“Experienced” front end web developers

What defines an experienced web developer in 2014? Looking back on my own progress, I transitioned from entry level to senior roles and became “experienced”. Yet it was surprising to reflect on what skills and traits led me to that point.

Some experience stems from core programming knowledge: familiarity with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript syntax, along with optimization techniques for each language. And given how fast the web changes, experience can imply some web frameworks mastery. Today, popular examples include MVC frameworks (Angular, Ember), web components (Polymer) and responsive grid patterns (Foundation, Susy).

Programming chops also contribute; practically any position requires a baseline technical aptitude to sustain a team’s momentum. Yet as my career has gone on, I’ve found three traits outside of tech that usually separate the experienced from the entry level: wisdom, communication and “T-shaped” skills.

Wisdom is experience defined by long-term development cycles. It’s working through projects over months or years. For solo, agency and freelance developers, it’s defining a long term relationship with one or more clients for an extended period. Developers with high wisdom levels know how to work with other tech personnel. They quickly assess their team’s strengths, weaknesses, and who’s best to delegate for different aspects of the job. They also give assured estimates and know how to best integrate their tech skills into a larger team.

Communication centers on verbal and written skills. Part of that is back and forth with the rest of the tech team through succinct bug tickets and clear project status reports. And on most front end development projects, tight communication with the designers and project managers is essential. In addition, business staff often notice and gravitate towards developers with strong speaking and presentation skills, regardless of their technical aptitude.

T-shaped skills aren’t directly related to web development yet are helpful for the overall company. Aesthetic design, UX, analytics, marketing and business are common examples. T-shape skills are especially important for front end web developers, as they are often faced with many client-facing micro decisions due to lack of time or definition from other groups. For example, there may be a high fidelity spec for a new page design, but a few elements don’t quite match, so the developer adjusts some spacing and padding. Or a new web app is launching and a developer realizes select user actions aren’t being captured by analytics; he or she makes a quick correction. Many of these details aren’t noticed until well after a product is shipped but can have a cumulative benefit for users.

All three of these attributes have one thing in common: there’s rarely shortcuts. It takes time, earned from months and years of work within a team. When you run through an entire dev project cycle – tech assistance to early design iterations, developing a feature set, fixing QA bugs and launching the product – there’s invaluable knowledge gained that can’t be gleamed from a blog post or weekend workshop. Admittedly, some developers are naturally gifted communicators and are equipped with a T-shaped skill base by the time they reach their first web gig. Yet having worked with a large variety of web developers in my career, that’s rare.

So, some advice to those starting out: it’s ok to take a break from learning the hottest web framework to brush up on your speaking and writing skills. It’s also smart to ask questions and have interests in the rest of your business. And if you get the chance to work with well-respected, senior developers, do so. Be patient and take in everything you can. Experience takes time.