The tech industry is huge. There’s so much to do, so many different paths to take and so many people with different backgrounds, focuses and interest points that it can get overwhelming quite easily. I wanted to write about how not to get overwhelmed but since I have not yet been successful in that, I decided to share the things that do overwhelm me and maybe you can learn from my mistakes.
A decade ago, when I started studying computer science in university, I already had a bit of experience with programming. Being mostly self-taught with the support of Finnish programming forums and user groups, my learning style had been very problem-oriented and hands on. In university, I took another approach to learning: reading books and strengthening my basic understanding of the concepts behind programming.
I built up a lot of anxiety as I tried to hog all the information I could. I bought lots of books and tried to tap into everything I found. Then I became overwhelmed because I realised there wasn’t enough time to actually read all of them. In my early 20s, I fell into a bit of a crisis as I started to feel I should have started learning programming years ago.
Reading all the books in software development will take you more than a lifetime. And every year, more and more books are released and new technologies are invented. Once I realised that there’s no end to learning in this industry, I started to enjoy the journey a bit more. But it took me longer than I care to admit. I’m lucky I didn’t realise it during my learning crisis that technical implementation details are just a small part of the job and there’s a lot to learn about communication, team work, different industries and building the right things.
Here’s the secret: nobody knows everything. So save yourself, don’t even try to learn it all and enjoy the journey along the way.
Someone once reminded me that “We see other people’s achievements but not our own progress.”
I am a generalist. I have built many hobby projects on my own - mostly for my own needs - so I’ve had to learn a bit of everything. I’ve done database design, backend, frontend, deployment and UX design for both my personal projects and projects I have built for non-profits and clients.
It’s so easy for me to go down the rabbit hole of comparing my frontend skills to the best frontend developer who’s used their entire career focusing on just that. And then comparing my backend skills to the best backend developer and so on. It’s like comparing apples to oranges - impossible.
There’s a lot of advice out there for focusing on one thing deeply and having basic knowledge of other things, which is the so-called T-shaped skill set. I tried that too but I want to give a word of encouragement to all fellow generalists out there: life can be very fulfilling and successful even when you do a bit of everything. Compared to the T shape, my skills resemble more like an infinite caterpillar.
One problem this comparison brings has to do with the scale: I am one person but I compare my output to the output of dozens, if not even hundreds, of other people. That’s another competition I lose 100% of the time. So if you want to become as overwhelmed as I am, try to learn more skills and output more and better quality than all the other people in the industry combined.
I find myself falling into this trap when I join a new company or begin a new project at work. People who have been working on a given codebase for a longer time are naturally more productive with it. They have a better idea about the architecture and they can figure out bugs faster. This can make me feel like I’m a horrible developer - even though I’m just one person, doing the best I can with the amount of experience I have.
The last few years have elevated the visibility of content creators, which in turn has increased the amount of people doing it. Twitter, Youtube, the blogosphere, meetups and conferences are full of people sharing their knowledge and as there’s more possibilities to earn income from it, you see more and more from the creators you follow.
At some point, it can be hard to notice that the vast majority of developers - who are great at their jobs, I might add - never create any content and still they have fulfilling jobs, good careers and not being part of the trend is not hindering their careers.
I like to blog and share my experiences (that’s why you are reading this post) and I’ve experimented with streaming software development in Twitch and recording Youtube videos. And when trying to fit all in around my full-time job and hobbies, I’ve felt so bad for not being able to produce as many blogs and videos as I want to.
The challenge for me is that there is no amount that would be enough. 50+ talks and workshops, a couple of dozen blog posts and a larger piece on Python errors from last year still feels inadequate when I’m comparing myself to the impossible standard and the huge group of people out there creating things.
Creating things - and especially presenting them to a wider audience - has a snowball effect that doesn’t exactly help when feeling overwhelmed. If you give talks in meetups, you’re more likely to be invited to speak in more events. If you write blog posts, people who read them want to read more from you, and so on.
It’s too easy to become overwhelmed in this field, and there are a lot of things you can do to avoid that feeling. One of the most effective things I have done has been to become friends with the people I look up to. Once I realised they have all the same struggles in life that I do, it doesn’t feel so overwhelming anymore. Helping other people to become tech speakers or providing them a venue to share their experiences has also had a similar effect on my well-being.
None of the above (learning, comparing, or reading and watching) is bad on its own. However, the problems arise when there are too many of them. To keep myself in check, I keep a list of all my talks, workshops and content I create and I regularly go through that to remind myself that I’m doing okay even when I don’t feel like it. This has helped me start practising kindness towards myself. If I could give one last piece of advice, it would be to acknowledge your own progress rather than focus on the achievements of others.