Web design and front end web development is evolving fast, and at what feels like a constantly accelerating pace. It keeps things exciting and interesting, but it also makes it easy to feel like you’re falling behind.
“In reality, I know it’s all too much for any human to keep up with, but the trap I fall into is trying to learn it all,” laments Brenda Storer, designer and front end developer at thoughtbot and instructor with Girl Develop It.
“The curiosity that makes me want to try everything can also make me feel so overwhelmed that I become paralyzed by not knowing where to start. Or, I end up trying a little bit of everything, become good at nothing, and then I feel like a failure for not seeing anything through.”
We can all identify with the feelings Brenda described above. That’s why we talked to 13 experts to find out how they approach continual learning, beat imposter syndrome, and stop feeling overwhelmed at the sheer amount you could learn.
Here’s what they recommend.
1. Investigate resources
There’s no shortage of resources out there. Amlan Das, partner and director of Shopify Plus Partner DBNY (2016 Shopify Ecommerce Design Awards winners), says he’s always interested in keeping up on new trends around ecommerce, branding, management, and technology. If that wasn’t enough, he actively learns about topics outside of his industry as well.
“As a founder, it’s also important to motivate the team to embark on educational opportunities whenever possible, and it starts with understanding the interests of each individual team member,” Amlan explains.
He adds that the most productive way his team learns is through a combination of practical and theoretical education.
“Theoretical knowledge is the base of doing anything practically, so we like to arm our team with as many resources first: online courses, magazines and blogs, recommended reading lists, etc.”
Are you working with Visual Studio Code for development? Check out our article on the best Visual Studio Code extensions.
Amlan recommends Digiday, eCommerceFuel, Get Elastic, Internet Retailer and the Shopify Plus Blog for digital and ecommerce topics.
Self-taught developer Kevin Kononenko— founder of Manual, a series of blogs and interactive tutorials that teach code via analogy — says his go-to resources include envatotuts+, scotch, egghead.io, and the various courses and tutorials created by Wes Bos and Tyler McGinnis.
Kurt Elster— senior ecommerce consultant, founder of ecommerce agency Ethercycle, and host of The Unofficial Shopify Podcast— learns in two ways: passive and active. His passive learning comes from curated newsletters, and one of his favorites is Eric Davis' Shopify Dispatch.
Kevin Kononenko swears by “bleeding-edge” online web development communities.
“I passively track what people are talking about,” he explains. “I will see what seems to be mentioned often, and what seems to solve a real problem that I have faced while building web apps. A lot of the new tech is just one person's passion project.”
I passively track what people are talking about.
Kevin adds that a few examples of communities he likes to lurk in, include Hacker News and Hackathon Hackers.
A few of the experts we talked to also mentioned Twitter. Freelance web developer Shane Hudson says he relies on Twitter to keep up on what’s going on in his community.
“The good stuff often bubbles to the top,” he says.
Meetups and conferences
Ray Villalobos— a full-stack design/development teacher and a full-time author at LinkedIn Learning— subscribes to various meetup groups, so even if he’s not there in person, he can keep track of what they’re teaching.
He usually checks Meetup or looks for a Barcamp in his area.
“Once you find one, people will know about others in the area,” he explains. “If I go to a conference, I look at how many people attend which topics. If it’s standing room only, then you know it’s something that’s going to be important.”
Peers and co-workers
Sparkbox’s Rob Tarr and Daniel Flynn turn to their co-workers to stay up to date.
“They are a wealth of information,” Daniel enthuses. “I’m blessed to be in a work culture that encourages experimentation, discovery, and teaching. My co-workers teach me a lot about different tools I never would have thought to try out.”
People are a great starting point for two kinds of learning, argues Barb Spanton, UX lead at Shopify.
“For the ongoing, day-to-day curiosity-fueled learning, it’s just a matter of surrounding myself with interesting sources of information, and giving myself some time to go down various rabbit holes of exploration and learning,” she explains.
Those rabbit holes could be on Twitter, via various Slack teams and channels, or just by exposing yourself to people who are passionate about different things.
“When you find someone passionate about almost any topic, you can learn something from them.”
Barb adds that the more targeted, task-driven learning often comes with a sense of urgency and purpose. You’re suddenly responsible for a new thing, and may not have the time to simply explore, or the luxury of hoping to find something useful.
The challenge with this sort of targeted need for learning is that the urgency often makes you feel like you don't have the time to spend 'just learning', but that usually is a sign that it's especially important to spend time 'just learning'.
“Instead, I'll usually turn to the person I know with the most knowledge on a topic, and have them recommend resources: books, articles, lectures, other people, etc.,” she says. “The challenge with this sort of targeted need for learning is that the urgency often makes you feel like you don't have the time to spend 'just learning', but that usually is a sign that it's especially important to spend time 'just learning'.”
You might also like: The 7 Best Free Shopify Resources and Tools for Front-End Developers.
2. Go straight to the source
Lyza Gardner, open web engineer at Bocoup, finds herself going straight to the source more often these days, instead of trying to find indirect coverage of things in the news or blog space.
