How to Become a JavaScript Badass

Monday, August 16th, 2010 @ 8:07 am | filed under: Deep Thoughts

Last week I wrote a rather lengthy post lamenting the fact that finding talented front end developers is rather challenging. This led to some nice comments and emails about the topic and more than one suggestion that I not just whine about the state of things without suggesting a remedy; specifically, that I post instructions on HOW to become a JavaScript badass.

I don’t know that I can tell you how to become a JavaScript ninja, but I can give you some pointers. I’ll start out by saying that I learned what I know via a rather circuitous route that I doubt even I could reproduce if I tried…

My Story, In Brief

My road to being a JS developer is not that interesting, if you ask me, but, shrug if you want to know, here are the highlights:

  1. I studied music, photography, and graphic arts in high school and some in college, though it wasn’t my major (which was Jazz Guitar – seriously).
  2. I learned HTML back when Mosaic was still in use and grew my web skills as they arrived in each new browser update.
  3. I joined a startup (knowing HTML in 1997 was a hot commodity) where I learned a bit of programming (Java). I wasn’t really very good at it. I built a really simple CMS with it.
  4. In 1999, I somewhat accidentally started a music startup (http://www.epitonic.com) which I designed and built. I built a much more robust CMS w/ a very small dev team. LOTS of vanilla JavaScript.
  5. In 2003 I joined CNET as a product manager. I didn’t write much code, but whenever we needed some JavaScript, I rolled up my sleeves and pitched in. I inadvertently became “the JavaScript guy” there and started blogging about my research on clientside.cnet.com.
  6. At first focused my work around Prototype.js and Moo.fx.
  7. When MooTools first arrived, I was hooked from the start (here’s posts one and two from 2006 of my first thoughts on the framework).
  8. I got involved with the project to help drive adoption at CNET. I became a committer and then put together classes to teach developers there (at CNET). This further cemented my role there as “the JavaScript guy” though I still thought of myself (and still do) as a product manager.
  9. I left CNET in late 2007 to start Iminta.com, which I’m still proud of. Then the economy died at the end of 2008 and I started contemplating finding a job and found Cloudera (or, really, they found me).

I know, that’s not terribly interesting or informative, but it gives you an idea of what a bizarre roller coaster my professional career has been. For me JavaScript and web development in general has always been a means to an end. I like building interesting products. Writing some JavaScript or some server-side code has always been about making a good web experience but I don’t really care if I write the code or not. I like to write code, but it’s not my objective. My job at Cloudera is the first job where I have principally been an engineer, though you could argue at my two startups that was my job, I’d retort that my job was to design the product and it just so happens that I helped build it, too.

Enough About Me, Let’s Talk About Becoming a JavaScript Ninja

All this about me is really just to put into context the fact that I can’t tell you the right way to become a front end developer. You will have some doors open in front of you as you pursue your goals and they won’t be like the doors opened infront of me. CNET basically paid me to spend roughly a year studying JavaScript and JavaScript frameworks in detail, and that’s a hard job to find. That said, I do think you can reproduce a lot of it on your own and, in some ways, I learned a lot of this stuff the hard way. Without any further equivocating, let me tell you the kinds of things I think you can do to get these skills.

