A note on “speed”

This week in Learn the Web Steve has been encouraging speed for our students. It encouraged me to write about it a little bit.

Speed is not something you much think about as a professional in the web industry. It’s something that just happens as you get more experienced at your job, but it’s something I’m always reminded of when I’m teaching.

As I’m sat there speeding around my laptop (this video is an excellent example of me doing things way too quickly), students sometimes sit there—their eyes struggling to keep up with what I’m doing—with their mouths agape in amazement. I often have to catch myself to slow down, and sometimes I don’t achieve it.

But, it’s completely normal to me. I’ve sat at a computer for about 12 hours a day for 13 years, it’s probably normal that I’ve gotten pretty good with using one.

Being efficient is how I make money. As a professional where my time is converted into money I need to make sure I do things as quickly as possible to make sure:

  1. The client getting charged for the work is getting good value for money.
  2. I’m not costing the boss (in this case, myself) I work for money by taking too long to do things. If I take too long to do something my boss might tell me that they can’t charge for all of my time and I’ve lost the company I work for money.

This stuff is not taught on most university courses, because most teachers don’t work in the industry and don’t understand this pressure to be more efficient. It’s a case of not knowing what you don’t know (often called Unconscious Incompetence): if you don’t have to work faster, why should anybody else?

When you go on a university course to learn to become a web designer or developer you’re encouraged to explore and take your time. This is a good thing, until it isn’t.

You’re given long periods of time to get your websites designed, built, tested and live. This is a good thing. You need to learn how to do these things properly.

The thing long courses tend to miss out on though is having the hard conversations about speed.

Put simply—you’re gonna have to speed up. And you need to be fast before you graduate.

Oftentimes people are taught the skills or learn them online, but they’re never made aware of the pace difference in industry.

You’re given 3 months to design and build a website in education. You’re given a week or two in industry.

I learned the speed of the industry the hard way when I stepped into my first job.

That time when I thought I was amazing

I got my first ever design job when I was 18, rolling on 19. At that point in time I’d had 6 months formal training and nothing else, but I knew I was amazing. I was one of the most-improved students in the class and somebody had just given me a job as a designer, so I must have been amazing, right?

It was 9.10am on my first ever day at my first ever design job. They’d spent 10 minutes introducing me to the team and showing me where the toilets and microwave was.

I sat down at my clean new desk and booted up my brand new computer, still feeling like the most talented person that’d ever stepped into their office. Then I got briefed on my first ever professional design job.

“Hi Craig. So what we need you to do is make an entry system for our art gallery. We need you to make it in Flash, and it needs to be done in 2 weeks.”

Whilst I nodded and smiled on the outside, inside my head I’d just got out of my chair, jumped out of the window and ran home crying. My stomach dropped into my boots.

“Sounds fun! I’ll crack on.” For the first and only time in my entire life, I used the phrase “crack on”. I must have been very nervous.

I just sat there, moving my mouse around the default wallpaper of my desktop computer for 5 minutes.

How the fuck was I going to do this?

I didn’t know Flash. I didn’t know Actionscript. I only worked there 3 days a week, so I had 6 days. By this point, I had about 5.8 days left.

This experience immediately sped my production up. I learned Actionscript, learned how to use Flash and made the thing in 5.8 days.

Quicker and more efficient

I knew I needed to be quick when I got my first design job and I knew the pace would be faster (we’d be taught about it), but I didn’t appreciate it until I’d experienced it.

General speed such as typing quicker comes with practice, but becoming more efficient is a mindset rather than a practiced skill.

You must be constantly searching for more efficient ways of doing things. If you’re ever sat there thinking “there must be a faster way to do this”, then there usually is.

Stuff like:

  1. Using the keyboard when you can instead of the mouse.
  2. Using the terminal when you can instead of an app.
  3. Using boilerplates so you’re not starting from scratch every time when writing code, although this can be applied to writing emails too, or blog posts or proposals.
  4. Using snippets and auto-complete to speed up your typing.
  5. Custom workflows to achieve repetitive tasks e.g. using Alfred.

My speed of work—the one that students are sometimes in awe of—is typical of the industry. I’m actually not that quick at all, I’d say above average at best.

Speed and efficiency are two of the most important skills that you never thought about.