“They learn a bit of Web stuff, and the next thing you know they think they understand programming.” I’ve heard variations of that lament for the past two decades. I’ve heard it less lately, because so many recent computing professionals built their technical careers from that bit of Web stuff.
The Web succeeded in large part because it was the easiest way for people to create electronic content and share it. Indexes and search engines made it easier to find that content. While administering files on a server and learning HTML weren’t trivial, they were much more approachable tasks than creating and distributing traditional (now largely considered desktop or native) applications.
For the most part, they still are easier.
Creating something on a computer that other people would consume on a computer used to mean programming, always programming. Occasionally tools, like HyperCard, Asymetrix Toolbook, or Macromedia Director, would propose a route that didn’t always require programming, but these were mostly boxed up in the multimedia world. “Power users” of spreadsheets and a variety of other tools might create complex calculators, but again, what they did wasn’t frequently described as coding.
The Web gave power users and especially multimedia creators a smooth path from basic content creation to the deepest corners of programming. The Web establishes a path that starts in simple web page creation, moves through styling into basic scripting, and from basic scripting into functional programming — without necessarily pausing for a Computer Science degree or even necessarily formal training along the way. Many eventual CS students, of course, took their first steps into computing on the Web!
Even before people start creating things, basic Web literacy provides a foundation for working with technology, for understanding how distributed pieces can come together to create an experience. While the Web’s easy access means that yes, of course, many things are hacked together, Web apprenticeships can also lead to more careful work with a long-term future.
Informal approaches have their ups and downs, but the part that amazes me is that seventy-odd years after we started working with these electronic contraptions, we finally have a smooth(ish) path from beginners creating simple things to experts creating intricate and complex things — with usable pieces at every step.
Developers who come to the Web from other programming approaches may puzzle over how the Web doesn’t fit their expectations, but developers coming in through the Web have opportunities many of them might not have found if it wasn’t for the Web. The Web’s initial focus on non-programmers and its gradual addition of programming to a markup-based system opened the door to thousands — millions? — of people who might not have taken up programming directly, but were comfortable adding programming to their work. For some of them, programming now dominates, while for others programming remains a small piece of what they do.
The Web’s first priority is access. Open doors can open minds and possibilities.
Public domain stairs image via Pixabay.