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Sheelah Brennan

Lessons from Ten Years in Web Development

It’s hard to believe that this blog has posts that are now ten years old. That also means that I’ve been working in web development for 10 years! Back in 2013, I transitioned from working in site reliability engineering to working in frontend engineering. I spent most of the prior year ramping up on web technologies during a leave of absence from work that I was lucky to get, and in 2013 I started working in the field. That’s when the “real” learning — the learning-on-the-job phase — started.

So what have I learned in the past 10 years of working in this field, and maintaining my (infrequent) web dev blogging?

Blogging and Note Taking Pays off

Writing short blog posts (or notes somewhere at a minimum) on how you were able to troubleshoot and resolve a particular web dev issue is useful. These help your future self when you inevitably encounter that same issue later on. They also help people like you who are facing the same problem and are desperately searching the web for a solution. For example, I have a short blog post from 2014 (yes, a whopping nine years ago from now!) on how to handle PHP errors that can crop up when including SVG files. That post still gets frequent views today!

Tech Changes but the Underpinnings Remain

Technologies come and go, but the underlying web tech -- HTML, CSS, and JavaScript -- remains. Back in 2013, I was way into Sass and Compass. I also loved building projects on top of Foundation, a Bootstrap competitor that was Sass-based, and Susy, a Sass-based grid framework. While these were my ride-or-dies at the time, the web has changed since then. For example, we can do so much more now with plain ol' CSS, with tools such as CSS grid and flexbox for layouts.

I also was a diehard Grunt user, and then a Gulp user, and then later a Webpack user. These were all different tools for running tasks and compiling code. The landscape changed pretty rapidly.

I was way into jQuery when I was first learning web development in 2012. Now, we have a lot of JavaScript frameworks (see below) at our fingertips, and with the advent of ES6 and more recent releases, vanilla JavaScript has gotten so much more powerful.

The fundamental web technologies remain though, and if you're able to get comfortable with those, I've found you'll be able to pick up new web technologies and tools fairly quickly.

JavaScript Frameworks Come and Go

JavaScript frameworks definitely come and go, but JavaScript fundamentals are always useful.

Soon after I had gotten decent at jQuery, AngularJS was the hotness. I learned Angular (v1) at my first web development job and quickly saw how that road was paved with footguns. While the 2-way data binding was magical, it was so easy to end up with global state everywhere!

React felt like a revelation when I tried it a couple years later. While that Angular-specific knowledge like directives was no longer relevant, the fundamentals of JavaScript like array map() , loops, object destructuring, and other ES6 features were still very useful knowledge to have.

Interests Change

Your interests also will eb and flow. Ride the wave and follow your curiosities. Back in 2013, I got into PHP and WordPress, and even migrated my site from Octopress, an early static site generator, to WordPress for awhile. I got into building custom WordPress starter themes and used that for freelance projects. Then within a couple years I got really into JavaScript frameworks — first AngularJS and then React.

These were fairly different libraries, but with some time learning and experimenting, I was able to ramp up on them and really enjoyed using them in turn.

I then ended up migrating my blog back to a static site, this time based on Gatsby. I have no regrets that I followed my curiosities and dove into these different JavaScript frameworks, leaving the PHP and WordPress world behind.

Your career interests may change too, and that's expected. "Don't die wondering!" is something I like to remind myself when considering a pivot. I went from frontend engineering in a giant tech company, to frontend engineering in a media startup, to frontend engineering in a product-turned-ecommerce startup, to design systems engineering at a fintech startup, to my current role as a design technologist at an enterprise software company. Changing roles like this, either by transferring within a company or by switching companies completely, is how you find out what you really like and really don't like.

User Needs Remain Unchanged

It's easy to get wrapped up in different tech stacks and JavaScript frameworks, focusing on the developer experience at the expense of everything else. At the end of the day, the user experience is most important. Taking the time early on in your projects to consider the UX, web performance, and accessibility goes a long way to making the web a better place. Your users will thank you!

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