the freedom and flexibility to do what I want when I want. Too bad I can’t bring in more money, otherwise I’d stay an “outtie” for the rest of my career. :-)

  2. Yeah! As a proud fellow outie I couldn’t agree more. Love it. So much more dynamic, and the joy of doing ‘your own thing’ makes internal politics laughable… as you know you’ll soon be moving on.

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and it seems many of the innies are spending most of their time dealing with process instead of doing work.

    Namely the processes of 1. Contracting outies and 2. Pushing work through the massive corporate funnel, dealing with large company overhead, having meetings about meetings and, generally being consumed by corporate inefficiencies… all while the outies are doing the cool work!

  3. I’m an innie and have never been an outtie. But one thing that surprised me is the impression that one of the benefits of being an outtie is “not having to deal with endless selling of the value of what we were doing” or that innies are “spending most of their time dealing with process instead of doing work”.

    My impression is the opposite. It’s the outties that need to constantly sell their value to prospective employers, and deal with the overhead of managing a business. Not that there’s no process overhead for innies, but it seems to me that there’s a lot of things we don’t need to do that outties need to do.

    Now, as for politics are concerned… ouch, that makes me want to be an outtie!

  4. I flit between the two. I sometimes go innie for a few months, working on something deep, then get back out and work shallow. Then I get sick of being out, and go back in again. I’m an outie at the moment, but with a long-term piece of freelance, so that balances up nicely.

  5. I’m an innie but pretty much work like an outie, since I work for a consulting firm. Instead of chasing down people and trying to figure out where the next gig is coming from, I have a pipeline of work to draw from. The opportunities are good and the clients are fairly large ones. Having said that the work is still work, the politics are the same no matter where you go; if you belong to the org, you may have less influence since you are an insider; if you don’t belong the org, you may have less influence because you’re only temporarily there and they return to whatever state of dysfunction they lived in before you stepped in. Having said all that I really like working in consulting, since I have the best of both worlds. But times are good right now for our kind. So maybe it’s not so much innies v. outies as it is, what kind of work do you want to be doing right now, down the road? Is what I reckon.

  6. Hey L, ‘more changes’? Sounds interesting…

    I’ve been both innie and outie, and last time I was being an outie thought it was for good. Then I was quite surprised to finde a (reasonably small) place where I can make a difference and get to be part of a family (sounds sappy, but there are times when being an outie can be damn lonely).

    While I can never see myself going back to being a very small cog in a vast machine, I think there is something to be said for the third way- as Gino says, perhaps sometimes you can have the best of both worlds?

  7. I’ve been an innie at the same place since graduating 12 years ago. I have to concede to all the criticisms leveled at innie life.

    That all said, I have to attend maybe 1-2 meetings every 14 days. I’m currently working across applications, web gui’s, CLIs & physical interfaces. I’m the only UI designer in a company of 6000 people and I dont have to travel.

    Point being, its isnt black & white and I think if you get far enough up the food chain in either field, people knock on your door and you can chose to ignore the BS be that politics or constant selling.

  8. I’m currently an “innie”, but have a little experience of the other side.

    Like the previous comment, I don’t think it’s as simple a distinction as some seem to. I get frustrated with “selling” UCD and IA, that’s true. On the other hand, I get to drive a project through to the end. I get the satisfaction of generating long-term strategic changes in how my company think, and I get to pick and choose when I want to do the “fun stuff” or leave it to a contractor.

    Sometimes I pine for the freedom of the “outie” world, and it’s definitely something i’m considering at the moment, but equally, I worry i’ll miss the long-term results of my brief work if i’m on the outside, and often only briefly there at all…

  9. I become a outie to gain experience, so maybe I can become an innie. But after grad school and looking for a long time to become an innie, I just might stay and outie. The outie crowd seems to “value” my skills.

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