Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.

LWS talk: Break down the barriers - Self taught developers today

The following is contemporaneous notes from a talk at London Web Standards by Matt Bee (@mattbee) from futureLearn. There may be errors or material I missed.

Auto-didacticism: the act of self learning or self-education without the guidance of masters (such as teachers and professors) or institutions. (Audience member: “Just Stack Overflow!”)

Wholly self-taught front end developer. Two things happened when I first started developer: “The Facebook” and Firefox.

If you are self-taught, you are in good company: Leonard Da Vinci, Charles Darwin, Quentin Tarantino, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix.

Our industry is amazing - the support/encouragement available is unbelievable. We are excluding new people though.

“I followed an unconventional route to being a web developer”. But that’s a lot of people.

Source for first website - table based layout, a lot of view source, a lot of Notepad, a lot of IE 6. Used to work mostly in HTML and CSS. With the help from books like “HTML for the World Wide Web - Visual Quickstart Guide”, learned a lot as a tinkerer.

Two years in: good with HTML (table layouts) and moderate CSS (fairly new), basic PHP, could use FTP and do basic web config. Could get a site up and running from scratch. This was enough to get my first developer job. This was without any computer science background.

Now: front end developer with 10 years experience, not an engineer, or a code ninja. I don’t know Angular, React, WebPack. I don’t even know JavaScript inside out. I am valuable to my team. Need more: empathy, honesty, being able to see stuff from a user’s perspective.

I worry for the future. Not in a political sense either. The openness is being removed. A lot harder for someone who is intrigued to learn. 69.1% of developers are self-taught according to Stack Overflow.

3 key areas that have made it harder for new people:

  1. Harnessing the power of devices.
  2. Exposure to the inner workings
  3. Mass adoption of complex tools and technologies

My first computer: ZX Spectrum 48K. Had to load programs off a tape. Instruction manual contained programs you could write and run, could produce beautiful graphics (if you had a colour TV). You could buy magazines to copy commands.

Compare the ZX Spectrum keyboard (with “str$”, “rnd”, “peek”, “poke”) keys with the PS2 controller. UX won out - but blackbox devices don’t enable developers.

Terminal and command line are hidden away. Accessible hardware is around, but you need to know about it and have surplus cash for it. Simulated environments aren’t always great experiences.

It used to be easy. View source was enough to get inspiration and troubleshoot. A lot of code was not dependent on anything else. Generally you saw exactly what people write. Didn’t depend on a node package that the author of the code you are looking at didn’t understand. The was true even for big production sites.

JavaScript is an example of how it used to be. In my early development days, a website like Dynamic Drive.1 You could copy, paste and tinker. The modern day equivalent is include some file then type $('.datepickerclass').datepicker();

Today: a new developer can create with no exposure to real code. View source is now potentially useless. Everything output is transformed from what is written. HTML and CSS sometimes feel like second class citizens.

Tweet from @paulcuth: “Just starting to use Web Components & Shadow DOM. Great fun, but going to raise the barrier to entry massively. View source is practically useless.”

Complex tools and mass adoption: “I first thought of learning AngularJS through their official documentation, but this turned out to be a terrible idea.” (source)

Ashley Nolan’s front end tooling survey: “the adoption rate of front-end tools shows no signs of letting up, with tools such as Webpack and JavaScript transpilers becoming ever more essential in our workflows” (source)

Try to install a Node.js library. Thousands of C++ compilation errors. Answer is to download a few gigabytes of Xcode that you probably won’t ever use. Why?2

We are exposing thousands of developers to this every day, and potentially putting them off a career in tech.

I am not saying do not use frameworks. They are valuable and save time and effort. I am saying provide a pathway to learn them.

In summary: I don’t think I’d cut it today. I’m not a great developer, I have huge gaps in my knowledge. I do have other attributes that make me valuable.

“The rapidness of getting the information doesn’t really correlate with the pace of the actual learning. This frustrates us” - Gavin Strange

What can we do? Consider the future developers. Run a code club. Run a Homebrew Website Club. Help teach people. Promote diversity on teams.

People learn at different rates and in different ways. Empathy is important. Provide pathways for great people to become great developers.

(All pictures from Wikimedia Commons!)

  1. Oh my. It still exists.

  2. “Everyone knows that debugging is twice as hard as writing a program in the first place. So if you are as clever as you can be when you write it, how will you ever debug it?” (Brian Kernighan)