The proposals repository summarizes the status of current proposals for new ES features, and includes handy links to each proposal. The higher the stage number, the further along the feature is toward standardization.
According to Lyza, you can find the ES spec itself in the ecma262 repo.
“If all of the numbers and committees make your head spin, check out the process document for a quick and digestible summary of how all the pieces work together to make the ECMAScript standard tick along.”
She adds that if you're a web developer, you might already be familiar with the WHATWG HTML standard.
“But you might not have noticed that all of the work on the spec goes on openly in WHATWG's HTML GitHub repository," Lyza explains. “An occasional scan of the Issues and Pull Requests gives me a sense of what's coming in the future, and some insight into the challenges of making the web a predictable and stable platform.”
Freelance web developer Shane Hudson agrees, and adds that if he has an interest at a more technical level, he’ll follow mailing lists.
“I rarely respond on them, but it’s a great way of seeing what’s currently being worked on.”
Newsletters and GitHub repos are a great way to stay up to date and discover new things, but it can get overwhelming.
We talked to Rachel Nabors, who runs Web Animation Weekly, and got an exclusive insight into how she automated her information gathering system.
“I used to follow a lot of newsletters and GitHub repos for W3C specs,” she explains. “But then I ended up with a lot of tabs open. We all know that’s a great way to boil a pot of tea on your laptop. The tabs had to go! So I started Web Animation Weekly, which forced me to review and close my tabs every week. But then web animation took off, and there were too many newsletter, and tabs, and tweets — something had to change. So I automated.”
Rachel uses IFTTT to go through the newsletters she subscribes to, and sorts all the ones with specific words into a document that she reviews at the end of the week.
She then sorts the wheat from the chaff, sharing pertinent news with Buffer, which also uses IFTTT to funnel those tidbits into a spreadsheet of newsletter material. She has similar setups for Twitter and GitHub repos.
The added bonus is that Rachel can easily have conversations with the community in the Animation at Work Slack, which she founded.
The problem with this network of information gathering is that now I only see the news related to the web animation space, which could offer a skewed sense of the state of the industry as a whole.
“The problem with this network of information gathering is that now I only see the news related to the web animation space, which could offer a skewed sense of the state of the industry as a whole.”
You might also like: Creative Side Projects: A How-To Guide.
4. Check dark corners
Rachel also likes to keep an eye out for the next small thing that will become large. Take Bodymovin’, a library that lets people export their After Effects animations to HTML, SVG, or Canvas.
“When this first showed up in my newsletter’s submissions queue, I was excited and saw its potential to have impact. Now projects like AirBnb’s Lottie are built on top of it — and Lottie isn’t even for the web!” she enthuses.
You can pay attention to the same things happening with the same people, but it’s what you’re not keeping an eye on that will blindside you. Remember to check dark corners regularly, and don’t just wait for big things to smack you on the nose.
“You can pay attention to the same things happening with the same people, but it’s what you’re not keeping an eye on that will blindside you. Remember to check dark corners regularly, and don’t just wait for big things to smack you on the nose.”
5. Learning by doing
According to full-stack design/development teacher Ray Villalobos, it’s easy to watch a video or attend a meeting about a topic.
“But you’re only going to learn it, if you try it. Take notes while attending one of these, but more importantly, as soon as possible, go back and try it.”
The 10% Solution
One of Ray’s favorite tips for learning, is to plan to do something he’s never done before in every project, but only if it’s 10 to 15 percent of your project.
“Don’t make the mistake of trying to learn too much on a real life project,” he warns. “If you feel pretty comfortable with Sass, for example, try using PreCSS or CSSNext for your next project. It’s so similar, you’re only going to need to learn a little bit more, and it’s going to pay off in the future. Make sure you build that learning time into every project.”
Don’t make the mistake of trying to learn too much on a real life project.
Build and break your own app
For Kevin Kononenko, the biggest recommendation is to just build a sandboxed project with the tech, and see how it goes.
“I realize that’s common advice, but it’s good for a couple reasons,” he explains. “You learn how to use the tech independently, without all the dependencies that come with an existing project. Since you will have to put in extra time to build a sandboxed example, it’s also a good way to determine if you are really passionate about using the new tech! If you don't care enough to put in the extra time, you don’t want to integrate it with an existing project and deal with the challenges that follow.”
Sparkbox’s Daniel Flynn favors a similar approach.
“Find a simple, small application that you can break without any fear of repercussions,” he suggests. “Personally, I have an app I called String to Emoji that I use to try out new frameworks, tools, and performance strategies.”
Find a simple, small application that you can break without any fear of repercussions.
Give your team opportunities to put learning into practice
Once your team has consumed the theoretical information that Amlan Das referred to above, it’s then time to create opportunities to put their recent learnings into real-life scenarios.
Amlan suggests monthly “lunch and learn” meetings where your team can discuss what they’re each currently reading up on. You can also use this time to get feedback from other team members, or to bring colleagues up-to-speed on new client pitches or client-facing workshops.
