One question I encounter a lot is whether it’s best for a developer to dabble in a lot of new technologies like SASS, Node, and Rails, or if it’s a better route to specialize in a smaller number of technologies to the point of perfection. Sometimes it feels like the vast number of front- and back-end technologies make it impossible to keep up. This feeling can be especially daunting when you’re looking for a job and it seems like potential employers only want to hire Web Sifus who, on top of having mastered both front-end and back-end technologies, also come with design, video editing, and page layout skills. (If you know that person, or if you’ve encountered a job description like this that only wants to hire Superman—comment below.)
Like all extremes, trying to learn too much, and focusing on too little, are both wrong approaches. Plain and simple, trying to keep up with every language and library is impossible. The goal is not to be miserable trying to learn everything, but to focus on your core and then cross train on skills rather than languages.
Building your Core
For a web developer, a good foundational group of skills to start with are:
1. Setting up and managing a server
2. Building a semantic page structure
3. Mastering page styles
4. Building interaction with the front end
5. Using databases to customize a visitor’s experience
It doesn’t matter whether you’re learning PHP, Python, Ruby, or any other language you prefer. Learning that some problems are better solved by languages on the server and some on the client is essential. In the end, it’s more important to be proficient at solving problems than slightly more fluent in a specific development language.
After building on your core, it’s essential to make sure you approach projects with a cross-language attitude that stays focused on using the languages you’re comfortable with, and also learning to use different technologies when they make the most sense—not because you feel like you “have to.”
In the latest episode of View Source, I show you how to use HTML, PHP, and jQuery to upload images to a server and display them on a page as they are loaded. This is a good example of cross training, or, using a combination of skills to accomplish a task. In the video, I use HTML to allow people to upload files, then I use PHP to read the files uploaded to a directory, and jQuery to update the page as soon as a new photo is uploaded so the image uploader can see whether the upload was successful.
Remember, balance is critical to any job. Don’t spread yourself too thin, but also don’t limit your learning so you find yourself struggling with cross-language development. Build your core, then work on your cross-training. While this exercise routine won’t bring you any closer to having six-pack abs, it will make you a better problem solver, and a stronger developer, which will bring you two steps closer to landing your dream job.