  1. Study design and designers. I’m not saying you have to have the talent to be an awesome graphic designer, but you should pay attention to people who are. When you are surfing the web, pay attention to what works. What looks good? What communicates to you that you can do something on a page? A great example here is this video of Bill Scott’s work on UI patterns. He gives great examples of what the “interesting moments” are in UI design. But in general, you should pay attention to the sites you visit and notice when they get things right and wrong. I often ask interview candidates what sites they admire and why.
  2. Study JavaScript. I mean really dig into it. Watch all those awesome Crockford videos – ALL OF THEM! – on the YUI theater. For that matter, watch all the OTHER videos there. Seriously awesome stuff. I don’t agree with 100% of what they all say, but they are educational for sure. Read Crockford’s JavaScript: The Good Parts. Again, I don’t agree with it 100%, but it’s a seriously solid overview of the language.
  3. Study JavaScript Frameworks. Note that this is plural. The single most important thing I’ve done in my education with the language was to write the original documentation for MooTools. To do this, I had to read the entire library’s undocumented source and figure out what it was doing and why. I’ve learned a lot since then, but nothing I’ve done has ever resulted in as big a jump in my knowledge. When I wrote jqueryvsmootools.com I did it again, this time with jQuery. I read the entire source so that I could understand it. I did it again with Dojo when I put together a talk about programming to patterns that I first gave in tandem with Dylan Schiemann of the Dojo team (the talk wasn’t about frameworks so much as it is about the value of abstraction, and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just a MooTools focused talk). I’ve done the same thing with other frameworks to learn the lessons that I can from other people’s development styles. Don’t just use jQuery or YUI or MooTools. You need to study all of them to understand what makes them the same, different, and interesting. Don’t stop until you understand everything that these frameworks are doing and, more importantly, why. Don’t hesitate to ask their authors for explanations; most are happy to talk about their work.
  4. Get involved with a framework. The second most important thing I’ve done with JavaScript was getting involved with the MooTools project itself. Working with open source projects is a HUGE boost to your resume and, here’s the thing, you don’t need to really know that much to get started. You just have to be willing to spend the time. Right now, there are dozens of bugs open on every framework out there. Go fix some! Go write test cases! Go write a blog post about how you use it! Do these things and get committer status and I promise you you’ll start getting a ton of interesting job offers.
  5. Release some of your own code. I can’t stress this enough. If you don’t have code on github (or google code or your own site or whatever) you’re wasting a big opportunity. Releasing your own code allows me, a potential employer, to know your capabilities before I hire you. This stuff gets people interested in you. If you release a lot of your code, you may even get others to help you maintain and grow it. This is how open source projects get going. I almost consider it a red flag to see a resume without a url to github or something similar.
  6. Blog about it. Write down everything you learn as you learn it on your blog. Next thing you know, 3 years have gone by and you have this huge body of work. Stuff on your site draws the attention of other developers who are struggling with similar problems. You become an expert without really meaning to. If you blog constantly about what you are doing, what you are studying, you’ll find that people come to you with work to be done expecting that you are awesome because, well, you’re explaining all this stuff to them. I can’t stress the value of this enough, though it is very time consuming. This is especially valuable if you’re a freelancer.
  7. Build something interesting. I once spent a month or two writing a photo gallery in PHP just to have an excuse to learn PHP better. I learned Smarty with that little project, too. I’ve built a lot of things for the excuse to learn it. I built Iminta.com with a friend and we chose Ruby on Rails mostly because neither of us had built anything with it and wanted to learn it. Forcing yourself to do things with new languages and environments will grow your skills faster than anything. Don’t rely on the skills you have; always look for chances, excuses really, to do things in new ways. Working with emerging technologies will make you debug that technology itself and maybe contribute fixes back to it. It can be painful, but it also makes you really learn how that technology works.
  8. Join a startup. I know, this one can be tricky, especially if you don’t live in the SF Bay area. But joining a startup will make you tackle problems that aren’t in your domain because, well, there’s no one else to do it. If you’re not experienced enough to be the 2nd or 3rd person at a startup, aim for being the 10th or 20th. You’ll be asking for long hours and low pay, but you’ll get a mountain of experience. Think of it as an extended college education that pays you a little cash and (if the stock takes off) might buy you a house.
  9. Take the time to learn why solutions work. When you’re working on something and you get an error and find the solution on Google, take the time to really understand what the problem was. When you are starting up an app server – ruby on rails, django, lamp, whatever – and you get a stack trace, take the time to dig into it and understand the problem and what the logs are telling you. Debugging stuff on the command line will teach you a ton. It’s slow, thankless work, but it’ll greatly improve your value when you take on more challenging tasks at new jobs.
  10. Be curious, and fight off laziness. This is a bit of a weird one, I know. What I mean by it is that you should look at tasks that require you to do new things as opportunities. Recognize when these moments come along and cherish them. There is nothing more awesome than having a job that pays you to learn. If you have coworkers that know things that you don’t, and vice versa, trade them. When I was in college I told the guy who was building the web site for my school that I’d help him design it and show him how to use Photoshop if he would teach me HTML. I joined Cloudera 18 months ago and knew zero Python and now I’m pretty decent at it. If you have a job that uses technologies you don’t know, don’t just stay in your little JavaScript world; find ways to expand your knowledge however you can.

