The Art of Keeping Up

Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe I was able to write North on my own. It’s a giant document covering probably too many things, many of which I can dive much deeper into. The craziest thing about North though, is that despite its length and the fact that it’s only a little over a year old, I read it and many things I’ve written are out of date already, or otherwise need some updating. The web, as Ethan Marcotte says, is an inherently unstable medium. It’s constantly evolving and changing, and in order to stay relevant you need to keep up. My friend Ian Carrico put together a great blog post titled How to get started in {open source} web development with some fabulous input from many smart people in the web design and development community, and I recommend you start there. While it’s about getting started, the advice given there is great for everyone designing and developing today. But there’s more to keeping up than just that.

There are some obvious ways: you can read the right sites (I recommend A List Apart, Smashing Magazine, CSS Tricks, and SitePoint, to name a few), follow the right Twitter accounts (a list I put together ), and listen to the right podcasts (I recommend The Web Ahead, the Responsive Web Design Podcast, ShopTalk Show, The Changelog, and The Big Web Show, likewise to name a few). But in my opinion, it takes more than listening to keep up.

Our industry is fantastic. We have conferences, meetups, user groups, and just plain people who will go out of their way to teach you things, often for free. Find a local group talking about the stuff you’re interested and go. Make a friend. Have discussions and debates with people outside of work. Expand your thinking on a subject. But here’s the important part: don’t just listen. Do. Get out there and share your ideas about a topic. Present at these meetup groups, help teach others what you know, go submit talks to conferences. Go submit a conference talk on something you don’t know anything about but really want to learn about! I like to call what happens when you do presentation driven development, roughly defined as needing to invent something in order to talk about it. It’s fun and it works.

You should also build and share things. The web is built on Open Source; go grab yourself a GitHub account and start building things. Next time you go to grab a plugin for your favorite framework, see if you can build what you want yourself. Instead of going for a familiar design pattern, see if you can solve the same problem in a new and interesting way. If not at work, do it for yourself at home, and share it with the world. Get feedback from people outside your immediate circle. Challenge yourself to think differently for a personal project; use entirely new tools and techniques you’ve never touched before. And share it with the world.

But our industry is changing rapidly. It’s no longer enough to be one of many specialists on a team. We as an industry need to become more T-shaped; we need more than empathy for our peers, we need to actually be able to think in the same ways they do. We need to become more generalists, and in doing so, we will see all of our skills rise. The first time I paired with a designer, they thought that I was teaching them how to code, but they taught me just as much about design, and it’s made me a better developer because of it. When I taught myself content strategy, it made me better at both design and development. Knowing all three gave me a better understanding of how to create better performing, more accessible websites. As they say, a rising tide lifts all boats. The more angles of a project you’re able to understand inside and out, the more valuable a team member you will be, and the better you will be at your job. Fortunately, “the web is an inherently unstable medium”, and there is always more to learn.

So, what, then, is the art of keeping up? It’s the art of staying curious, of stepping outside your comfort zone, of creating things you don’t think you’re capable of, of doing things you don’t think you’re capable of. It’s the art of expanding your horizons and building your skill set and knowlege base both horizontally and vertically. It’s about being passionate about all of the things that go in to what you do, and being passionate about sharing that knowledge. As Albert Einstein once said:

I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.