The End column, the Australian Industry Standard
Issue 2, 5 June 2000
by Neale Morison
Web site: Noun, singular, a location on the World Wide Web consisting of a collection of documents and software behaviours intended to create a misleading impression of commercial activity in order to attract mug punters in droves to build instant fortunes for unscrupulous dotcom billionaires.
We all know what a web site is, but too often we forget that someone has to build these things. It's like those plastic toys you get at fast food outlets. They don't just pop into existence by themselves. Someone has to come up with the creative, they have to be tooled up and manufactured. There are people out there with a profound spatial intuition that enables them to foresee a little group of objects that snaps together to make an amusing shape accurately enough so that they hold together for a few minutes until they disappear down the back of the couch or the dog eats them and has to be taken to the vet. Just because the little plastic things happen to be, at then end of the day, a bad idea, doesn't mean that you don't need clever, creative people to make them. Who are these people? What alien motivations carry them through their strange, twilight existence? When did their lives start going wrong?
About the people responsible for the plastic toys little is known. But let me tell you about Web developers. But first let me tell you about Web sites. Web sites are cobbled up. They are chewing gum, string, a wing and a prayer and the smell of an oily rag. They may look like just another bit of software running on your computer, but they're not. For one thing, they're not just running on your computer. They're the result of the collaboration of software running on your computer and thousands of others scattered across the globe. They're communicating through a variety of protocols, and there's no guarantee what particular software application or operating system will be running on any of those computers. The standards to which the software is built has been more or less agreed but the applications all do it a little differently. Because companies such as Microsoft, Netscape and Sun among others occasionally run into differences of opinion, the browsers, laughingly referred to as universal client applications, can be guaranteed to do only one thing - not behave like the versions you test.
You can't build a Web site of any complexity using a single programming language, or a single platform, or a single development product. Nothing covers the ground.
How do you train developers in this area? You don't, they train themselves on the job. It's one of the hidden costs of Web development. Allow two hours on the job training for every one hour of productive development; and while you're there, triple the development budget and add six months.
The weird thing is that there are people who can do this, but they happen by accident, like uncultured pearls. You can't set out to make a Web developer. You have to start trying to make a school teacher, or a violinist, or a PC technician, and then they have to get bitten by a radioactive spider.
There's a severe shortage of skills, and it's going to hit harder as more businesses realise they need complex Web sites that actually do something by yesterday. There is no hope that the government will step in and create schools for Web developers. They're not even creating schools for humans. This is something that has to be addressed by the private sector, and the solution is simple. Do for the Australian Web what the Whitlam government did for the arts. For the future of the country, for our children's children, throw money at it, wastefully, wantonly, and foolishly, and out of the chaos will emerge some decent Web developers. There's no other way. Creating a misleading impression of commercial activity has never been harder, especially now that this crazy idea has emerged about revenue exceeding expenditure.