Confidence and Overwhelm

There’s epic amounts of stuff that I’ve not touched. People will say to me, “What do you think about this?” “I don’t really have an opinion. I’ll let you know once I have a chance to look at it.” I think coming from where I’ve come from, I’ve got the confidence to say that. If you’re in that place where you’re feeling terrified that the world is racing past you, if a client says, “Why aren’t you using this?” or “I’ve heard that you need to use that.” What do you say? You don’t come from a place of being very confident about it. Because you’re not sure yourself if you’re doing the right thing. – from my conversation on The Web Ahead

Last week I had a chat with Jen Simmons for her podcast The Web Ahead, the episode was published today. We talked about the “everyday developer”. The person who builds sites for clients, perhaps works alone or with a small team. The person who isn’t usually found on stage at a web conference or featured in industry magazines.

Due to supporting users of Perch, our product very much aimed at people who build great sites for clients, I know a lot about the things that a whole range of designers and developers struggle with. We’re being asked to implement things in our product to help them, or we just hear about them when discussing things in support or face to face.

A lot of folk feel overwhelmed right now. Things seem to be changing so quickly. It doesn’t seem enough to be a good designer, or to know HTML and CSS well. Do we need to learn all of those frameworks? Are we “doing it wrong” if we don’t adopt that methodology and toolkit we were told is the way to do things by that big name speaker at the conference we attended?

I don’t think I had really voiced this thought before, however in the conversation I kept coming back to the word confidence.

I’m not the smartest person in the room. I don’t have any qualifications to do what I do. Yet I have confidence to be able to assert my opinions, and also to be happy to say when I don’t have an answer. If you ask me about a technology I’ve not used, I’ll tell you it’s something I’ve not used. I won’t feel bad about that, or as if I’m a lesser developer due to not having used a certain tool.

Where does confidence in your ability come from?

What I have is a strong basis of understanding about how the web works, the basic tenets of the core languages we use, and an understanding of how people use the things we create. Ultimately, if you are building things for the web you are writing HTML, CSS and Javascript. You can use the latest framework, knock yourself out with pre-processors, write your JavaScript using something that isn’t JavaScript but what you send to the browser is HTML, CSS and JavaScript. What the visitors to your site or users of your product interact with is HTML, CSS, JavaScript.

How you get to the point of delivering HTML, CSS and JavaScript to the browser is just detail. It’s detail that is influenced by a lot of factors. The tools and processes that make sense when a site is delivered and worked on by a huge team are probably overkill for a site built by a solo designer. The decisions you make on languages and process for something you will maintain in-house may be completely different to those sensible to make if the client will be taking on and maintaining the work in future.

Learn your core skills well. Understand HTML and CSS, be able to build a layout without leaning on a framework. Get a solid understanding of how a website actually gets from the server to a browser, an understanding of security and accessibility. These are the basics, the constants. These things change slowly. These things sit underneath all the complexity and the tooling, the CMSs and the noise of thousands of people all trying to make their mark on this industry.

With solid core skills you have a basis to assess the things you are being told. You can build a website. You don’t need some tool to build a website, if you are going to adopt something, it has to do something helpful for you or your clients. Filter the advice, check whether the speaker so passionate about a certain technique, works on projects like yours. Read widely, but don’t feel you have to know everything. Follow people on Twitter who seem to be the known expert in a subject area, they will do a lot of filtering for you. Put time aside, even a little, for learning and pick those things that interest you, or where you feel you could make a big difference to your own workflow.

As you are doing this don’t forget to share what you know. I have confidence in what I know, and much of that has come from teaching other people. As I fill in the gaps in my knowledge to write an article, I learn. When someone with more or different experience leaves a comment, or shares their point of view with me, I learn. And perhaps much of my confidence and lack of fear of this fast-changing web is because I know I can learn. Whatever the next thing is, I’ve got the ability to learn about it. If it’s relevant and when I need it, I’ll learn about it. You can too.


Josh Gipper August 15, 2015 Reply

Yours and Jen’s podcast and recent articles have been wonderful and well timed. I’m 31 and have been building the web for 12 years now. I’ve positioned myself as a front end developer but the definition of front end developer has moved so far into the Javascript world and the myriad of libraries and frameworks. This whole conversation was also summed up well by Susan Robertson’s article “Overwhelmed by Code” on ALA. Thank you showing me that I’m not alone in this ever changing and still young industry. There are still places to be carved out that my interests and skills can grow.

Christopher Murphy August 17, 2015 Reply

Thanks for writing this, Rachel. As an educator I worry endlessly – both on my behalf (am I up to speed?), and my students’ behalf (how are they going to keep up in this rapidly accelerating world?) – so this is timely and incredibly helpful to read.

I think the more of us in this industry that acknowledge that keeping up can be a struggle, and – importantly – sharing solutions for keeping up, the better. Again, a hearty thank you for sharing this!

Richard Eskins August 17, 2015 Reply

Thanks for this Rachel. Chris and I have had many conversations regarding this from our perspective and that of our students as they go out into industry.
This last year we were lucky enough to have a Skype Q&A with Jeffrey Zeldman (with Andrew Clarke asking the questions our end). What came out of that was much as you say, with Jeffrey tell the students to learn those core skills and worry less about knowing everything. He also emphasised the whole ethos of sharing, something this community is very good at doing.
A great article. Thanks 🙂

Steven Legge August 18, 2015 Reply

As a long time user of Perch and reading endless articles from Rachel and Drew, I’ve become a real admirer of their articles. As a 30 year old who has been designing and developing for over 10 years this is a real fresh approach and confidence builder for me personally, so thank you.

Pawel Grzybek August 23, 2015 Reply

This is really fantastic summary after your podcast girls. Im glad there is many mature developers like you who wants to help overwhelmed developers like myself.

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