Why You Need To Keep Up With New Technologies

How well do you keep up with the latest and greatest technologies? Do you use them in practice as soon as possible? Learn them for when the time is right? Wait until everyone says they’re ok to use?

I’d like to share a little of my own story where learning new technologies come in.

Calendar from July 1970

Yesterday

Before I was in business as a web designer I was learning how to become one. After a full day of work I’d read through various books on design and development or search out tutorials online. I even earned web design and c++ certificates through the University of Colorado.

At the time most sites online were developed with a table-based layout and it was not uncommon for sites to be built using framesets as well. In fact the certificate required one (maybe two?) classes working with frames.

The first client site I ever built involved myself and my then partner going back and forth inside Dreamweaver and Photoshop. I’d add some custom code where necessary, but we mainly let the tools spit out the code.

It took longer to build than necessary, in part due to our inexperience, though more due to following an approach that was about to fall out of practice.

Once the site was finished I thought to myself there had to be a better way and within a few days I realized the better way was hand coding sites using a combination of (x)html and css along with a bit of client and server side scripting.

In between that first site and our next one I poured over a few books on css, most notably Eric Meyer on CSS. I read the book, typed in every line of code manipulated that code, and generally did everything I could to make that code my own.

With each new site I made sure to try and learn at least one new technique. I’d spend hours late at night figuring out how to make something work and then understanding why it worked. I learned how different code worked across browsers and think I grew to be a very good css coder.

By no means was I the foremost authority, but looking around at most sites at the time, I think I could work with css 2.1 as well as anyone. I had pushed myself toward the cutting edge.

Rusted water slide

Letting Things Slide

Then a funny thing happened. By necessity I needed to refine my practices to better serve my freelance business. By this time I was going it alone and didn’t have the luxury of staying up all night researching how to get one small thing to work.

I needed to get projects done quickly to serve clients and my own business and continued to use the same techniques that I knew would work.

About a year or so ago I started realizing another change happening in web development. Technologies like html5 and css3 had matured enough and had gained enough support to be used on live sites.

Terms like progressive enhancement and responsive design were being tossed about in design and development circles as a new approach to building sites.

I’d read or scan through articles on all of them, often bookmarking pages and thinking I’ll get around to really learning this when I have more time or when browser support is completely there.

Ultimately I was pushing myself away from the cutting edge and toward the late adopters without even realizing it. I still thought of myself as a very good coder when it finally dawned on me that those thoughts were based on a reputation and not the current situation.

Clock at Haouse under the star museum

Today

In fairness to me this slide wasn’t me being lazy. Out of necessity I was learning how to better run and market a business. I was learning more about graphic design. And I added a forum that I needed to manage.

I’ve been trying to get better at many things and given where I was as a coder at the time it was easy to feel like I could ignore it for a bit.

Earlier this year I began working on a redesign of this site. January began the planning phase. I rethought business goals, planned a new direction, and architected the information structure for a new site.

February saw a surge in client activity forcing the redesign to the back burner for a time, though I did manage to generate ideas, sketches, and wireframes.

When I was finally able to devote more time to it again I realized how many of the things I wanted to do were going to require me to learn many of the things I’d been neglecting the last couple of years.

It’s easy to decide your site must work well across a variety of devices and screen resolutions and quite another to develop a site that actually does those things. It’s easy to think this html5 stuff doesn’t look to hard and another to use html5 elements well.

Back in March I came across a post by Tyler Tevooren on Problogger, The Better Blogging Formula: Think, Do, Write, which boiled down is about writing what you know.

In other words your writing will improve when you have a deeper understanding of your subject. If you don’t have that understanding then acquire it and write about it. Put things into practice and then tell others about them. I took Tyler’s post as a challenge.

A number of posts here the last few months are my attempt to respond to that challenge. I ran a series of posts on how to develop different css layouts mostly in an effort to remind myself how and to reacquire some lost knowledge.

When I began experimenting with html5 and responsive design you saw posts here about those very subjects. Lately this blog has been a strong reflection of the things I’m learning and relearning. It’s my way of multi-tasking; putting one task to multiple purposes.

I hadn’t realized when I first started, but this redesign is leading me to completely rethink how I build websites and the process I used to develop them. There is a change happening in web design and I’m doing my best to prepare for that change.

