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You don't have to learn all the things

Everyone who subscribes to my newsletter gets an email from me asking:

What’s the biggest challenge you face as a web developer?

I get back all sorts of interesting responses, but the most common one by a large margin is some variation of:

Keeping up with all the things.

I’ve written about this before, but I want to say it again, because I feel really strong about this.

You don’t have to learn all the things.

You don’t have to learn every new tool that comes out. You don’t have to know all of the major frameworks. You kind of don’t even have to know one of them, though being able to talk about them at least will probably help you get a job.

You don’t have to use Sass or LESS, or Gulp or Grunt or Webpack. You don’t have to know CSS Grid if Flexbox or even old-school floating div’s work well for you.

One of the most exciting things about our industry is also the greatest cause of stress and anxiety: things constantly change.

There’s always something new to learn. You never have to be bored if you enjoy constantly learning new things.

But that doesn’t mean you have to learn all the things. You can pick one or two that you find really interesting and dig deep into them instead.

Be aware of big shifts

I believe it’s more important to be aware of big shifts in our industry rather than chasing after every new thing.

In the movie Frozen, the opening scene is a bunch of burly guys cutting giant chunks of ice out of a frozen pond, loading them up on horse drawn sleighs, and taking them into town. That was the ice-industry before refrigeration.

Then ice factories were created. Instead of cutting it out of lakes, it was manufactured right in town and then delivered to people’s homes instead.

Then, of course, in-home refrigeration happened.

I first heard about all this from Guy Kawasaki. As he tells it, no one from the ice harvesting space moved into the ice factory business. Nor did any of the big players in ice manufacturing jump into in-home refrigeration. They all failed to see the big shifts in our space and went out of business.

Paying attention to those big shifts—and learning to sort the signal from the noise—is far more important than knowing all the things.

What are the big shifts in our space?

The big one five years ago was mobile and responsive web design. What’s next?

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure yet. It feels a little too early to tell.

Frameworks are certainly changing the way we build websites today (arguably for the worse), but I see them as more indicators of how people want to work than the change itself. Just as jQuery helped us get better native APIs that made it somewhat obsolete, I think frameworks will, too.

Another thing I think frameworks are indicative of is API-driven websites instead of “directly access a database” sites. That feels like a bigger industry shift to me.

APIs have been around for a while, but both JavaScript frameworks and static site generators make it easier to grab data from decentralized APIs and build HTML with it. And the two can be combined to maximize performance, customization of the content, and so on.

Even the database-driven platform WordPress now bakes-in a content API. We’re seeing more WordPress sites that use it solely as a CMS for authoring content, and then use the API with a static site generator or JavaScript framework to create the front end.

How can you stay aware without learning all the things?

I personally use Twitter for this. I don’t subscribe to a ton of blogs any more, and I only follow around 150 people or so on Twitter.

I tried to diversify my social media circle as much as possible, and when I start to notice trends among different groups bubbling up over and over again, that tells me its something worth paying attention to. I ignore most of the rest.