Why NOT to Try to Learn Everything

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Developer TrainingWeb Development
There is SO MUCH free information on every technology in existence. Pop a few keywords into google and you’ll find blogs and tutorials. Check github and you’ll find a ton of plugins and sample applications. The availability of information is virtually limitless.
Since there’s so much information, there’s a temptation to try and do it all. Or jump on every cool new technology that comes along. Resist that urge. 

You can’t be good at everything. Deal with it.

There is however

a finite limit

on your time to learn things, and your ability to apply them effectively. You usually can’t improve fast by trying to learn 10 things at once. A jack of all trades is a master of none.
Picking a focus will help you get good faster. That’s one reason not to attempt (unrealistically) to be good at everything at once. The other reason is that your career can benefit a LOT from specialization.

It pays to specialize.

Ben Reed gives a bunch of other reasons why it’s great to specialize:

Six things happen when you become known for one thing.

When you build your sales message around one product or service or vertical or problem that you’re solving, you’ll start to see these six things happening:
  • You become much more referable.

    People start to automatically associate you with that one specialty area. When it comes up in conversation, so do you.
  • You have an easier time telling your story.

    You’re no longer trying to remember 52 different messages for 87 different audiences.
  • You become an automatic authority.

    As a specialist, you become an expert on your subject (in perception, as well as reality) simply because it’s all you do.
  • Your sales process becomes more efficient.

    You’re no longer looking to sell everything to everyone, but simply looking for prospects that have that one specific need.
  • You shrink the competitive landscape.

    The narrower your message, the fewer your competitors.
  • You expand your geographic reach.

    If someone needs brain surgery, they’ll go just about anywhere to get to the right specialist. No one travels to see a general practitioner.

My specialization story: front-end development.

TL;DR: scroll to the moral in the next section. 

Here’s a story. There was one point in my career where I had done a lot of work in both front-end and back-end development. I did plenty of html/css/js stuff, and plenty of database-driven PHP websites. I had the mentality that if a project sounded mildly interesting and it was paying, I’d take it.
Then I met with a friend who was specializing in front-end, which she preferred because it was more visual, and therefore less boring (something that I instantly could agree with at the time). She explained how ad firms were paying great rates for front-end work. I thought about my skill set at that point, and realized that front-end was definitely what I was best at, and decided to specialize.
I took a few steps:
  • Tailoring my resume to showcase my front-end work
  • Requesting front-end work specifically from recruiters and clients
  • Saying no to other kinds of work
  • Seeking out one large-named client through an agency, then another. (Having a few big names on your resume REALLY makes you stand out to prospective employers, and helps justify charging higher rates. )
Once I started marketing myself specifically as a “front end developer” rather than just a generic developer, a few things happened:
  • More work started coming my way.
  • The rate I was charging went up by about 60%.
  • I got even better at something I was already good at. This made my skills stand out against other candidates and kept me in high demand.
I’ll also add that it pays to be good at things that few people are good at. Way back when web browsers were really different, and Internet Explorer sucked a ton more than it does now, being able to do pixel-perfect cross-browser CSS was a big deal. Ad firms would do websites for big clients like FedEx and Bacardi, and they needed to look good in Firefox, IE6 (eek) and whatever else was popular at the time. And IE6 was the worst of the worst….El Diabolo. El chupacabra. No bueno.
After a fair bit of experience, I learned many of IE6’s quirks and how to get around them. I had bookmarked all the (slightly harder to find back then) websites that listed workarounds for those bugs (like the notorious peek-a-boo bug – it still gives me nightmares). I carried around a USB drive with a bunch of front-end dev ebooks on it for reference (remember – no Dropbox back then!).

I knew this was something ad firms needed badly, and I knew I was good at it.

I took a gig at one major ad firm who has been around since the Mad Men days. After they saw what I could do, they told me how refreshing it was that I wasn’t lying on my resume about knowing cross-browser development. They said they had 6 (!!!) developers come in before me that claimed to know HTML and CSS, yet couldn’t make a lot of these designs look good in all the browsers.

Moral: get good at one thing at a time.

The bottom line: pick a technology you like and get really good at it. It’s helpful if it’s (1) something in demand and (2) something not a lot of others are good at. Once you can get steadily paid for that one skill, then start adding others.