Enough to be dangerous - is dangerous.
The people we train today - will design and build the products we will have to use for the rest of our lives.
Each morning, I wake up to an email inbox full of requests to answer questions asked on the question-and-answer site: Quora.
Quora is a terrible heartless company (more on that in the future), but it is one of the places where people shout into the void - and I need to hear what questions they are asking.
I’ve answered around 1500 questions on Quora over the years (as of this date).
I also answer questions and help programmers on a site called StackOverflow. That’s a forum where programmers discuss (and often argue about) the best way to write programs and build web pages and technical things like that.
In many ways - it’s a waste of my time - and in many other ways, that practice is why I’m an expert now. This site has this “gamification” type of allure where you can get points for answering popular questions. I answer the least popular questions that are usually only seen by the ‘asker’ - and I’m still in the top 5% - which is crazy. I’m embarrassed to list all of the places I spend time helping people. So, that is just to prove that I’m gathering a lot of information about this:
For the last 10 years - I’ve been hearing all about what people want - and seeing first-hand, how they are going about getting it.
Many people want to “learn to code.” They want a job that’s easier and provides them a lot more money. They feel like it’s attainable - and everyone says it’s easy. You can make lots of money - and they say you can learn it all for free. Now, if you know me - then you’ll know the second I hear the word “free,” I start looking for the hidden cost.
When you send someone surfing across The Web to find books and free courses to teach them ‘to code’ (as fast as possible), what do you think happens? There are hundreds of thousands of tutorials and videos and opinions and everything you can imagine.
It wasn’t always that way. There used to be some books and some publishers that acted as gatekeepers and created reliable teaching materials. But the market is now completely flooded and it’s yesterday’s novices who are pointing today’s newest students to the worst of the educational materials with great enthusiasm.
What if your doctor was “self-taught?” Would that be ‘cool’?
Well - it turns out, that there are so many options - that everyone ends up taking a drastically different path from one another. Some people go to Computer Science - and get a tried and true foundation in CS, but that’s not who I’m talking about. I’m talking about those people who want to learn “web development” fast - and for free.
As a culture - we’ve somehow come to the collective conclusion that paying for something… and especially full-price: is for suckers.
Courses are advertised as “all for the price of lunch” and range from “Free” to $9.99 to $11.99 to $13.99 to $39 a month subscriptions to $15k 12 week programs to more robust 30 thirty thousand dollar “coding boot camps.”
In theory, there’s nothing wrong with whatever path they ended up with. Good on them! They learned to ‘code,’ but there is more to consider concerning the cost to the world.
But what does “learned to code” even mean?
So, you end up with hundreds of thousands of people with drastically different (and often very blurry) mental models. Some learn in dark basements by brute-force until they memorize what works through years of trial and error all the time learning through text chats with strangers who have unknown experience. Others go to a 12-week boot camp to get “trained up” an enter the workforce with a surface-level understanding of this year’s fad techniques. Others learn on the job over their career by mimicking those around them. Most of these paths leave you with a series of ‘habits’ and ‘feelings’ instead of clear mental and conceptual models for design or programming. The goals are to make the boss happy or to be invisible altogether. There is no education regarding their responsibility to the world - and as people who create and put things into that world.
Design is an act of creation. Even if you didn’t design it, by programming it - you are responsible. If someone asks you to “split the nuclei of the fissile element - and have it done by the end of the day,” you had better know you are building an Atomic Bomb.
In theory, there’s nothing wrong with whatever path they ended up with. Good on them! They learned to ‘code,’ but there is more to consider concerning the cost to the world. And even if all of these people DID get an A+ education (for free) (self-taught), why wouldn’t everyone’s ideal situation be to have an industry professional as a mentor? Why is “Self taught” such a badge of honor? I was self-taught - and I am happy… but it was 5x as much work as it needed to be. Why is it “cool” to learn by yourself? I thought it was very lonely. and if you add up the hours, it’s actually really really expensive.
Is programming cool?
Learn enough to be dangerous
Michael Hartl’s Ruby on Rails Tutorial actually takes great care to teach the student to work through problems and not just follow along.
“Knowing how to code is an important component of technical sophistication, but there’s more to it than that—you also have to know how to click around menu items to learn the capabilities of a particular application, how to clarify a confusing error message by googling it, or when to give up and just reboot the darn thing.”
He’s not your average teacher. He might even be overly educated! Ha! And this “learn enough… to be dangerous” idea is fun and clever - if you are Michael.
