Magic doesn’t make a Unicorn (it takes blimmin’ hard work!)

  • 5 Jan 2020
  • 5-minute read

My 2020 study plan for Design & Front End Dev.

It’s 18 months since I first wrote about my commitment to studying front end development alongside my UX Design 'n' Dev day job, and a lot’s changed since then: I’ve designed and developed several successful web apps, done talks at local meetups, started mentoring young women interested in tech (independently and through Innovate Her and am now working full time as a front end developer.

Things that haven’t changed:

  • I still use a windows machine and have a fairly similar tech set up
  • I still have a keen interest in, and enjoy web design
  • I still struggle to sleep sometimes, look at my phone far too often and struggle to switch my brain off
  • I still live in Liverpool, love my partner to bits, and go on brilliant holidays a few times per year
  • I still do courses, read books and listen to tech and design podcasts whenever I can.

I wish job adverts looked more like this!

I ❤️ being a unicorn, but…

Yes, I am one of those rare, seemingly mythical creatures that can do both design and front end development. I have long been employed as a ‘unicorn designer’, even though my current role is purely dev-focused.

And I love being a unicorn! I love the variety it brings and the cross-team understanding and collaboration I’m able to bring to the projects I work on.

The problem with this set-up, however, is that I’m split between two worlds. I always feel like I’m falling short in one area or the other and am unable to reach mastery in either craft.

I know what I’m good at in each of these disciplines:

  • CSS, accessibility, and writing semantic, well-structured HTML on the front end side
  • User Experience design, journey mapping, and strategy on the design side

But I also know where I fall short in each.

I want to be better.

That means really getting to grips with Javascript (at last!) AND improving my graphic and UI design skills. I need to improve both alongside each other if I am to keep that special unicorn horn!


Becoming a better developer

It’s not the first time I’ve set out on this particular learning journey. If anything, this is just the ‘next phase’ in what is likely to be a forever-long thirst for knowledge and self-improvement!

Earlier this year, after more than a year of wanting to learn JavaScript and trying to carve out some weekly study time, I realised that my approach simply wasn’t working. I’d taken a big pay cut in 2018 by cutting my working week down to 4 days and enrolled on a course that I intended to focus on one day per week. But I wasn’t using Javascript at all in my day-to-day role. I was designing large-scale and complex web applications, and only ever building out the CSS and HTML for those designs.

In my study days, I rarely touched my JavaScript course, instead opting to learn anything and everything that would help in my existing role and that I could put into practice straight away. It was actually an amazing experience and over those 15 months of working part-time, I was more productive than I’d ever been when working full time in the office.

It was a wonderful time that taught me a) how much I love learning; b) you can be just as productive, if not more so, working 4 days a week; c) I learn best when I have real projects to apply that learning to.

Even though my JS skills didn’t grow much that year, I don’t regret how I used my time. I learned loads, designed and helped build some exceptional products, and had a great work-life balance.

Nevertheless, in Summer 2019 a job opportunity came up that would allow me to focus entirely on Front End Development. I hadn’t planned to move on, but it was too good an opportunity to turn down. It was time to take the plunge. Front End Developer, eek!

Now I’m two months in, and JavaScript is finally starting to click for me.

My role so far has been almost entirely CSS-focused (my comfort zone), but I’ve been able to peek under the hood of different sites and products, play with JavaScript and jQuery and fix a few bugs, and my first React.js project is just around the corner.

Applying what I’ve learned about learning

Recently, I’ve been taking a multi-pronged approach to my JS learning, studying on various courses at the same time and dipping in for 30–90mins every couple of days, alongside the job.

Beginner Javascript course logo

The courses I’m using are:

Plus, I’ve got a React one queued up ready to start whenever I feel ready for it. I just want to nail a few more JS fundamentals first.

Most of these courses are video-based and broken up into bite-sized chunks, which works well for me. I can dip in at lunchtime, watch on the train, or do some extended study when the opportunity allows.


All dev and no design makes Grace a very dull girl…

What’s really interesting now that I’m in a pure development role, is that I find myself desperate to do design all the time!

I always want to redesign components and screens that are given to me but have to hold back instead. My job right now is to collaborate with others, make suggestions by all means, but hand that responsibility elsewhere. I find it difficult, to be honest, but am learning to ‘let go a little’.

I don’t want to let my design skills slide though, so have also been doing an excellent UI Design course by one of my all-time favourite designers, teachers, and bloggers, Erik Kennedy. So far it’s been brilliant and feels more like a fun hobby than work.


Hold up… How many courses you doin’?!

Yes, that is a sh**load of courses to be doing all at once, I’m glad you noticed! (Especially seen as I no longer have a study day available to me each week since going part-time.)

Don’t worry, I’m being realistic about all this. I know I’m not going to complete all these courses this year, or maybe ever. That’s not the point of them.

I’m simply doing what I enjoy.

It just so happens that what I enjoy will make me a better unicorn 😉