Wizard and crystal ball

Tomorrow

Why am I telling you all of this now? A few reasons.

First, simply to share something of my story. We’re all on our own journey, which isn’t always visible to others. I hope giving you a glimpse into my journey helps you with yours in some way.

I also wanted to give you an idea of some of what’s coming. I don’t have specific posts written yet, but I’d like to take deeper looks at most of the following

  • Progressive enhancement
  • Mobile first philosophy
  • CSS3
  • More html5 exploration
  • More responsive design exploration
  • ARIA and other accessibility issues

Expect several css3 related posts in the coming weeks and I’ll mix in some of the other topics in between.

Most importantly I don’t want you to do what I did and let your skills lag while others in the industry move forward. I’m sharing my story as an example of what not to do.

I don’t think most of us need to be on the bleeding edge, though I do think it’s good to be early adopters where web development technologies are concerned and to learn new things to prepare you for the future.

Back when I started learning to build websites a change was happening and I was fortunate enough to see that change and prepare for its arrival.

A similar change is happening today. The way you build a website a year or two from now probably won’t be the way you build one today, unless you don’t mind getting left behind.

It won’t be long before most sites you develop will need to respond and adapt to different devices. The best sites will build from an html5 structure, build for the minimal first and progressively enhance for the more capable.

The designers of those sites will then watch as the rest of the industry catches up and clients demand sites be built with these new technologies.

I’m probably preaching to choir with many of you, but I suspect many more out there have been doing what I have these last few years and putting off the learning until there was more time, more support, more demand.

It’s time to stop waiting though. It’s time to start doing.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

24 comments

  1. Very solid story and brings another cool perspective to each of your posts knowing that it’s synced with what your trying to learn and better your skills with. Love your blog, keep up the good work!

    • Thanks Mat. Not always, but much of the time when you see a post here it’s because I’m playing with the technology behind the scenes. Sometimes I’ll post something in response to someone else’s post of because I need to post something, but often when you see several posts on the same or similar topic it means I’m actively working on that topic behind the scenes in some way.

  2. Thank you for sharing your journey with your readers. It is nice to know that we all experience the same one to a certain degree. I haven’t been a developer for very long, but I can definitely see a rapid evolution in my coding.

    To create more early adopters, I’d say it’s up to schools to be the first to encourage it and to develop a system that practices early adoption. What do most schools do? Teach you about the past, the old way of doing things, and leave it up to you to think about getting up-to-date on your own. With a little more interest in the new and less emphasis on the old, we can go a long way. I mean they aren’t teaching us to code in tables anymore, and it has no negative effect on our current understanding of the web. That’s because things changed, and I agree, so should we.

    • Thanks M-A. I too think we all share similar experiences. Sometimes I think sharing a bit of my own personal story helps others see they aren’t going through certain things alone. Hopefully that helps people push through some things.

      Interesting points about school. I think one problems schools face is that the what they’re teaching in some cases is evolving more rapidly than a course curriculum can evolve. Courses and course materials have to be set in advance, which is why they appear to be teaching the past.

      I’ve always thought schools should ideally be teaching students how to think and how to teach themselves new things after school. Learning doesn’t end with school.

      Schools can teach the foundation for web design since the basic principles don’t really change. Then they need to help students understand how to continue learning the techniques that do change frequently.

  3. The first web designers learned how to design something nowadays there are more and more people who just mess around with photoshop and call themselves designer. Maybe it’s our society I don’t know. Keeping up with the technologies might be important but also don’t forget the old ones cause they seemed to work for quite some while?

    • You certainly don’t want to forget the past. Design is still design. How to organize information of how to communicate graphically haven’t change because of a new medium. The technology that’s changing is more about the medium within which we work.

  4. I’m loving your blog Steve, don’t you dare stop writing! hehe

    I know what you mean. When I first moved from North Carolina back to New Jersey, I didn’t have a PC. I got my uncle’s laptop and researched for three years. Unfortunately I hadn’t been able to practice because the laptop was god-awful weak in terms of specs. But I love researching, I’d say it’s my #1 skill. I researched everything and kept myself in the loop, so when I finally got a custom desktop, I jumped right into practicing.