Move fast and break things
Mark Zuckerberg (who is no doubt being alerted to the existence of this post and is having an intern decide if they will buy and shutdown this publisher) - and “The social network”: FaceBook has been popularizing the phrase: “Move fast and break things.”
In one way - it has the same sentiment of “Ship early and often” - which is great for user-testing and getting feedback about your projects. In another way, they ARE BREAKING THINGS and in most cases - ruining our lives.
Well, learning enough to be dangerous - is actually dangerous
Something about these unique learning paths leads to insecurity. No one really knows what each other knows… and at any time - you could be found out! Someone might ‘steal all of your hard work’ by taking something that took you years to understand - and then pick it up in an hour! Someone could ask you a question that would expose your fragile understanding of a subject. You could feel humiliated. You could find out - that all your hard work - wasn’t actually “Magic.” You might have to face that this is a craft - and that you didn’t skip ahead in the class hierarchy.
This leads to a workplace where people hide from each other. They use the shield that ‘smart people’ are unique and need focus. They hide in their headphones and secretly look up the answers so no one will know that they aren’t all-powerful.
It’s very unfortunate and entirely unnecessary. We don’t want people to learn something in a wildly messy way - and then spend their career hiding in the shadows. I don’t think anyone wants to feel like that. I have friends who aren’t going to like to hear this. They know it’s true… but it’s been like that for so long - they don’t want to face it.
I can only guess that in some sort of retaliation against “jock culture” - that “the nerds” accidentally mirrored it.
The nerds don’t want to be better than the jocks in terms of morality; they just want enough dominance to stay on campus.
It’s a war of power, not equality.
(from the article “Revenge of the Nerds is now worse than ever” by Mark McPherson)
There’s a reason why we don’t tell doctors to just “Go for it!”
What if your doctor was “self-taught?” Would that be ‘cool’?
“Hey, Jerry… here’s a scalpel and The Internet. Good luck! If you can manage to learn to be a doctor, we’ll hire you.”
(a still from Little Shop of Horrors)
That would be horrific. It looks like we’re on our way to that.
What if the person who built the giant bridge your car drives over, or the giant building your apartment is in, or the railway - was just someone who ‘winged it’ and hoped nobody noticed? While the collapse of a building has serious visible and immediate effects - it’s nothing compared to the reach of The Web. What is happening now, might not be seen for 10 years / or just might never be “seen” at all - but it will have its effects.
It’s not just “some websites.”
These “web developers” that I’m talking about - aren’t just building a few websites that don’t matter.
We’re training an entirely new generation of people to build:
The software that keeps your money safe at the bank
The app that lets you access that money
The software for your taxes and payroll and HR
The software that drives our cars
The software that runs medical devices
The software that keeps your police records safe
Facial recognition software
The healthcare system
The government websites and unemployment portals
The credit card companies
The software that steals your data and follows you around marketing to you
and - well… EVERYTHING.
Everything you use in the future - will be created by the people we are educating now.
Do you think that is important?
Do you want everyone who is making all of the interfaces you’ll use for the rest of your life - trained in 12 weeks at a boot camp? Or might you prefer a more thorough and responsible education?
What do you think?
“Developers” are just the tip of this iceberg. This is meant to start a conversation that will continue over a few months. Please share your thoughts. They don’t have to be permanent.
You hit multiple great points in a single article. I don't know which one is the best. But I will start with this.
> a series of ‘habits’ and ‘feelings’ instead of clear mental and conceptual models for design or programming.
Well said, this is me after years of so called self-learning. Lot of maybe's and I think so's. Yes, I got the job and been in a better place but definitely not the most confident of the bunch. Having a bout of imposter syndrome every time I start a new job and tired to having to deal with a perpetual good to be here syndrome, which just drains me.
> This leads to a workplace where people hide from each other. They use the shield that ‘smart people’ are unique and need focus.
This is a really interesting thought, It never occurred to me. The more people we have who are insecure about their skill, the more closed and complicated the team communication will become.
I am on one of the first batch of the coursera Rice university python course (which of course change my life) where the instructor used to quote, "by the end of this course you know enough to be dangerous". I used to think of that in a good way. Yes, why not, I am going to learn enough to be dangerous and break things.
This will be good for short term, its easy to learn fast and break things. In a longer timeline, which you should always optimise for, learning enough to be dangerous is bad. What you want is strong basics and great mental models which will help you build things. Wish I had know this when I am staring out.
Web designers are the gatekeepers ;)