Just is a dirty word

‘[Facebook] are a site, along with others, that’s allowed people to create an on-line persona with very little technical skill’ – Jennifer Golbeck

Recently I watched an excellently interesting (and a little scary) TED Talk about how data gained from social media activity can be use to make assessments about a person, and whilst the talk was interesting in itself, the speaker (Jennifer Golbeck) said something early on that stuck in my mind and got me thinking about a word that gets thrown around a lot in my industry……’just’.

It has become a running joke within the company I work for that the word ‘just’ should be banned in any conversation about changes to a project. I’ve personally threatened to make a ‘just jar’ to collect money from anyone who slips. Everyone has a laugh about it, but in truth, it’s a much larger issue with the direction in which technology – or more specifically, web development – as a profession is going.

It’s not very often that I go a week without seeing an advert for a new on-line course which professes to allow people to ‘learn to code in just 5 hours!’ (there’s the word again), or read an article about a newly released piece of software allowing designers to create sites using drag-and-drop / WYSIWYG editors – no coding knowledge required! Whilst I’m very much behind teaching people the skills to embrace the inevitable onslaught of technology-based professions, I’m torn between empowering people to create something for themselves, and devaluing the career that I have chosen.

There has always been problems inherent with any industry which requires a particular set of specialist knowledge. To start with, there will always be people seeking to take advantage of people with less knowledge than them. I have worked for some of these people, and they have made a lot of money by preying on people who won’t know any better than what they are being told (and more importantly, what they are being told it is worth). I definitely think these barriers should be broken down and, ultimately, if you are selling some one a product the buyer should be able to understand what they are paying for to a reasonable enough degree to be able to assess it’s worth. However, I think that by making claims to be able to learn to code in less hours than I have fingers, we’ve gone too far the other way…and that’s where ‘just’ comes in.

A lot of my job is problem solving. I’m given a brief and sometimes some wire-frames (maybe even a design if I’m lucky!) and I have to work out the best way of translating that into something easy to use, interactive, accessible and (hopefully) bug-free. I have to go through each iteration of how a user might want to interact with a site, and attempt to code a solution which will account for any of these scenarios in a graceful and informative way.

Websites are no longer static pages, clients require content management systems and user account areas, and sites which look beautiful and informative and unique but work on all possible screen sizes and browsers. They need to load in specific amounts of time, and spam email users about all sorts of different things at different times. They need to interact with countless other on-line services, social networks and payment gateways….”but if we could just add a button which pulls in [insert social feed information here]…..and if you could just send all this information to this other service I use at this point…..and maybe just move this box over here….

Any one of these “just’s” could be days worth of work, reconsidering the impact moving that thing over there will have on all the other iterations of that page, or pouring through documentation from an API to figure out how to send that information through in a meaningful way, but the fact that we’re now advertising the fact that ‘learning to code is easy!’ means that some people just aren’t willing to give you the time – or more accurately the money – to do these things properly.

We are our own worst enemy, developing ourselves out of a job with a next big ‘no coding required’ solution to make a few quid flogging it in the short-term. We price ourselves down and quote shorter development times to be competitive and win business, and then are surprised when clients get annoyed their site is taking much longer than they were told or, if it meets the time-scales, doesn’t perform as expected in all possible use cases. We’re driving down our potential income and job satisfaction by providing people with a developer-free alternative, and unfortunately, it means that all these people ‘learning to code in just 5 hours’ are already training for a career which could potentially become extinct by those very means.

For the time-being, I’m not too concerned about my job security. I’m lucky enough to enjoy what I do, and there is still a market large enough for web development companies to thrive – something that cannot be said about a growing number of industries recently – and that may well be the case for a long time coming…but in the mean-time something needs to be done about that word, so if we could just………

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