Taming the Web Development Beast

Recently I had one of those out-of-the-blue shifts — an ah-ha moment. It happened towards the end of listening to Jonathan Cutrell interview Jon Yablonski. (May 30, 2018, Developer TeaInterview w/ Jon Yablonski.)

Jonathan asked: “If you could give 30 seconds of advice to all developers of any background, any level of experience, what would you tell them?”

I was expecting Jon to reply (more or less) take time to code what you love. Instead, he said: “I would tell them … write…. Put yourself through the process of thinking through your own ideas and thoughts and putting them down, … editing them, and putting them out there in the world.”

Write? Developers? Radical. And it just so happens that I love to write.

I instantly had a topic — or rather an explosion of ideas that focus on overcoming an obstacle that’s been dogging me for several years. Writing about it will force me into, at the very least, more clarity, but hopefully will also galvanize me into action.

The obstacle isn’t the classic boulder in my path. Rather, it reminds me of Dr. Doolittle’s pushmi-pullyu – two heads and sets of forelegs competing, going in opposite directions, slowing each other down.

Illustration of the pushmi-pullyu from the original Dr. Doolittle.
Public Domain

My pushmi-pullyu emerged right after I “retired” – i.e., once financial stability was no longer a major incentive to code. Even though mine was a sudden retirement, I knew to my bones that what I most wanted to do was pursue awakening – understanding life and death as best I could. So that’s what I did, and, combined with family, that remains my top priority — head #1.

But what to do about head #2 — my Web skills? Given that I’ve been steadily building them since 1994, they’re not inconsiderable. In fact, they’ve become an enormous part of me, to a point that they fuse with identity. Ouch. That’s the rub. I know that at the end of my time (be it serious illness or death) coding skills won’t matter at all.

Moderation seems the obvious answer. But, alas, that’s a dark side of this profession. It’s an immoderate one – necessarily taking huge chunks of time — monitoring the rapid-fire changes, figuring out which changes are important to us, mastering those important ones, and then integrating them into the products we’re responsible for. It can be all-consuming, especially for those of us lucky enough to truly enjoy it.

So is the way to deal with this pushmi-pullyu to chuck Web development out the window? It seems a waste, given that such skills are (in the current vernacular) a “super-power” — not to mention that creating sites gives me deep satisfaction, even joy.

Nonetheless, given my clear understanding of this conundrum, i.e., I love Web development, but it’s not what’s most important to me, in 2016 I tried scrapping it for a few months. It was fine. I had vacations and family to focus on, plus a couple of retreats. But those feed a different part of my spirit — at least for now. I hope that someday the path to awakening will be enough, but I’m not there yet.

Fortunately an amazing opportunity emerged — to be the developer in a site redesign for The Rochester Zen Center. I’ve belonged to the center off-and-on for 22 years. If there’s one organization that gives meaning to my life, this is it.

As the project unfolded, a languishing part of me came back to life. I blew dust off my skills and dove deep into code.

As the May 15 deadline neared, inevitably my pendulum swung far in the other direction — with many hours devoted to coding. When the site launched (on time), thanks and appreciation came pouring in. That’s heady stuff — and there’s a very real danger of it turning into a reward for my immoderation — feeding my workaholism.

On top of that, there’s still much to be done, so I can’t in good conscience withdraw now. More importantly, however, I’ve stabilized in a conviction that it’s not yet time for me to stop developing. There are too many good people who need the kind of help I can offer, plus it nourishes creative joy in me.

The practical implications are that I must find ways to do this time-consuming work I love, while letting it take a backseat to the priorities that matter more to me – family and awakening.

In Zen terms, it’s simple. I’m aiming for the middle way. Simple, yes, but far from easy.

And yet, reigniting my old blog as a way to explore this demanding pushmi-pullyu, I believe it’s the start of a grand experiment. So let the adventures begin.