Harry Cresswell

Expert and beginner

Recently, my girlfriend showed me a new way to make responsive grids without media queries. The technique uses repeat, auto-fit and min-max and until that point I wasn’t aware of it. Rebekka’s only been coding for a few months, but she’s already teaching me so much that I don’t already know.

What excites me most about building things for the web is that it’s constantly evolving and because of this, we’re continuously learning new methods. It seems like every day there’s an exciting new way of doing something and it’s almost always an improvement on the techniques we know or that we’ve relied on for years. At times you find yourself learning these techniques from someone just starting out. Someone you might think of as a beginner. But regardless of their inexperience, you can guarantee they know something you don’t. Just as they might be keen to learn from you, you can learn something just as valuable from them, becoming a better developer in the process.

Rachel Andrew summed this up perfectly in a recent tweet:

“I love that in this industry you get to be an expert and a beginner at the same time. Learning new things, being a beginner, reminds me what that is like and makes me a better teacher of the things I am expert in.”

The constant need to learn and start over can feel overwhelming at times, we all feel it, regardless of our experience or lack there of. It’s the way we frame our mindset and approach our work which is the most important thing to master.

Some people let it get to them, becoming despondent with their attitude and outdated in their approach. They form what you might call a ‘fixed‘ mindset, preventing themselves from developing further. Others choose to grow, seeing this as an exciting opportunity. They embrace the attitude of a life long learner and learn continuously from whoever they can.

As so-called inexperienced developers it’s important to value what little we may know. Be confident knowing that though we may refer to ourselves as beginners, we are in fact experts alike. We have something just as important to teach as we have to learn, regardless of how long we’ve been building things for the web. The vastness and complexity of this industry means it’s impossible know it all. There’s a very good chance what we choose to focus on is different to that of our more experienced co-worker. We must use this to our advantage every way we can.

You may have read Frank Chimero’s seminal article Everything easy is hard again in which he says;

”In one way, it is easier to be inexperienced: you don’t have to learn what is no longer relevant. Experience, on the other hand, creates two distinct struggles: the first is to identify and unlearn what is no longer necessary (that’s work, too). The second is to remain open-minded, patient, and willing to engage with what’s new, even if it resembles a new take on something you decided against a long time ago.”

As experienced developers we must maintain the desire to learn and reinvent. We must listen and keep an open-mind about who we learn from. Learning from those just starting out can help us to embrace Shoshin, otherwise know as ‘Beginners Mind‘. Whilst teaching can help us remain humble, learn patience and let go of our preconceptions. As we teach something new, we learn to approach each problem as if it was for the first time.

No matter how much we think we know, we must never think we know it all or believe we are better, simple because we‘ve been doing it longer. We cannot afford to be precious about what we know. Holding on makes it harder to let go. We must be challenge our techniques when challenged and questioning when the time is right to reinvent our methods. Doing so will help us to unlearn what is no longer necessary.

What’s interesting to me is that after all these years many of us are no closer to figuring out which group we fit in. Are we experts or are we beginners? We may think of ourselves as experts in many areas, but we’re beginners in countless others. We are in fact all experts and beginners and whilst this medium continues to evolve (which it will) this will always be the case.

So by valuing the teachings experts and beginners alike and embracing the idea that we too are an expert and a beginner, we become better developers. You might go as far as to say that this willing and open-minded approach is fundamental in making a great developer.

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