An opportunity recently presented itself that would take me out of my technical comfort zone.

As a web developer, I’m generally used to keeping on top of my skills progression. With that said, this would be a significant change for me. I’d start to learn a new programming language on a (near) production ready app.

The Scenario

A company I partner closely with needed more hands on a JavaScript-heavy project they’re working on. Although the back-end is built on WordPress (my bread and butter), the front-end is built with React; something I have less experience with.

(If you don’t know what React is, it’s a JavaScript library for creating user-interfaces developed by Facebook.)

When I was first quizzed about this project I made it clear that while my JavaScript was pretty good, my React knowledge was relatively small. It was obvious that I’d need some training time before I could start work and luckily the project lead was willing to give me that.

I was offered the chance, a few discussions later, to join the React team for the foreseeable future. And I took it.

Don’t Be Scared to Learn As You Go

It’s natural to be wary of a change in direction. You become comfortable with your day-to-day; the programming languages you know well and the clients you deal with all the time.

But if you want to grow, you have to step out of your comfort zone. Pressing on and learning new skills is the best way to become better in your field.

The biggest fear I had when taking the React role was the loss of control. I’m somewhat of a control freak, especially when it comes to my business. I’d imagine a lot of long-term freelancers are.

I went from knowing exactly what I’d be doing every day, to not knowing if a task would take me 1 hour or 8. When working with WordPress (a platform I’ve used for years) I’d be able to break down, estimate and complete tasks pretty easily. In my first couple of week’s with React, I’d have to take a real step back to digest each part of what I was trying to achieve.

The upshot of my scenario is, after a week’s training, I made my first successful contribution to the project. It took longer than usual to code, but it felt like a bigger achievement.

It will naturally take longer while you’re conquering the learning curve; don’t panic when taking this extra time. If you’re working with the right people and everyone is on the same page, they will allow you the leeway required. You can learn as you go.

Lessons Learned

Stepping out of your technical comfort zone is a great chance to learn lessons about yourself. From my experience, in relation to the scenario above, these are:

  • I can find the time to expand my skillset; I just needed to find the right situation.
  • The push from this opportunity was just what I needed. I’d like to self-initiate more learning in the future.
  • It’s satisfying to help the people you work with by being flexible.
  • It makes business sense to invest in yourself. I’ll become a better developer because of this.
  • Clients and colleagues are more understandable than you might think. I shouldn’t be wary of progress on the fly.
  • Learning itself is a skill of high value to a freelance developer.
  • I get a higher level of job satisfaction from completing something for the first time than the 100th.
  • The process of learning initiates a snowball effect. I’m more at ease to try new things in future projects.

Action You Can Take

Although this post is geared towards my role as a freelance web developer, you can apply the thought process to other fields.

As a graphic designer, you could learn Sketch on top of knowing Photoshop or Illustrator. Project managers could learn and introduce new productivity or task management systems to their teams. A bookkeeper could move up from small business’ accounts to a larger business’. These are just a few basic examples; no one truly knows everything about their job, technical or non-technical.

Generally speaking, it will depend on how you best learn new skills. Some people like to read books, some like to be thrown in at the deep end and others like a mixture. However, the overall principle of stepping out of your comfort zone remains; don’t be afraid to do it.

Ask your boss, employer or client if you can bring new ideas to the table. You could have a big effect on the overall direction of a project and you’d have another string to your bow too.

Set time aside for your own personal development. This is a hard one sometimes, especially when your day-to-day is jam-packed. Despite this, if you’re going to improve in your role, it’s important. Look for non-obvious angles, it might not be a case of eating into your leisure time. Could you learn as you go on a work project?

The Bottom Line

The bottom line of why you should step out of your technical comfort zone is that you will improve yourself. It’s human nature to seek comfort in our roles, but it restricts our growth. By relinquishing some of that comfort and overcoming the initial fear, you can push yourself to new levels.

When you get that chance to learn something new, just go for it! I’m glad I did.

Posted by Tom Hirst

Consultant WordPress developer with 10 years experience freelancing for agencies and businesses globally. Available for hire.



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2 Comments

  1. Hunter Forest 31st May 2018 at 9:09 pm

    Really enjoyable read. I’m looking to branch out as for about two years I’ve been doing the same thing, good to know you kept your head above the water learning new technology!

    Reply

    1. Thanks for the comment Hunter. Go for it!

      Reply

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