Exclusive interview with Behance’s William Allen, SoEMT founding teacher



Social Media Week is a leading news platform and worldwide conference that curates and shares the best ideas and insights into social media and technology's impact on business, society, and culture.

William Allen is the Head of Strategy at Behance and a founding teacher of Social Media Week’s School of Emerging Media & Technology (see his class here) and a generally amazing person. His goal is to help professionals who are skilled at their craft but may lack business skills by providing them with practical tips and know-how to help them to be successful. We chatted about his approach to work and the School of EMT:


GL: You’ve been at Behance for over a year now. What’s been your biggest challenge leading strategy at Behance?
WA: The biggest challenge is what to focus on. If you’re ambitious, your attention can be pulled in thousands of directions; the challenge is to figure out what are the most important things you can accomplish and include them in your strategy. Choosing the right thing is hard. We focus on our mission which is to empower the creative world. At Behance, we want to be the “wind at their backs,” which means giving them anything they need to be successful and also means matching the talent with opportunity. The reason why Behance gets 70M pageviews a month is because of these creatives–we step back and showcase their work, allowing them to be their own best representatives. We give them the tools.

GL: What’s been your strategy in building the community? How do you know what to include and what to leave out?
WA: You have to have a world view and you have to have a compass of where you want to go. That mission shapes every action that you take: for us it means building deliberately and intelligently. We’ve been concerned about building the right kind of community, the right people for the right platform. It’s important that we fulfill the mission which is giving our user the resources they need to be successful at their careers versus growing quickly. And that takes time. The human quality of curation has been an important part of our strategy, where the good quality work really bubbles up, and it make the site aspirational.

GL: You’ve worked for TED, then for a marketing agency, now in a design company, and you are also a passionate teacher. Your career path seems to follow inspirational environments. Is inspiration also the reason why you teach?
WA: I love to work at the intersection of creativity, tech and business. And with great platforms. So when I was a TED, my role was to understand the monetization model behind their amazing content–and the same is true here at Behance. One of the great things about my role at Behance is that I am constantly learning so much – and that makes you want to teach others. And it in turn makes me better at my job. I get a lot of joy being in front of a classroom. It’s fun and it works both ways.

GL: Continuing to talk about inspiration: what’s the most inspiring thing to you?
WA: Opportunity. Truly enabling people to be successful at their careers is an honor, it’s fantastic. It’s why we keep doing what we’re doing. One of the key ways to measure success at a company is the reciprocity between what you give to the community and what they tell you that what you are giving them. If we give people public exposure and attribution for their work and they’re successful because of it, we’re successful at the end of the day, and that’s amazing for us.

GL: You have been on of the first and most enthusiastic supporters of the SoEMT and shares our mission of empowering people at their careers. What does democratizing education mean to you?
WA: Yeah, people [in the technology or arts sector] can be fantastic at their craft, but a lot of time the education they have from a business and financial standpoint can be lacking. So it’s important to provide them with practical tips and know how, to better their craft, to push their ideas forward.
Democratizing education is important for these reasons. Let’s take business for example. Typically what you do is to go to business school. The only problem is that it’s going to cost you an enormous amount of money. Is it worth the investment? For a lot of people it’s impossible to spend that amount of money to learn what they need, so to me “democratizing education” is about removing the barriers to learning. We shouldn’t live in a system where enhancing your career depends on having free cash.
If you could learn the same skills outside of that context in a different form, you could choose where to work. Your optionality and flexibility change, because you’re not tied down with a huge amount of luggage. I think that’s the biggest thing.

GL: Is accreditation still important?
WA: It’s critical. What needs to happen is that employers at an aggregate level get together and say “if you took 15 classes taught by xxx then we think you got a pretty good understanding of the subject and we’ll validate that”. It’s hard. Companies, especially larger corporations, have filters they look for like MBAs: if you don’t have one, you have no chance to get the job. That’s crazy. They should look at “can this person do the job better than anyone else?” I feel this thinking will be cracked at some point, if only by the fact that today a lot of hiring is done by young and aggressive startups and these are the ones more willing to say “Ah, you took those 15 classes we want you to take”. More companies have to think like that.

GL: How important is the company culture to you and at your company?
WA:. It’s striving to make something bigger and better. The ultimate test is “Does it help our community build their careers”? That’s the ultimate subtext. And the thing here is: how do we continue to improve our craft? How can you constantly challenge yourself working forward? We like to shift things here. We have a lot of teaching sessions and informal interactions to share knowledge. Being deeply inquisitive is extremely important for any organization that it’s trying to change larger industries.

GL: Who is in the industry a role model for you and if you could pick one person to teach you a class, who would he be?
WA: I’m going to answer with a non-answer. It depends on what you are trying to learn. What we’ve been doing here at Behance is teaching each other and I feel extremely fortunate to work with such extraordinary people. Hearing Matias Corea (our co-founder) is fantastic– anything about design, I want to hear from him. It’s less about a specific person and more about a subject area; there a lot of unexpected lessons from people that are not necessarily “famous” but they are amazing at their job. When you are speaking of democratizing education, this is what we mean: there needs to be a way to open up those channels, to learn from those peers.

Follow Will on Twitter.

Photo credit Maria Jesus Verdugo

The School of Emerging Media & Technology’s mission is to connect the world’s greatest leaders in social media with professionals whose daily jobs and activities require a basic-to-advanced understanding of the tools, technologies and best practices that are driving change in industry.

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