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Knowing what to focus on as a web developer

I ask everyone who signs up for my newsletter the same question: “what’s the biggest challenge you face as a web developer?”

I get back a lot of responses, but I get back a few variations of the same response more than any other…

I have a tough time keeping up with all of the changes to our industry. I don’t know what to focus on.

Some version of this accounts for at least half of all of the responses I get. Today, I wanted to talk about how I handle this, and some recommendations for you regardless of where you are in your career journey.

Let’s dig in!

Stop trying to keep up

I’m being a bit glib here.

As a web professional, it’s important for you to have a sense of changes in the industry. But you should stop trying to keep up with everything.

Our industry continues to get bigger, and as it does, it becomes impossible to know everything about everything. You literally cannot keep up, and trying to is a recipe for burnout.

For example, new JavaScript libraries come out all the time. Jumping from Angular to Vue to React to Preact to Next to Svelte to Astro to whatever comes next is not just exhausting… it’s pointless. You lose more in productivity as part of the transition than you gain in benefits for yourself or your users.

Give yourself permission to not keep up with everything that’s happening. It’s incredibly freeing!

While you should stop trying to keep up with every new tool that comes out, you should try to keep up with big shifts in the industry.

When I was just starting, Ethan Marcotte had just started talking about Responsive Web Design, and it was about to change everything about how we built for the web. Being aware of that, and how it impacted our work as developers, put me in a great place when I was just starting my career.

It helped me stand out, and it helped me make better decisions about where I did and didn’t want to go work early in my career.

I wasn’t an expert on RWD (or anything web dev, for that matter), but I knew enough.

While RWD was a huge shift in our industry, smaller but still impactful changes happen every few years. The transition from traditional DOM manipulation to state-based UI was one. If you were aware of it at the time, digging into a library like Vue or React was probably a better use of your time than learning jQuery.

Today, we’re seeing a similar shift as transitional apps and static site generators, as well as a renaissance for browser-native JavaScript (aka Vanilla JS).

As you become more seasoned, you’ll get better at spotting trends.

But one thing I do is follow a range of people from various specialties in our industry. I follow some folks on browser teams. I follow some folks who specialize in CSS architecture. I follow some JavaScript people. I follow some design people.

When something big is happening, you’ll notice an overlap in the topics that these different groups of people talk about. The big industry shifts impact folks across disciplines, so they all start to take notice. That’s your cue to pay attention, too.

You don’t want to be the pioneer trying everything new thing. You want to be a fast follower who’s aware of big shifts early, but isn’t chasing every shiny new ball that never goes anywhere, either.

Practice just-in-time learning

As I mentioned earlier, we’re in a renaissance for browser-native features, and not just for JavaScript.

Browser vendors keep shipping amazing HTML, CSS, and JavaScript features that make it easier to work for the web and add powerful new capabilities to the platform. But these new enhancements don’t make older ways of doing things obsolete.

Following industry experts can help you stay aware of new features without requiring you to actually go learn them.

When you run into a problem where you think a newer tool in the browser ecosystem can help you work more effectively than what you’ve traditionally done, that’s when you learn the new thing.

For example, both flexbox and CSS Grid had been out for years before I learned how to use either of them.

Float-based grid layouts continued to work just fine for a majority of the things I was building for a long time. Then, one day, I was working on a complex layout that was either impossible or really hard to implement with floats.

I took a look at CSS Grid, and 💥… it made my life easier, and was easier to learn because there was now an ecosystem of learning resources built around it.

What should you learn right now?

A common question I get from students is, “What should I learn right now if I’m looking for a job?”

If you’re early in your career, React shows up on a majority of job descriptions. Preact has a similar API and better performance, so is also worth a look.

If you already know state-based UI or are more seasoned in your career, tools like Svelte, Astro, and 11ty, coupled with Jamstack infrastructure like Netlify and CloudFlare, are the future, I think.

Employers aren’t quite there yet, but investing in that knowledge now we’ll position you as a go-to expert once they catch up.