About a year ago, I was on a conference call. The customer was a Fortune 500 company with a correspondingly enormous web presence, and they wanted some help validating that their new Sass architecture would result in CSS that would perform well across devices.
One of their developers was giving an informal presentation about their progress. He said something to me that I can paraphrase as: “Sass’s new placeholder syntax is pretty great, isn’t it?”
There was a stutter and a pause, that sound of windy emptiness on the call, while I gathered my wits.
“Actually, I’m not familiar with it,” I said.
Owning up to posturing
Not long before, I had started noticing a habit I had, a tendency to nod or make vague assentive noises when people around me talked about things I’d never heard of.
When I did this, my motivation wasn’t to claim knowledge I didn’t have as much as to deflect a need for outright admission of ignorance. I’d let the moment glide past and later scamper off to furtively study up.
I decided that I wanted to come to terms with not knowing everything, to be able to say never heard of it and not feel panicky.
Finding confidence in a hazy profession
This was easier resolved than done.
I go through periods of self-doubt about my qualifications as a web developer. I have a sense I’m not alone in this. Our field is by nature a generalists’ field, where expertise involves synthesis of concepts and technologies, not complete mastery of a single, static topic. It’s hard to know how to tell if you’re good at your job.
On closer self-reflection, I realized my fear wasn’t that I’d look like I didn’t know what I was doing, but that maybe I actually didn’t know what I was doing.
There’s no defined lesson plan or standardized test for the many branches of real-world applied web development, and the whole profession is a moving target. So if we can’t possibly know everything, all the time, what things do we need to know?
Can you Google it?
As I surveyed the patterns in my daily information bombardment, one dichotomy appeared rather quickly. Boiling it down to a quick litmus test: some things can be easily Googled for when needed, and some things cannot.
This is a useful barometer, a differentiator between things to reference versus concepts to know. Of course, I’d still have to have the guts to admit when I didn’t have these minutiae at my mental fingertips, but I felt more confident once I recognized them for the details that they were.
All in good time
On good mornings, I have time to read my RSS feeds. Most mornings, however, are not good. Last week was a multi-day pitched battle waged between an outdated version of PhoneGap and native status bars in iOS7. There were no ceasefire agreements to allow for checking the latest updates on Feedly.
This daily task of separating the noisy chaff from the meaningful wheat is another piece of our knowledge burden, a vague necessity akin to being well-read or informed. Except that while I feel like I have a lifetime to read the major Athenian dramatists, I suffer from a nagging, constant twitch to check the latest tech headlines.
But wherefore the urgency? Yep, it is a worthwhile thing to keep current, to have general awareness of the newest Nexus phone or that a slew of unpleasant WebKit bugs are coming your way, but it’s the knowledge and skills one can’t glean from a news feed or a speedy Googling that make or break us.
That is, higher-level concepts: software architecture, the successful union of Responsive Web Design techniques, working on distributed teams, the application of design patterns, usability concerns—these are what web mastery are built from, and so these should be the linchpins of my own personal, continuing curriculum.
Re-calibrating the knowledge burden
With the web, as with soccer in my childhood, I play the midfield. Rooted neither in the front end nor the backend, I have to run around a lot. During fierce matches, frenetic and muddy, I have no time to assess strategy except in a lower-brain, reactive fashion.
And so part of upping my game was to remove myself selectively from active play, to assert calculated time-outs and extended practice sessions, allowing me to survey the current lay of the technical field and to master certain complex maneuvers without the crowd watching, all the while boosting my confidence in my own competence.
And thus my strategy: dimming down the details a bit; employing just-in-time Googling; pruning my news sources and allotting time for longer-term study of deeper topics that matter. Choosing my battles and pursuing those doggedly while ignoring distracting skirmishes; acknowledging that there will be some border incursions I will fail to foresee. Being able to hold my chin up when faced with the latter—that’s the rub, and it comes with confidence in one’s own game plan and growth.
Maybe what I should have said on that conference call was, “I’m not familiar with it…yet.”