    Personally, I just create a sandbox of sorts to experiment with new technologies and buy a good book or two on the topic if it’s big enough. As far as I’m concerned, new technologies are new methodologies for solving a specific problem (in this case, the domain of the webosphere). The more technologies I know, the more problems I can solve. You don’t have to implement new tech if you don’t want. But it’s good to have a little experimentation area where you can toy around with emerging technologies. In this way, we sort of are like scientist for the web. I remember the pain I went through to learn CSS and how rewarding it was to get there. Anything worth learning requires a mountain of effort, but the satisfaction from being able to please people and solve problems is more than worth it to me.

    Of course, I don’t just jump into everything, I prefer concentration in certain areas. Take jQuery and MooTools for instance. I decided to go with MooTools because of what it offers me, instead of jQuery, despite how much easier it is to do stuff in and how it makes JS like CSS. I did extensive research so I knew which technology was the right one for me.

    I also am going to incorporate new tech in my redesigns as well (note: my website is not up currently).

    • Thanks Daquan. I appreciate the kind words. I’ll keep writing if you keep commenting. :)

      I love researching too. You can probably tell. As long as I can remember I’ve enjoyed learning new things and then teaching what I learned to others. Kind of what I try to do here I guess.

      I agree about new technologies being new ways to solve the same problem. Funny you mention css. I remember when I first learned it each site I’d encounter some problem. I’d spend a couple hours searching for a solution to make something work and then spend a few more hours to understand why it worked. It was a lot of time, but it was definitely rewarding.

      Interesting that you chose MooTools. About a year ago, maybe more I came across this really good article comparing the two. You might have seen in your research. I can’t say I’ve dug into either in much depth. My JavaScript needs have been minimal and I tend to write my own from scratch. The article though made me think MooTools would ultimately prove to be the more flexible option.

  5. Interesting. I do find myself exactly in the same position. I’ve been a web designer for the last 18 years and I can see how much technology has changed in the web field. However, tables or not tables, CSS vs tables, whatever is the way, the basics remains the same as 18 years ago. Sure usability and accessibility issues has wide spread and improved and I’m glad of that.

    Embracing programming is just not my thing unfortunately. When I look for a job I never sell myself as a web developer but instead I do make sure that the employer knows that I am in fact a web designer. My designs speaks for themselfs lucky enough.

    Having that said, one thing I am in fact willing and do want is to embrace Adobe Edge as I truly believe this is the future.

    Heck, I still have to redesign my own site, is terrible at the moment. That’s the same thing, busy here and there and leaving it in the back burner until when the right time comes……… when will be the right time? Indeed.

    Nice article and glad to know I ain’t alone. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • I’m glad you liked the post. I agree with Daquan below. I don’t think you need to be a programmer to be a web design. I do think knowing how to program will only help you design better, but it’s not necessary.

      I’m not sure Adobe Edge is the future, at least not the whole future. It looks to me like a replacement for Flash, which I think will be good. I downloaded it, though haven’t played with it yet, but from descriptions I take it it’s a Flash interface that spits out html5 code. It’ll get use, but not every page on the web needs animation and I’m sure there will be people who prefer to write the code.

      However I think in time it will be an improvement over what Flash currently offers so in that sense it is the future. That’s probably more how you meant it.

      The basics do remain the same. Design principles are design principles. All this tech stuff just changes how we put some of those principles into practice.

  6. @Someone: If you’re a web designer/graphic designer, I don’t think you should have to program. That’s why jQuery is so popular, because it isn’t anything like programming. Which is why I work with MooTools, because I’m a computer science major.

    I classify myself as a user interface designer and application developer. While I do design, my focus is on the logical side of guis. Graphic designers focus on both emotional and aesthetic appeal more so.

    Not only that, programming is hard (at least good, well disciplined programming). This is proved by the fact that JS has many blunders and because of cross-browser problems that people refused to deal with (unlike they do with CSS). Copying and pasting scrips is not at all programming, it’s a logical process that requires much practice and repetition. While many people might tote themselves as programmers, I know for a fact that good programming seems rather rare among the general audience of web workers. According to Peter Norvig, it takes at least 10,000 hours or 10 years to master programming.

    • I think that 10,000 hours or 10 years thing has been applied to become an expert in anything.

