Knowing too much

Ever since the dot-com bust I’ve noticed a greater risk of something that used to be a fun challenge and generally an exciting part of working in the web design/development business turning into something that will take too much time and energy out of your life.

What I’m talking about is the increasing need for web developers to know, and be good at, widely different things. Common skill requirements include graphic design, database development, JavaScript, HTML, CSS, XML, information architechture, usability, accessibility, writing, typography, ASP, PHP, SQL, Flash, QuickTime, interface design, content management systems and web server configuration. All in the same person. Fewer employees and smaller budgets means more work and tighter deadlines for those left. And just muddling through often isn’t enough. Most of the time you have to really know what you’re doing to deliver the quality worthy of a professional.

Having a wide set of skills is good. It’s even a necessity. But you have to draw the line somewhere. You cannot know everything about everything. After all, there are only 24 hours in a day, and everybody needs at least some sleep. Most people also need to spend some time with their friends and family. There just isn’t enough time to learn all you need to learn and still have a life.

I’m interested in knowing how other people deal with this. Do you try to limit the number of different areas and technologies you work with? What about quality? I find it incredibly hard to constantly produce top quality stuff in so many areas that require completely different mind-sets. And lowering the bar doesn’t feel good to me. Do you lower it anyway, and try not to think about it? What about working with just some of these skills for several weeks or months, and then switching to something else, and then back? Any other ideas?

Or do you just cope with it?

Posted on February 10, 2004 in Web General


  1. I started getting into Flash around v4, right in the middle of it’s growth. Continual learning is required to stay on pace with any field, and when the field is growing so quickly you need to be immersed in it, or you’re best watching from a distance in my opinion.

    Compare this quickly changing technology to a more standards-based, stable one, where the learning required is not ‘how to use the tool/interface’, but in developing code structure. If it’s predominantly code-based rather than GUI driven, you won’t have to re-learn so much with each release.

  2. Companies concentrate on their “core business areas” and outsource the rest. Should an individual be any different?

  3. I’ve limited my skillset to what I want to do with my career: Clean, usable, and accessible design and development in XHTML/XML/XSL and CSS using LAMP(Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP) as a platform. I can “do” Flash, ASP, JSP, Servlets, SQL, IIS, JavaScript, QuickTime, CMS, etc. when I need to. However, I do these things only when I need to.

    I concentrate on what I want to do which makes my life a hell of a lot simpler. Things such as Information Architecture, Database Design, Typography, Usability, Accessibility, and Standards are all part and parcel of the technology. Some people seem to forget this. Programming is programming. Design is design. You don’t just program or design a website. You develop it.

  4. “If it’s predominantly code-based rather than GUI driven, you won’t have to re-learn so much with each release.”

    Errr … yeah … maybe it’s just because there’s so much to improve in Flash? As you say, you have to immerse yourself in your chosen field, and Standards-based development techniques change daily.

  5. I’m looking for a job right now in the UK, and it’s outrageous the amount of knowledge and techniques that employers are expecting you to have for the money they are prepared to pay.

    “graphic design, database development, JavaScript, HTML, CSS, XML, information architechture, usability, accessibility, writing, typography, ASP, PHP, SQL, Flash, QuickTime, interface design, content management systems and web server configuration”

    This does seem like a minimun atm for very little return, I think we have gone from one type of silliness (dot com boom) to the other extreme.

  6. “This does seem like a minimun atm for very little return”

    This is so true. I myself have just been made reduntant due to the downturn in the industry, and noted a “web junior” positon. They we looking for “3 years commercial experience in ASP/PHP, SQL Server/MS Access, HTML, JavaScript” and had the salary down as £10,000 - £12,000 p/a! 3 years experience! I couldn’t believe my eyes.

    Or even better, there’s a position noting: “HTML, ASP (VBScript),, JSP, PHP, Javascript, CSS, MS SQL Server, MySQL, Microsoft Access, Homesite, Fireworks, Photoshop, Flash are the key skills.” I think they should add “candidates must be reptillian in nature needing little hours of sleep, minimal food requirements, and should be encouraged to grow extra arms for speedier development cycles”.

    Sheesh, why do they ask for all this? You can’t be such a great developer if your head is constantly switching between JSP/PHP/ASP/.NET - they all have different neuances with development.

  7. I think for most companies who post all that it’s more of a filtering out technique designed to “scare off” those who would (and do) apply without being qualified in any area.

    If you have provable skills in most of those areas, or get an interview and can show you understand the meaning or can have an intelligent conversation regarding the skills, then you should have a good shot at the job.

  8. The increasingly blurred distinction between designer and programmer is what I find annoying and frustrating. My design skills took years of dedication, education and practice to develop (as I’m sure good programming skills do). It’s not just a matter of “making things look cool”, and yet this is how design is often perceived by the public and by clients.

    Hopefully we are moving beyond the time when everyone with a computer thought they could instantly become a designer (who benefits? - the companies selling software). A similar thing happened when desktop publishing tools first became available.

    To wrap up this messy little diatribe - dedicate yourself to becoming the best that you can in a field you love, not a jack of all trades.

  9. Companies should more often hire great writers, just as they hire great css/php/unix/ people.

  10. I understand what you are talking about. I think it’s hard.. as people are saying, you’ve got to be keeping up with a lot of things in web development. That’s just the way it is. But I agree that sometimes it gets out of hand to the point where it’s just not reasonable. I work at a small company of about 10 people, and I have to wear many hats at different points. I like this for the most part. It’s been a luxury I think some “entry-level” people don’t have. I’ve been able to learn ColdFusion, database fundamentals, and all the while refining my other skills. I took it upon myself to get up to speed with XHTML and CSS-P, though it caused some headaches because I dove in too far too soon. But also, there’s a certain level of stress that seems unecessary when you have to worry about, say, a professional print advertisement and you’ve only got limited experience with such being that you’re first and foremost a web developer.

    But hey, the world doesn’t seem to give much creedance to ideals, right? Especially in the US when the only ideal many need is The Almighty Dollar and The Bottom Line.

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