JavaScript Tooling Anxiety — Help Is at Hand

By Richard Bultitude

This article was peer reviewed by Chris Perry, Nuria Zuazo and Vildan Softic. Thanks to all of SitePoint’s peer reviewers for making SitePoint content the best it can be!

JavaScript tooling anxiety, (or, as it’s customary to abbreviate everything, TA), has now become a thing and not necessarily in a good way. It’s that awful feeling you get when you’re overwhelmed by the array of shiny developer toys and unable to filter the constant jibber-jabber of community advocacy.

Like its better established cousin, information overload (IO), TA can lead to confusion, headaches, procrastination and, in some severe cases, leave the victim rendered totally inert with indecision. For those who feel they are coming down with a nasty dose of TA, however, the treatment is pretty straightforward: keep calm and carry on.

Remember What You’re Good At

There’s not enough time in life to get to know all the various frameworks, libraries and plugins out there, never mind reading about them, so it’s important to not let yourself get overloaded with information. There was a great article by Tim Evko about IO published last year and as you can see from the ~50 comments it really hit home.

One of the most salient points in Tim’s piece was to stick to your stack. I’d like to broaden that slightly and say: remember what you’re good at. For many developers this means core skills such as being organised, problem-solving and efficient communication. So take a deep breath and remind yourself that you’re good at what you do.

Horses for Courses

Tempting as it is to try each major piece of kit out there, it’s likely there’s only a tiny smattering of them that you need for each job. At Zone I’ve done a lot of CMS-oriented design-and-build jobs, and what makes doing that easier is having constant access to a very slim, but important, selection of tools. Consequently they’re the ones I have focused on.

A lot of the libraries that fight for our attention these days are ones used for building slick single-page apps, which are generally known as MVC (or MV Whatever). If you or your company often make these kinds of applications, then it’s worth getting to know one. If, like me, you don’t make many of these things then you needn’t worry too much about them. That’s not to say you shouldn’t know what problem they solve, but assuming you have an IQ over 90 it’s likely you’ll be able to get to grips with something like an SPA framework without too much homework.

Just Because It’s Trendy

I’ve assessed quite a lot of software in my time. However, I’ve also seen a lot of things come and go. The world of web design and development can be fickle. Fads come and go as quickly as boy bands and, as a consequence, a lot of time is wasted learning about tools that will be dead by the time you get around to using them commercially.

I’m certainly guilty of obsessively having a stab at the next big thing and then realising I’ve forgotten much of what I learned when the time comes to use it.

Beware Buzzwords

Speaking of trends, certain libraries and frameworks (mentioning no names ahem Angular ahem) have become CV musts. When speaking with some recruiters the first question I’ve been asked is “What version of Angular are you at?”. Any dev worth their salt should answer Angular 8 and see what the response is! But aside from being useful when it comes to winding up poorly informed recruiters, buzzwords should be avoided.

An Aerial View of the Landscape

Lots of the tools out there ostensibly do the same things. A quick search online will yield loads of results comparing the most popular ones with each other, Grunt and Gulp being a memorable example. If you ever find yourself a bit confused as to how a particular tool fits into the landscape, have a quick look for a post where some kind soul has gone to the trouble of painting this picture, such as Fred Sarmento’s Front End tools page. Once I can see how some new kid on the block fits into the bigger picture, my TA subsides.

Keep It Simple

This is easier said than done of course, but good programming and good architecture is often about reducing complexity. Applications can quickly become difficult to manage unless you put a little time into the architecture. Taking a modular approach to CSS and JavaScript will really help you to stay in control of your code. Even if you work alone I implore you to explore this — an initial investment will go a long way on each subsequent project.

If, like me, you often work on similar types of projects then making a simple boilerplate will pay dividends. If the gamut of work you do is much wider then you might want to leverage the hard work of others by using a scaffolding service such as Yeoman.

Task automation will help simplify and speed up your workflow, so it’s not surprising that the most powerful and popular tools are the task and module managers (e.g. Webpack, Gulp). These tools can take care of things such as code hinting, concatenation, minification and testing. I’m not going to recommend one here, but I will say that if I had to pick something I couldn’t live without it would be one of those guys.

Picking a Tool

I’ve been in a situation many times where I need a new tool, say a charting library, and I don’t know which of the six or seven major players to go with. So what criteria do I use to pick one?

  • GitHub stars or npm downloads — is it widely used compared with its peers?
  • Documentation — is it clear how to get set up, how the API works etc.?
  • Size of the community — are there plenty of online resources for it?
  • Last commit — has it been years since it was updated?
  • Feature comparison — how does it shape up against its peers?
  • Plays nicely with my pattern — for example, will it work with CommonJS and Browserify?

There are some large organisations (e.g. Facebook) that have the clout to really push their wares (React) and that can evoke a sense of being out-of-the-loop if you’re not on board. I’m not saying they don’t have many positive qualities, but I believe a tool should be judged on its merits and not solely because it was born of a major player.

Spend Your Time Wisely

What downtime you have is precious, so use it well. Whether you work alone or in a large team it’s important that your code is both machine and human-readable, so invest some of your study time in fundamental things such as best practices. This means things such as:

Libraries and plugins will come and go but design and build challenges will persist.

