On Christmas Eve, I said on Twitter:
“My hope for 2012 is that some of the old guard of well-respected web gurus stop talking HTML and CSS and start talking serious development. I love the way many of the old guard write and evangelize, but I’m tired of discussing basically the same stuff we were in 2006.”
And while I wasn’t thinking of Zeldman and his books, conferences, and magazine, they do happen to be good examples of the issue I was referring to. All of these resources, whose slogans indicate that they are “for people who make websites”, are incredibly well-done. An Event Apart is as well-staged and put together as any conference I’ve ever been to. A List Apart is beautifully designed, managed, edited, and curated. Every book in the A Book Apart series has been a true gem. The content presented in all of these forums is top-notch, and the people presenting it are even better than that. There can’t possibly be a better set of resources for learning about markup, CSS, and content strategy out there.
But markup, CSS, and content strategy only represent a small sliver of what makes up a successful modern web project. Today’s web is a series of complex digital products, and building one means expertise in technology architecture, scaling, server-side application programming, client-side application programming, deployment, social media, marketing, user experience, interaction design—and yes, content strategy, CSS, and HTML markup (and probably several more things that are escaping me at the moment).
You may be thinking, “but I can’t do all that myself.” No, you probably can’t. But the greatest products on today’s web are cases where teams have integrated each of these thoughtfully and elegantly. The true beauty of any great digital product lies in the intersection between these various aspects. Without people understanding the big picture of how a modern web project works, from top to bottom, there is bound to be failure at these all-important integration points.
Think about the products you truly love on today’s web. Maybe it’s Twitter. Or Facebook. Or Foursquare. Or Instagram. Or whatever. Now ask yourself: are the books you’re reading, online resources you’re using, and conferences you’re attending giving you a well-rounded enough education that you’d be able to oversee the building of a product along these lines, understanding how each piece works and fits together with the others? If not, I’d suggest your education may not be diverse enough.
The trouble (as Nathan Smith thoughtfully observed), is that the limited scope of these resources, despite the inclusive-sounding tone of the slogan (“for people who make websites”), gives designers and front-end developers the distinct impression that they can’t, or shouldn’t, dive any deeper (or go any higher) into the “stack.”
Of course, there are plenty of resources out there for these other topics. There are social media conferences, sites like StackOverflow helping people learn to program, and books on just about every topic under the sun. Unfortunately, though, each of these resources generally exists in a vacuum, fragmenting the community (“people who make websites”), and ensuring that we fail at the intersection points. If the community isn’t talking about the integration points, and isn’t neatly integrated itself, then the products we build won’t be neatly integrated, either.
I came up in this field in the early 2000s, studying the bible of Zeldman and buying into every bit of the dogma. And then I got lucky enough, in 2006, to be thrown into an environment where Zeldman wasn’t God, Guido was. I learned how much more there was to a great digital product than HTML and CSS. Since then, I’ve been straddling both worlds and trying to figure out how to integrate the two (and some other worlds, too), because all of the truly great things I know of come from teams that have figured out how to do this.
My feeling is that the people who make the truly great digital products—the ones that make our world a better place to live—are the folks who are well-rounded enough to make sense of the entire stack, at least as a high level, and my hope for the new year is that more of the professional development resources our community offers will begin looking at things holistically.