“Basically, any scenario in which they can utilize that theoretical learning, and convert it into day-to-day practices,” he explains.
And if you need a bit more structure, Ray Villalobos encourages making sure you schedule some time for learning in your calendar, regularly.
“As a boss, I scheduled time for my employees and then made sure we had conversations on how they used that time, and what they had learned,” he suggests.
Kurt Elster’s active learning comes in the form of helping people.
When an interesting or thoughtful question comes across my desk, I research it and try to teach what I learn.
“I ask subscribers to my own newsletter for the biggest pain or problem they're facing in their Shopify business. When an interesting or thoughtful question comes across my desk, I research it and try to teach what I learn. I've combined learning and content marketing; it’s high value.”
6. Stay behind the curve
New technologies come along, get popular, and disappear within a few months in favor of something newer and shinier, so how do you decide what to focus on?
For self-employed designer/developer Tracy Osborn, chasing down new tech, and spending time learning and implementing it, could drastically slow her down, and even prevent her from working on improving current projects or learning new features.
“I have to be very choosy about where I spend my time educating myself on new technologies,” she explains. “So I’m deliberately behind the curve, waiting to see what sticks around and becomes a new standard, rather than trying to stay at a forefront of new technologies.”
So I’m deliberately behind the curve, waiting to see what sticks around and becomes a new standard, rather than trying to stay at a forefront of new technologies.
“It's a better use of my time as a lone developer, while still keeping a good user experience for my visitors and users.”
Instructor Ray Villalobos agrees.
“Teachers love to teach new and cutting edge things that aren’t always practical or won’t work in real live situations,” he says. “You, on the other hand, have real work to do, so don’t fall for the trap of thinking you have to know the latest. Wait until it has received good support and it’s something that can practically be used on your projects.”
If you’re curious to read more on staying behind the curve, read ‘Should you learn [insert shiny new tool]?’ by Zell Liew.
You might also like: 17 Web Design Trends To Watch in 2017.
7. Boost your learning skills
Jessica Ivins, a UX designer and faculty member for Center Centre— a UX design school in Chattanooga, Tennessee — stresses the importance of the learning process. She adds that the biggest thing she’s learned about learning is to focus on sharpening the skill of learning, instead of focusing on what you should learn.
Focus on sharpening the skill of learning, instead of focusing on what you should learn.
“Build the habit of learning. We learn on a daily basis, but we rarely pay attention to what we're learning or how we're learning it,” Jessica explains.
Pay attention to how you learn best in each situation. For example, if you had to learn a new front end development technique, look back on how you learned it, and ask yourself these questions:
- Was your learning process productive?
- Could your learning have happened more quickly or more effectively?
- How would you learn something similar again next time?
- Could the learning process you use for front end development apply to something completely different, like learning a new task management tool for your job?
“The more you pay attention to your learning and adjust your learning habits, the better you're able to learn.”
Jessica says she took this philosophy from Chris Risdon, and adds that people often ask Chris what they should learn first, rather than focusing on learning quickly. Prototyping tools are a good example.
“There are so many prototyping tools available. If you learn a tool now, chances are you’ll have to learn a different tool for a new project or a new job,” she says. “That’s why it’s more important to be able to learn prototyping tools quickly.
Learn how to fast-track your learning in Zell Liew’s articles Learning to code quickly and 5 top tips for speedy learning.
8. Let things go without guilt
Brenda Storer has a few strategies for fighting the feelings of being overwhelmed and paralyzed, which she described at the top of this article. She aims for balance by continuing to try new things (which she says she probably couldn’t stop herself from doing if she tried), but also allows herself to let things go without guilt, and sooner rather than later.
“It’s ok to totally abandon that half-baked side project from last month...or to not finish that online course that I keep procrastinating on. If I save my focus for the things that interest me most, then I’m giving myself the time to see something through that I really enjoy, which gives me the opportunity to possibly become great at it.”
Freelance web developer Shane Hudson agrees, and remembers when he used to solely focus on shiny new things or learning as many languages as he could.
Kevin Kononenko has learned that most new tools and technologies are actually unimportant or only important for niche use cases.
“My default reaction is ‘we don't need this’,” he argues. “Only things that solve a major problem in development get real consideration.”
My default reaction is ‘we don't need this’.
For example, Kevin thinks VelocityJS is really cool, and tried to include it in a past project. Even though it’s well-documented, he quickly found that he was spending way too much time learning this new animation system.
“I decided to just do a scaled-down version with CSS animations or jQuery UI. This is frequently my experience.”
What works for you?
Everyone’s learning process is different and it’s important to figure out what works for you.
We all feel overwhelmed at times, as technology evolves at a rapid pace, but it’s reassuring to realize that we don’t need to know everything. Whatever we choose to learn, there’s help at hand.
That’s what makes our industry so unique — a community that is eager to share and help each other.
How do you learn stay up to date with the latest tech? Tell us in the comments section below!