I could probably go on about this stuff for a while longer, but I’ll stop. What it really boils down to is that you have to want to be a front end developer and pursue it the way a concert violinist pursues the first chair. There are hours and hours of practice for which no one will pay you. But eventually you’ll find yourself in a position where someone will pay you to do what you love and you’ll find it hard to believe how you got there. Next thing you know, you’re the person designing the user experience at some hot startup and trying to hire new people to join you.

My last suggestion to you, if you’re a budding JavaScript badass, is to force yourself to find a job that will help you learn these skills. Don’t just take a job making some company’s corporate website. There are tons of jobs out there that need front end talent that are building interesting things.

Did I mention Cloudera is hiring?

30 Responses to “How to Become a JavaScript Badass”

  1. Darren McPherson Says:

    This is gold.

  2. Joe Lewis Says:

    Music majors turned web geeks FTW! (M. Mus. ’95, double bass, New England Conservatory)

  3. Chuck Conway Says:

    This is money. Thanks for sharing.

  4. kiwi Says:

    Just wanted to to say “thank you”.
    Thanks for sharing your experience!

  5. Josh Powell Says:

    One thing I’ve done that has helped is to implement the same thing in multiple frameworks and without. At work, there was a search filter widget that I’ve implemented in jQuery, Dojo, Prototype, and mootools to be able to learn and compare them. I also took an existing calendar widget written in Prototype and used it to learn jQuery by reimplementing it in jQuery. That’s probably one of the best ways to get started on a new library in my experience. Reimplement something complicated that you already know.

  6. Joe Says:

    Thanks for writing this, inspirational.

  7. shawn sass Says:

    Thanks for the pointers. Great info and makes me appreciate some of the opportunities I’ve had at work even more.

  8. zhaiduo Says:

    I think laziness is best friend for coder~

  9. Feross Says:

    Very inspirational. I agree with a previous commenter: this stuff is gold. Thank you.

  10. mike Says:

    Like zhaiduo says, a great programmer is lazy.
    But a great developer has a lust for learning and expanding his or her horizons.
    Thanks for the great article!

  11. Daniel Steigerwald Says:

    Javascript Ninja – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_Income_No_Asset

  12. Thomas Aylott Says:

    I have also had a rather unusual career path.

    The absolute biggest choices that have been the major factors in both of my biggest growth explosions was joining and working with the TextMate bundle community and the MooTools community.

    When writing textmate bundles I had to learn extremely advanced regular expressions that are useful in every aspect of development and production and even things like rep on the command line.

    It also forced me to finally learn sh, bash, unix pipes, redirection, environment variables, STDIN, STDIN, STDERR, shell scripting in ruby, php, python, bash, etc…

    Writing a textmate language grammar for JavaScript forced me to read the ECMAScript spec itself and learn some of the more advanced, flexible and least understood sections of the spec.

    Then joining the mootools community really helped my js development skills and general programming and abstraction techniques explode.

    Following people like kangax, jdalton, webreflecrion and the CommonJS guys has also helped me learn some of the more advanced areas of the language itself and its implementations and weird edge case bugs.

    I was somewhat peripherally involved in the Ruby community a while back and learned a ton about programming techniques, abstraction, etc…

    To sum up, there are things that you can learn from reading blogs and chatting with people on IRC that you’ll never read in a book or discover on your own.

    Oh yeah, and read the source code for everything you can find. Learn all you can from the source code of projects like MooTools, jQuery, FuseJS, Ruby on Rails, MyLib, Django, etc…
    Form you own opinions.

    Don’t understand something? Use GitHub’s blame view to see when each line was added or changed and read the commit message to, hopefully, understand why it was changed. 

