I’ve been at my current employer for over four years. We do Java-based web application development. Four short years ago, this industry was a different world. Web 2.0 didn’t exist. Ajax was a cleaning product. A website that only worked in IE 6 was good enough for most clients. Tables were a viable solution of any HTML markup problem, and the semantic web had something to do with a children’s book about a pig. Four short years ago we were the Jacks of all web-application development and we had it mastered.
For this career, at least here, a B.S. in computer science was required (emphasis on the BS), but that just got you through the door. Everything else you needed to know you learned in the first six months to a year. You learned how to read code. You learned how to search Google for solutions. You learned how to search the CVS repository for the way we solved it last time for some other client. More importantly you learned how to learn.
Our training program remains basically the same. We simply throw more words at the newbies and hope they’ll take the initiative to at least look them up. Now they can write unit test and perform AJAX calls, but they don’t know how to methodically test a simple web form submission. They avoid SQL, especially on a terminal. They regularly check broken code into CVS or foobar a code-sync to the point that work has to stop for hours to clean it up. They have even mastered the ability to create unit tests that provide 100% code coverage but don’t actually test that anything works. They know enough about the technology stack to be literally dangerous.
How do you train people for Web 2.0? I could write and teach a year-long course that covers all of the technologies, but I’m beginning to doubt it would matter, and they’d never take me off of the projects that actually make money to teach it for that long. I’m sad to say, but I don’t think the problem is the training, I think it’s the mentality. You went through college, you know how to write code. If you know how to learn, the size of the tech-stack shouldn’t matter. The tech-stack makes you life easier if you learn how to use it. You don’t learn Web 2.0 from a book or a class, you learn it by living it. You want to design web apps, where’s your website? At least tell me about your idea for the next killer web-app. You want to write code? Show me. What open-source project(s) do you contribute to? Write an awesomely bad and ironic implementation of the fizz-buzz problem and explain to me with a smile on your face why you did it. Tell me why Joel is your new religious leader, how Zeldman and Meyer are your preferred deities. Try and convince me that the CSS Zen Garden is bad, or voice your opinion on the IE 8 version-targetting debate. Show me you have passion. I’m tired of code-monkeys, show me you’re a rock star.
*Smashes keyboard, steps down off the soap box, walks off stage.*
But seriously, is it that much different? We still have the same GoF patterns, we just use somebody else’s named, branded, and marketed implementation. Web 2.0 is just doing the web the right way, it’s using now-established best practices that were still being invented four years ago. We can still be the masters of all things java web-app development, we just need to continue reading and learning. So how do we make the next generation of masters? To that I say you can’t. You need to find them. You need to find the people that have the pre-bubble mentality, the people with the passion and drive to love this stuff. Those people can be groomed to masters simply by showing them where to look. As for the others? Teach them how to use source control. Teach them how to test a web-form. Teach them just enough html to make something look the way the client wants it to in IE. After that, let them work on the .Net and JSF drag-and-drop component-based development. Let them build boring intranet applications that can run on IE 6 until the ancient machines they were designed for finally die. Let them stagnate in the Web 1.0 mentality, and when they’re obsolete, get them out of the way.