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The 5 Most Important Skills a Web Developer Needs

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Tim Wright, author of Learning JavaScript: A Hands-On Guide to the Fundamentals of Modern JavaScript, tells you about the real skills a web developer needs. You might be surprised that the majority of them have nothing to do with writing code and more to do with dealing with people and knowing yourself.

If I were in your shoes, I’d be sitting down in my chair at work getting ready to start the day and warming up my brain by checking out some news. I’d see an article entitled, “The 5 Most Important Skills a Web Developer Needs,” and expect to see a lofty list filled with hot buzzwords, phrases that Google loves (SEO!), and advice that will probably be worthless by this time next year. I’d scan the page for phrases like: Ruby on Rails, AngularJS, Bootstrap, Django, and mobile (before the irony of that sentence is brought to my attention, I’m well-aware that it’s stuff with Google-friendly keywords).  I’d then probably throw up in my mouth a little, close the article and throw it on a pile with all the other crap people write to get ranked high in search engines.

This isn’t that kind of article.

I hope to save you years of stress, frustration, and worry by letting you in on a big secret every developer throughout history has found out the hard way: Learning frameworks, languages, and libraries have almost nothing to do with succeeding. They’re just résumé items to get you past HR. Sure, there are a lot of companies that want you to know their system and technologies (which I personally think is an unreasonable expectation), but it’s a very short-sighted way to evaluate potential talent and contributions to a team.

With that in mind, I’d like to present you with what I think the real skills a web developer needs. You might be surprised that the majority of them have nothing to do with writing code and more to do with dealing with people and knowing yourself.

1. Empathy in Communication (Dealing with Others)

Having empathy in communication can boil down to not being a jerk to people, but it’s really having the ability to understand how someone else feels. This is an especially important skill to have when working on a team or with clients. Alienating someone on your team because of a short temper, not thinking ahead, or not realizing something you say can come off as negative isn’t worth it. This is a lesson that most people in our industry have to fix by moving from job to job, because once that label has been applied, it’s very hard to shake.

If you take time to get to know the people around you, even with short five-minute conversations, you start to peel back layers of work-place-personality and discover a real person with hobbies, frustrations, goals, and a life outside the office. This can carry over into the midst of a heated conversation, and by knowing a person outside of the context of work it can help you come to reasonable and timely compromises (also, you have to be willing to compromise).

Taking a short period of time out of your day to form empathy for the people around you will create a significantly better work environment for everyone. If you’re still not sold, at the very least, having the ability to show empathy in communication will shorten meetings (less back and forth) so you can get back to coding quicker.

2. Time and Stress Management (Dealing with Yourself)

Every product, site and app someone thinks up has to be built, and anyone who has ever worked with a client knows that they all think their idea is amazing (some are) and they want it built yesterday. This can cause a lot of stress.

There are some people will tell you if you’re not stressed out, you’re not working hard enough, but there have been enough studies recently to show that a relaxed developer is a better developer. Someone who takes breaks is going to produce better projects in the long run than someone who cranks away for nine hours a day with his head down.

Knowing how to effectively manage your time, prioritize tasks and take breaks when you need them will allow a little leeway in your work. By creating reasonable deadlines and expectations it will help you better communicate to managers and clients about how you work, and what exactly you need to build the best possible product. Ultimately, everyone wants the best possible product.

3. Perspective (Knowing What You Do)

If you’ve read any of my other writings or have seen me speak you’ve probably heard me talk about how building web sites (or apps) is not a noble profession. There are obviously a lot of loopholes in that theory, but for most of us out in the real world who are building and designing products, it’s pretty accurate. Most web developers are not out there saving lives like a doctor or nurse; we’re solving interesting and complex problems, we work in intellectually stimulating environments, and we build or maintain cool products (none of which existed 5-10 years ago).