  13. coco Says:

    Normal developers know very well that technologies are just a tools same like languages and these are used “on demand”. It’s like riding a bike, just another different model. I really do not enjoy developers who learn just to build up resume, “a fee”, where is challenge? invention? abstractive thinking ??? Some of guys have written here that lazy developers are best, acctually I agree, they are lazy to copy, replicate and type a lot (all these things machine should do).

    And these GIT hub links…

  14. Tom Trenka Says:

    @Joe Lewis and Aaron: yes, music majors turned web geeks FTW (BA/MA Queens College, CUNY, theory and composition; Ph.D. University of Minnesota for the same) =)

  15. Timmy Says:

    This is some great insight regardless of what type of ninja skills you are hoping to achieve… be it JavaScript, PHP, Rails or anything. Thanks for sharing your roadmap with all of us though, it is a great reminder to get involved and give back!

  16. Elsewhere Says:

    One large and overlooked ( or just not talked about ) problem with the lack of javascript “badasses” is that the language is so poorly documented and screwed up in its design( the hodge-podge of programming paradigms, the bizarre scoping, and side-effecty behaviors), you have to waste a lot of time to learn it well. It’s also lends itself to being very idiomatic( you could fairly argue that this shows how expressive it can be. A double-edged sword.. ), so reading other people’s code requires you to struggle with their way of thinking.

    I know its been going through a renaissance the last few years, and its what all the cool kids are doing, but it deserves criticism.

  17. Aaron N. Says:

    Most programming languages have their good parts and their bad, and, more importantly, all languages can be executed poorly by programmers. I don’t blame JavaScript for most of the problems it has – I blame the browsers. There are some things in the language that are unfortunate, but most are easily avoided or coded around. Blaming JavaScript for being clunky doesn’t change the fact that there’s a lot of demand for the skills and doesn’t help you get on with learning it, if you want to.

  18. Elsewhere Says:

    I had this page open in a tab, thought it was something else and refreshed it, then noticed your reply!

    “I don’t blame JavaScript for most of the problems it has – I blame the browsers”

    I agree the browsers cause a huge amount of issues, but they are not responsible for the defects in the core language.

    “Blaming JavaScript for being clunky doesn’t change the fact that there’s a lot of demand for the skills and doesn’t help you get on with learning it, if you want to.”

    I won’t ( nor did I intend too ) argue there is not a huge demand. Further, the demand does not change the fact that it is clunky. :-)

    As for learning it, I understand the language very well, hence my criticisms. I’m not a big fan of many things my work day dictates, sadly.

    Btw, good luck with your search!

  19. Q_the_novice Says:

    I wish i had read this article 2 years ago – i believe JavaScript is the future, both client and server side.

    Thank you, i cant believe this kind of information is for free!

  20. Adrian Schmidt Says:

    Great post!

    I read your last post about what’s needed to become a JS badass, and honestly, I felt a bit downtrodden. Not because I don’t feel I could get there, because I think I can, eventually, but because I got the feeling that I’m not worth jack until I do.

    This post completely reversed that feeling! I feel like I have a roadmap in front of me and inspiration to travel :)

    Thanks!

  21. Captain Nitpick Says:

    “mosaic”

  22. Tamale Says:

    couldn’t agree more with these thoughts.. nice write-up.

  23. Alex Says:

    “4. … Do these things and get committer status and I promise you you’ll start getting a ton of interesting job offers.”

    Thanks for this advice :)

  24. Aaron N. Says:

    @Captain Nitpick – nice catch! Updated.

  25. Francisco Wu Says:

    Great read, thanks for sharing all the wonderful thoughts, now, as they say, I’ll try harder to focus on acting on your advice.

  26. Erx Says:

    Thx Aaron

  27. NetDust Says:

    They say my story is a yawn.F~~

  28. Aaron N. Says:

    Hey, no one made you read it…

  29. John Manoogian III Says:

    Moo.fx link is broken, above.

  30. Aaron N. Says:

    Thanks. Fixed.