There’s a certain kind of old-school, backend web developer who, a long time ago, mastered things like Perl or Python or PHP or Java Server Pages, maybe even Rails or Django. This person worked with giant relational databases and built APIs that serve up JSON and even (gasp!) XML.
Okay, I am ready to start coding now.
Here are some of the changes I had to make to my own mindset and expectations around learning a new ecosystem based on an old language which has taken over my craft.
Moving Target (dot JS)
The modern JS world is nothing if not young and rapidly changing, so it’s easy to choose the framework or templating engine or build tool or tutorial that’s out of date or teaching a technique that’s no longer best practice (when there even is a generally-accepted notion of what “best practice” is).
New Problems, Not-Yet-Established Solutions
When you’re working with an ancient language like PHP, you Google a question or problem, and almost 100% of the time you will find a 5-year-old Stack Overflow answer that solves it, or a full discussion in the (thorough, heavily commented, and unparalleled) documentation.
Do not let this stop you. I had to let go of doing it The Right Way from the get-go, and allow myself to fumble through using suboptimal or just plain amateur setups just to get comfortable with individual tools. (Let me tell you about that time I used nodemon to do my linting…) Then I’d find out better ways and incorporate what I could, when I could, on each new project.
Tutorial / Project / Throw It Away / Repeat
Here’s an incomplete list of some of the workshops and tutorials I’ve run through in this process so far.
npm installthousands of times before I started this process, I didn’t know all the things npm does till I completed this interactive workshop. (On several projects I’ve since moved onto using yarn instead of npm, but all the concepts translate.)
- expressworks — Similar to the previous two workshoppers, Expressworks is an introduction to Express.js, a web framework for Node.js. Express doesn’t get a whole lot of use here at Postlight these days, but it was worth learning as a beginner to get a taste of building a simple webapp.
- Now it was time to build something real. I found Tomomi Imura’s tutorial on Creating a Slack Command Bot from Scratch with Node.js was just enough Node and Express to put my newfound skills to work. Since I was focusing on backend, building a slash command for Slack was a good place to start because there’s no frontend presentation (Slack does that for you).
- In the process of building this command, instead of using ngrok or Heroku as recommended in the walkthrough, I experimented with Zeit Now, which is an invaluable tool for anyone building quick, one-off JS apps.
- Once I started writing Actual Code, I also started to fall down the tooling rabbit hole. Installing Sublime plugins, getting Node versioning right, setting up ESLint using Airbnb’s style guide (Postlight’s preference) — these things slowed me down, but also were worth the initial investment. I’m still in the thick of this; for example, Webpack is still pretty mysterious to me, but this video is a pretty great introduction.
- At some point JS’s asynchronous execution (specifically, “callback hell”) started to bite me. Promise It Won’t Hurt is another workshopper that teaches you how to write “clean” asynchronous code using Promises, a relatively new JS abstraction for dealing with async execution. Truth be told, Promises almost broke me — they’re a mind-bendy paradigm shift. Thanks to Mariko Kosaka, now I think about them whenever I order a burger.
From here I knew enough to get myself into all sorts of trouble, like experiment with Jest for testing, Botkit for more Slack bot fun, and Serverless to really hammer home the value of functional programming. If you don’t know what any of that means, that’s okay. It’s a big world, and we all take our own paths through it.
“First do it, then do it right, then do it better.”
Ultimately the most important thing I’ve had to remember is this: Doing is learning. Doing it badly? It’s still learning.
It takes time, experimentation and skill to master the fundamentals of any new topic. Beginners shouldn’t feel like they’re failing if they’re not using the library-du-jour or reactive-pattern of the week. It took me weeks to get Babel and React right. Longer to get Isomorphic JS, WebPack and all of the other libraries around it right. Start simple and build on that base.
Gina Trapani is a partner and director of engineering at Postlight.