Are You Suffering From Full Stack Anxiety?

Insights from FirstMark’s Design Driven NYC, an event that lives at the intersection of design, user experience, and technology. With more than 5,000 members, Design Driven is the largest design community in NYC.

Joel Califa considers himself a unicorn. Or a purple squirrel. Or a hybrid.

More directly, he’s a designer who codes. A few years ago, that combo of code and design was rare. Today, however, it’s nearly a necessity among hiring managers.

Califa, head of product design at DigitalOcean, says that companies have been attracted to T-shaped persons, where the vertical bar of the T represents expertise in a single field and depth of related skills, and the horizontal bar is the ability to collaborate across disciplines and apply knowledge in fields outside one’s expertise. Originated at IDEO, the term is used throughout the startup world (design, code, UX and more) to describe being great at one thing, and pretty good at all of the other things.

But, T-shaped designers may already be out of fashion. Califa said the new, hip thing is a W-shaped designer. Hiring managers are looking for designers who are experts in not one, but two fields (say both visual design and experience design), while maintaining a foundation in the rest (coding, lettering, etc.).

“What they’re basically saying is, ‘I want a person who can do absolutely everything,’” Califa said.

What’s more, the tech landscape is changing so fast that prospective hires are forced to try to keep up with 100 different things. What they learn today may be vapor tomorrow.

“If you spend, optimistically, half of your time coding, illustrating, and writing, will you still have the time required to become the best Experience designer you can be?” Califa asks. “Will you have time to read up on new design patterns? Will you have time to build personas, polish user flows, and ask the right questions during user tests? Will you have time to do your best work? And even if you somehow do, will you manage to stay amazing, while maintaining your other skills?”

Califa offered a sample list of skills one may be forced to consider as they try to advance their career.

It’s scary and overwhelming, forcing designers who code to ask themselves “Am I learning too much about development, rather than design?”

In fact, Califa has given this condition a name — Full Stack Anxiety.

But, fortunately, he’s also developed a few steps for dealing with it.

1. Ask yourself “What kind of work do I want to do in the future?” And, when approaching a new skill ask, “What am I becoming by learning this?” If that skill doesn’t help you become the person you want to be, then it may not be worth your attention.

When you choose what to learn, you also choose what not to learn. These are important, life-influencing decisions, but not always clear. If you want to be a champion design leader, then brush up on UX and spend more time developing leadership skills. Or, maybe you want to be the best UX designer you can be, so it makes more sense to focus on Android/iOS design, rather than leadership training. An important piece of overcoming full stack anxiety is prioritizing the education that helps build your best self.

2. Create some structure. Remember that big, scary list that Califa presented? Make one for yourself.

“As anxiety provoking as the list is, it’s better than a general, vague panic,” Califa said.

A bit of organization — even a simple list on paper — eliminates the need to keep juggling those tasks in your brain.

3. Take the decision out of the moment. Califa suggests creating a simple if/then statement.

If this skill can be applicable to other parts of my life. Then I’ll learn it.

If this is a skill that’ll be in demand for years to come. Then I’ll learn it.

If this brings me closer to who I want to be. Then I’ll learn it.

Hopefully, this helps reduce that overwhelming list to something more approachable.

4. Stop chasing trends. Sketch kills Photoshop. React kills Angular. Rails kills PHP. JS kills Rails…and on and on. There’s always going to be something new. And all of them will die at some point.

Prioritize transferrable skills, like typography, programming patterns and management. The more longevity a skill has, the better an idea it is to learn it.

5. Prioritize happiness.

“At the end of the day, life isn’t all about work,” Califa said. “And nothing is worth being that anxious over.”

So, if you’re still having trouble reducing that to-learn list to something manageable, Califa has a way to make it simple.

Do the things that make you happy.

To hear more from Califa on dealing with full stack anxiety, see the video from FirstMark’s Design Driven NYC. And, to become a part of the Design Driven NYC community, visit http://designdrivennyc.com.