      It sounds like you work more on the backend of things than than the front end. Is that right?

      I started out doing a little of both, but then moved toward the front end. I wouldn’t consider myself a good programmer at this point. More someone who’s good at hacking the program you write to make it do what I want, but not the person to write the program from scratch. I always tell myself I’ll go back and relearn the few programming skills I had once acquired, but there’s so much to learn and so little time to learn it all.

  7. @Someone, click the “manage your subscriptions” link below the add a comment box. I think that should fix it.

    @Steven: Hardly, lol. But I can imagine why you think so. I want to be a software engineer and I am learning Python/PHP/JavaScript. Needless to say, I am fascinating with building applications and programming in general. But I want to offer ui design in my services, because I enjoy it. I’ve always worked on the front-end in producing work, but I do plenty of programming in practice. What I need to do is build an application that utilizes actual programming so I can really learn what I’m doing.

    Also, the 10 year thing is applied to any practical skill, such as music/art/math. Though you can certainly apply it to anything I suppose.

    It’s not like I want to be a back-end specialist or something. I love working with JavaScript/MooTools and designing ui’s. But I’m going to master programming so I can work in any domain. I want to obtain strong database+back-end programming skills as well.

    My god, so long thy craft, so short thy life.

    • I completely forgot that manage subscriptions link was there. :)

      Oh gotcha. You’re looking to do different work than I was thinking. To get the practice why not develop an application for yourself. Something you’d find useful if it existed. You’ll probably be more motivated to work on it that way and find more time for it. Odds are if it’s something you’d find useful others will too.

      I’m guessing there are applications you currently use that you find yourself wishing did ‘x’ or did ‘y’ differently. Why not try building your own version of one of those programs?

      • Hehe, Steven, that is a splendid idea. I’ve been doing websites for years now but acquired skills necessary to build rich internet applications along the way. Though I need to seriously dig into my JavaScript The Definitive Guide book and practice JavaScript more often.

        I’ve seen people (lots of people with CS degrees) get into different lines of work and make applications for different purposes. In my opinion, that really fascinates me, the fact that technology can branch into almost any field.

        I’ll definitely look at different types of applications and decide if I can build something that will be useful to me. I’ve also got a few programming books I haven’t dug into yet (one regular PHP and another object-oriented PHP book by David Powers).

        I really agree with the point on I’ll do better if I actually care about it. When I first started doing my wordpress theme, I staggered because I was just fucking around and testing it.

        I didn’t get serious until I actually wireframed a nice ui design and put it in Photoshop. I’m looking for ways I can use Python on the web as well, so I’ll probably want to use both PHP/Python in the back-end in whatever app I end up making.

        Whatever I make, I’ll think about how other people can benefit from it. If it’s useful to people, I know I’ll complete it no matter what. Hell, maybe I can do an app that would allow people to practice programming or college level math in an interactive way? So many ideas…to work with.

        • It is interesting all the different purposes we can put the same technology to use.

          Like you I’ve acquired some skills as needed and can now probably go in different directions.

          One of the things I’ve been wanting to teach myself is Cocoa programming. I’m not sure when or if I’ll find the time, but assuming I do I’d start by creating a tool I use like a blogging editor. Then I could make one that fits well with my workflow and who knows maybe I’d have something that others would want too when I’m done.

          • Would you do mobile app development Steven?

            I was talking to Amber Weinberg and she loves it so much, she might cater her whole business to it.

            I really thinking…if I should tamper with the world of mobile apps. I want a Xoom tablet, so eventually I’ll get exposure to the platform.

          • I would if I were a better programmer. I don’t really have the skills at the moment to develop apps, but part of my reason for wanting to learn Cocoa is to eventually develop apps.

            I’ve seen Amber talk about apps over the last few months. She definitely seems to prefer it.

            Makes sense to get exposure to the platform. Keep in mind that so far all the numbers indicate the money is in iOS development, but I would think there’s money to be made with Android as well.

  8. Great article. Just stumble upon it. Being a jack of all trades web/video/print/teaching/it it is hard to keep up. Information overload. Glad there are more like me out there trying to follow the trends and keep pace.

    I am knee deep in blogs, forums, tutorials et al. Information overload!

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