Another aspect of every developer’s job that can be given less attention than it deserves is debugging. As important as it is, it can fall by the wayside when there are so many other attractive distractions. Knowing how to test and debug your code well will save hours of anguish. The most popular tools aren’t as transient as the others I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this piece as they’re developed by the browser manufacturer themselves — the ones Chrome and Firefox offer are highly rated in the community.

The recent release of ES6 means that JavaScript developers now have a more robust and feature-rich language to write in. It also means that your skills as a programmer are more transferrable to or from another language, as ES6 embraces many of the things other OO and functional languages take for granted. If any aspect of JavaScript were worth focusing on I would say it is this: JavaScript itself.


Do you remember the days of Flash, Java applets and images for non-system fonts? Whether you do or don’t, you’ll just have to trust me: it wasn’t pretty back then. Many sites from yesteryear wouldn’t score highly on SEO, usability, accessibility or responsiveness.

Right now we’re in a really good place, both in terms of what the user and the developer has available to them.

My closing message is this: automate what you can, don’t get distracted by trends, focus on your core developer skills and only use the helper libraries you really need. Most of all: stay calm, everything’s OK, the web is in a great place and getting better every day.

  • M S i N Lund

    My rule of thumb:
    If the site for a tool for building websites, sucks, then I don’t bother with the tool.

    If the first thing i see is a bunch of low-contrast text, or a mobile-only layout, or scroll-bar hijacks, or i have to scroll to read 2 lines of text on my UHD-screen, or some other trendy script-kiddy-design crap,
    then yeah… nope!

    Saves a lot of time.

  • Priya

    i need a javascript tutorial.

    • mbokil

      Go through every JS page on the W3Schools site. Amazing wealth of JS education there. I tell others to practice what they see there first before trying to become an Angular or React guru. It is the solid foundation that will pay off in the long run.

      • James Hibbard

        > Go through every JS page on the W3Schools site

        Don’t do this. W3Schools are notorious for serving outdated, or sometimes bad information (although they’ve gotten somewhat better of late).

        On SitePoint we have literally hundreds of JS tutorials. Why not start here @Priya ?
        Is there a tutorial on a specific subject you’d like to see?

        • mbokil

          I looked at their site last week and they had added advanced topics like closures, bind and call. I see nothing wrong with that information. Their html5 and css sections are also good. I wish more people would review these before hacking away in JS.

    • Ben C

      Mozilla Developer Network has loads of great Javascript tutorial and reference content.

  • markbrown4

    Solid advice Richard 👍 One more I’ll add is to learn one new thing at a time, learn one thing well before moving on. Trying to learn React, ES6, Flux, Redux and Webpack at the same time will cause you pain.

    • RichB Zone

      Hi Mark. Glad you enjoyed it and thanks for the thumbs up. In our industry we do have to embrace change, so it makes a lot of sense to learn one thing at a time and not let ourselves get overwhelmed.

  • Patrick Kunka

    Excellent and much needed article Rich! Particularly agree on the importance of being able to differentiate between things that will come and go, versus things that will persist.

    In my experience, what persists are of course the native building blocks of our ecosystem (JavaScript itself, the DOM, HTTP, etc) as well as additional high-level concepts which are both simple and instinctive (e.g. modularity, DRYness, readability, genericism). For each of these high-level concepts implementations will come and go, will be improved upon, will flourish, will be challenged, will be ousted and eventually dethroned.. and the cycle continues. As you say, master the core skills, be confident in what you’re good at and don’t get distracted by the noise!

    • RichB Zone

      Much appreciated Patrick. Indeed those higher level concepts are what we need to keep a firm grip on.

  • Sean Kabanuk

    Great perspective all around! Having worked in the industry for 20 years, I agree that we are definitely in a better place now with the tools and technologies we have access too. Even though people who excel in this industry are generally attracted to dynamically changing environments, tool anxiety is a real problem that we have to deal with. Your advice is right on: Focus on continually improving the fundamentals of our design or development functions and take on the various tools as roles demands. I’d also add that it’s important to lead a well-rounded life outside of our jobs. Spending all of our waking hours obsessing about web development will make us less effective in the long run.

    • RichB Zone

      Very good point Sean. Pursuing other interests, keeping fit and creating a healthy distance from the job is also key to quelling any developer stress and as you say will help us do our jobs better.

  • Branden Dane

    Spot on article. Making “Angular 8” my new goto answer for recruiter hell. Sticking to learning and working to truly understand all the nuisances involved with vanilla JavaScript is a far better investment of ones time than becoming an AnguleactVue-asaurousJS framework master. It’s all about time. Why waste it. That being said, totally agree with your opinion on automation tools. They are absolutely essential and have there own level of TA involved. Worth focussing on learning them though.

    • RichB Zone

      Thanks for the kind words Branden. I’d love to know the outcome of your next conversation with a (not so well informed) recruiter ;]

    • mbokil

      Learning Angular and Node has been very helpful to me. It is more then trendy it is very profitable. I see a lot of new engineers make that mistake of trying to learn every cool JS library out there. I have been using JS for over 10 years it is really the experience with the language and learning from other engineers best practices that has helped me.



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