Being a contracting web developer, you need to keep on top of your skillset, they are what you use to keep employed. So ‘practising’ your skillset is part of the job, which you need to do regularly in order to keep these skills sharp.
But what does this mean to have your skills up to speed? Well, the web industry is so fast, it changes so quickly. New frameworks keep being released, new build tools are appearing all the time. GitHub has revolutionised the way people develop for the web, how they work together and how companies now work.
So if you want to make a decent career as a web developer it is important that one, you know about what is happening in the industry, what new technologies are being used, which ones are sticking around (remember Flex?) and two, you are proficient in your chosen skill set. What you say you know about you know about. The number of times I’ve seen highly paid contractors on a project who don’t really know what it takes to be a solid web application is frightening.
But how do you go about keeping your skills sharp? Well, there are a number of ways, first, if you’re a front-end developer, you can use your own website as a testbed for new ways of building sites. There is nothing wrong with rebuilding your own site over and over. Making it a case study for how you used this new tech. You can also make ‘fake’ example site, make a site for a fictional shop or business. Use sites like CodePen to create examples of how you would use a new technology or way of creating something in HTML/CSS.
If your thing is application development, things are a little trickier. You can’t build a full web application for yourself (unless you want to make a business form it) and host it somewhere as an example app. But thanks to the wonderful Github web app developers now have a place where we can send potential clients or recruiters to somewhere where they can view the quality of the code you write as a web app developer. This has made such a big difference to the web industry.
Of course, there is the whole Open Source movement that has sprung up over the last few years. This is a fantastic thing for new web developers. When I started there was nothing like GitHub, all we did was build small websites and send a list of URLs to recruiters as examples of work. Now developers are finding work through more direct routes, by people finding their open source work.
As a contracting web developer GitHub and open source give you a place where you can put your example web apps for others to look at when they want to check that you have the level of skills they require.
But along with all these new opportunities to show they work you can do and ways that you can practice your skills, there is still a need for focus.
With all the new technologies coming out there is fear of missing out that contracting web developers can get. When your livelihood is so closely tied to the skillset you have when a new technology is release or starts to get popular. There is a fear that this new tech will become more popular than the one you currently specialise in. For example, I work with Angular, which has been around now for a few years (if you include AngularJS). But now React is looking a very popular choice for front-end development. Does this mean as a contractor I should stop using Angular and move to using React? Well not necessarily, while React looks great, Angular for me is still a valid choice. Maybe not all the modern startups are using Angular, but more enterprise companies are. As long as there are support and development of the framework from Google I think it is still worth specialising in the one approach to web app development.
So as a contractor how can we both keep our skills up to date and at the same time make sure we know a technology well enough to be a good level contractor, who is going to build good software for their clients? Well, I think that by taking this focussed approach is the answer. There has been a lot of talk about having a niche as a freelancer. It’s spoken about in many freelancing books and podcasts. As contractors, I think we can also benefit from niching down into a certain skillset. If you can demonstrate that you know your chosen skillset well (though example works on GitHub or contributing to open source projects). You can keep your skill set sharp and relevant, but don’t forget to keep an eye on the industry because it can change fast. All it takes is a letter from a famous leader of a tech company and your chosen technology is killed off (remember Flex? I loved Flex)