The Well-Rounded Developer

April 7, 2013 · 5 min read

Should the role of a front-end developer be limited to only client-side technologies? I have asked myself this question a lot lately. I come from a background where, as a web developer, I typically work across the following development stack to design and build a product:

  • Design. Graphic design, page layout to how a page flows responsively across devices
  • Client-side code. HTML, CSS and JavaScript
  • Data. Flat data files, RESTful web services, relational DBs, noSQL DBs, ...
  • Server-side code - PHP, .NET, Ruby, Lisp, Node.js, Python, ...

Recently, I have moved into a position where I am focused on fewer core languages and technologies. As a result, I find myself thinking about the value of becoming an expert in one area of the stack. Is there more value in being an expert than being a well-rounded developer? The upside to becoming an expert in one subject is that there is more time to devote to exploring every nook and cranny of that subject's subculture. After all, web development is an art form. We are artists who should know our medium and our style. However, it is this very focus that often makes us lose sight of the broader picture. Programming is not about a particular technology or where it falls into the stack. Fundamentally it is about solving problems. An understanding of when to execute code on the server and at what point it's best handled it in the browser allows a developer to come up with the most efficient solution to the problem. Jiro, in Jiro dreams of Sushi, states that "Once you decide on your occupation, you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success and is the key to being regarded honorably." Jiro's skill is sushi. He dedicated his life to coming up with and mastering the techniques of making the best sushi. In order to accomplish this goal, Jiro had to master the art of finding the right seafood vendors, picking the best fish (tuna, octopus, shrimp), preparing the fish, making the rice and creating an experience for his customers. If there was a problem with any part of the cycle, the sushi would be sub-par. So it is with development. A problem, often caused by lack of knowledge, in any layer of the stack can create fragile dependencies, inefficient results or worse...buggy code. I have heard it said that new tech moves too quickly for well-rounded developers to keep up. This is true in the sense that no one developer has the time to become THE expert in every language, framework and platform that exists today. For a new developer, it can be overwhelming to look at the options that exist and wonder where to begin. However, if we take a step back, we are able to see that this pace of innovation is actually the fuel that drives the well-rounded developer. I say this for two reasons:

  1. The fundamentals of programming have not changed.
  2. The new frameworks and tools allow us to stand on the shoulders of giants.

Concepts such as object-oriented programming, data models and design fundamentals stay relatively stable over time. There are many different implementations of these principals and the principals themselves are expanded upon and refined over time, but much of the knowledge is transferable between languages and platforms. Differences are found mostly in syntax and philosophies. While syntax varies greatly among languages, the ones that tend to gain the most support are derivatives of earlier high-level languages such as Fortran and C. So, a lot of syntax knowledge is transferable as well. While the creator's philosophy of a particular language or framework can vary, there are a finite number of general philosophies in existence and code design patterns often transcend philosophies. As Solomon said: "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." Programmers that have been working at their craft for a while often say that development is much easier now than it ever was. They are getting at the idea that we do not have to mess around with as much low level stuff as we used to. 30 years ago, programmers had to write device level drivers just to connect to a database or manage a network connection. Given the same amount of time today, we are able to create more feature-rich, complex applications because of the work that has been done by those that have come before us. Frameworks in any context (server-side and client-end) continue to build on this infrastructure and will only speed the pace at which we can develop amazing products. All of this is good in a general sense, but the real time-consuming part of becoming a well-rounded developer is spent in honing the details of one's craft. It is difficult to decide which framework is best suited for a project and even more tedious to learn all the exceptions and caveats that come with a particular language or framework. Because of this, community is a vital component to a well-rounded developer's workflow. Pick ecosystems that have good community support. Find the best framework to use for a project from the discoveries that others have made. Share what you learn when you develop for a platform with others. And above all, build new things.