Having some perspective about what you do for a living will travel though the rest of your career like a shockwave. It’s not to say you’ll have an epiphany one day, walk out of work and donate all your time to orphans with diseases. It wasn’t like that for me at all. When I starting gaining perspective about my job I felt grateful, relaxed, and worked even harder knowing that what I did day-to-day was pretty cool. Instead of getting frustrated when everything wasn’t perfect, I knew I could put things down, go home, and it would be there for me tomorrow, because… you know… no one is going to die if I have a headache and need to get away from my monitor for a while.

I can honestly say that, as a developer, having perspective has helped my career grow faster than learning any library or framework ever could. It even helped me be more charitable outside of work; it’s a win-win.

4. Core Languages and Concepts of the Web (Setting Up Your Base)

Hey, something about code! This is the skill that I think is the hardest to gauge. It has to do with your personal career path so much that it’s hard to nail down, but I’ll give it a shot.

It’s pretty widely accepted that technologies on the Web move crazy-fast. Frameworks like Sinatra, Zend, Cake, Express, etc. seem to pop up daily. I can also see that these new “technologies,” are all built around the same core languages and concepts. They’re all different configurations of core languages (Ruby, PHP, JavaScript) and very old concepts and methodologies (Model-View-Controller and Object Oriented Programming). If you think of it like that, things don’t really move that quickly at all; they just get constantly rearranged.

Remember PrototypeJS? It was the big thing before jQuery took it down (seemingly overnight). If you only bothered to learn the PrototypeJS library you would have a relatively difficult time transferring over to jQuery when it became popular. However, if you learned JavaScript really well, you could freely move between the two libraries and safeguard yourself against future JavaScript libraries. After learning the core language, anything you layer on top of it is just learning a new syntax.

By basing your skill set on learning the underlying languages of these frameworks and libraries you will future-proof yourself against this “fast-moving” industry to a point where it actually feels like things move incredibly slowly. Instead of learning jQuery, focus on learning JavaScript and Progressive Enhancement; those things don’t change.

5. Design Sense (A Better Holistic Understanding)

One the most important skills any designer can have (besides being a good designer) is having a solid understanding of basic development principles. A designer doesn’t need to be an expert-level developer of any kind, but knowing the basic concepts and vocabulary can go a long way in communicating and knowing when you need to pull a developer into a design discussion to check technical limitations, time estimates, and feasibility of a UI pattern.

This same concept applies to developers needing to have some level of design knowledge. The days of shrugging your shoulders and saying, “I don’t know, I’m not a designer,” are over. Again, it’s not like you need to be a design expert, but understanding typography, color theory and grid design (as examples) will help you understand decisions designers make. Without that knowledge you’ll probably find yourself getting frustrated a lot more than you need to when you can’t track down a designer to ask a question. I can’t tell you how many times throughout the years I’ve seen designers and developers harbor horrible resentment toward each other just because they don’t understand why certain decisions were made on a project from the other person’s point of view.

To illustrate this point I always go back to a project I was on when I first started in 2004 (wow…). On a lot of my very early projects I played the role of designer and developer. As the organization I was at grew we all settled into more traditional designer/developer roles, and I naturally migrated over to more coding. On this one specific project, I remember cracking open Photoshop and starting to pull out the colors I needed to build the site. To me, most of them looked like the same dim color of gray (somewhere around #cccccc) but the actual hex values were all a little off, and I didn’t understand why someone would choose to do that. Assuming it was just a weird mistake, I ended up setting all the light grays to same color value. A few years later I found out how to properly build out a color scheme by using a base color and adjusting the saturation levels to create accent colors, both bright and dim (grays).  That’s why the gray was a little off; if I had that basic level of design knowledge for creating color palettes the end product would have been a little bit better.

I could share stories about a lot of different design principles I’ve learned throughout the years. Some of them I’ve learned the hard way, and others have been much more pleasant. The basic message I’m trying get across is that, as a developer, knowing a little bit about design can go a long way in your career. Many people jokingly refer to this as “knowing enough to be dangerous.” I call this “knowing enough to know when you don’t know enough.” It’s a very good thing, so get off hacker news and learn something about design.

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