Part 1 includes:
- A personal perspective on the Internet boom in the UK .
- A statement of the perceived problem.
1. A Personal Perspective
I was just 18 when the internet started to take off, and despite my college (High-School in the USA) having several well equipped computer labs for the time, there was only one modem in the entire building – and it was in the library. The internet was slow and wholly unimpressive.
By that point in my life I had already had commercial software released and I must admit, aside from a small passing interest my involvement with the Internet was small. Very small. At that point in my life I was coming to terms with the Commodore Amiga falling by the wayside and you would have been more likely to see me in the local pub on an evening rather than sitting at my obsolete machine. As a student, the last thing I could afford was a PC, and the Computer Labs – while open to me as a Computer Science student – didn’t allow you to do anything but MS-DOS based Turbo Pascal things or the use of M$ office. At this time I knew C inside out along with a good dose of MC68k assembler, and despite my protests they weren’t going to install VB, let alone C++ on their network.
Little changed at university, the extensive computer labs had intermittent and very slow internet access, I finally got to get my hands dirty with C++, although the OOP and design courses were dire. And web development at the institution was purely the province of Perl programmers. Java was a new thing and was only just beginning to pop it’s head over the parapet so it hadn’t yet made it into the course and M$ being M$, their software was no-where to be seen. This pretty much left developing for the internet a personal interest only pastime.
As such pretty much the first years of the internet hype revolution pretty much passed me by in a haze of a student social life mixed with subjects I already knew pretty much inside-out and trying hard to live on an excruciatingly low budget. Rent? Food? Or study materials?
I’m geek. I know it. I was programming computers when I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Ever since seeing that movie War Games that featured a computer called WOPR first reached the small screen, I wanted a computer. Thankfully my youthful prayers were answered in the form of a hand-me-down Commodore Vic 20. Remember those anyone? And later after earning the cash doing a paper-round, a Commodore Amiga 500.
In short I’m trying to say that I’m a computer enthusiast who is lucky enough to see work as a chance to flex the wings of my deep seated interest and hobby. I suppose in a way I am one of the lucky ones. I was exposed to computers at a very low level from the outset and as such I know how they tick.
Which is more than I can say for many of my industry peers around my age and younger. Those with similar exposure to me have in my opinion a distinct advantage.
2. A Statement of the Perceived Problem
Many of the developers in the UK in the first decade of their career (and some in their second) do not fully understand the technology they use. This is not to say that everyone is in this position because I have worked (and indeed work) with individuals who are very good at what they do, but alas I have found them to be in the minority.
They tend to be the ones that were like me, interested at an early age. Or maybe they were thrown in at the deep end with an exceptionally technical project and managed to swim instead of sink, or those who found themselves in an environment where knowledge exchange from more experienced and knowledgeable team members was actively encouraged. Unfortunately though, in the current UK political IT climate, many individuals are not fortunate enough to experience this.
Another nail in coffin is the cost to business. For an example in extremis, there are organisations out there (one I recently experienced) still NT4 entrenched and/or running creaky old legacy systems from the mid eighties, where forward thinking is actively discouraged and new technologies are seen with distinct and avid distrust. After all, if it works, why fix it? So there are many developers out there who haven’t had the opportunity to move on and out and those that finally pluck up the courage to move on are replaced with cheaper graduates, invariably creating a knowledge and experience deficit that can never seem to be resolved.
Being a contractor for most of my career has given me a somewhat detached perspective to this. Being interested as I am in the industry as a whole, being the sort of person who would rather learn a new innovation than play the latest and greatest computer game has allowed me to stay on top of the latest technologies. It has also given me the chance to see many organisations of different sizes and shapes basically all repeating the same mistakes. Undervaluing IT staff, and treating them as interchangeable assets, under funding area’s of business that the business relies on to do business and conversely allowing behemothic IT departments bully the rest of the business into what suites them and while this may sound wonderful, in practice these are the departments full of legacy equipment with a ‘path of least resistance’ philosophy.
Business is a big player in all of this. But then, so are the employees. It’s a sad and regrettable fact that too many people in the UK IT industry regard business funded training as the only way that they would consider learning something new. In a climate of actively promised industry training that hardly ever materialises this is a horrible perspective to maintain. Indeed several candidates I have interviewed in my career for roles have admitted when questioned that even though new technologies are readily available, they haven’t pursued them because their employers wouldn’t pay for it. In my book that’s an instant disqualification! But this attitude is rife! So many are simply happy with the status quo and they sit comfortable in their own world doing their utmost to maintain it.
Non more so than with the role of ‘Web Developer’.
I and many of the individuals I have worked with in recent years are the left over’s from the internet boom years (yes, I am one of them). We were employed in the high times or in the aftermath that still pervades straight out of university to create websites using ASP, PHP and scripting technologies of their ilk. Knowledge of OOP wasn’t a requirement (most employers didn’t even know what it was!) nor about the underlying technologies in any great detail.
My very first role in the industry was as an ‘ASP Developer’, and all my employer needed to know was that I had a vague knowledge of the 4 SQL statements, a basic understanding of VBScript and I could write some HTML. The combination of these technologies even then was a massive step down for me, but I needed to eat so I took the role. This decision was more out of desperation than I would have liked as there were few other IT roles at the time. So there I was spending my first year essentially being a drag and drop monkey programmer as my employer churned out one website after another and charging extortionate amounts. I got to tinker with VB COM objects occasionally where a little extra performance was required, however this was very rare.
When the dotcom bubble burst, so did my employer. My co-workers and I would turn up to work each day as requested and some weeks there was nothing to do. Slowly the staff slunk away either because there was no more work or they got made redundant. Eventually even one of the directors found another job. In the end it was just the MD and me – until the MD sold the remains of the company. Of the entire company only I was employed by the new owners, but only for a limited time. I hope as a small testament to my ability, although in reality being the newest junior programmer it was probably because I was the cheapest.
My story and the story of so many others, is not unique. Many have not moved on from the collapse. So many companies even now still only use ASP and PHP, though this is becoming less of an issue to some extent as Microsoft based companies are moving out into .NET and some of the others are choosing to head the way of Java. Microsoft being aware of this is seemingly attempting to further dumb-down ASP.NET under the guise of productivity in an attempt to make the transition easier, much to the chagrin of many a more skilled developer. The simple truth is that moving from the ASP/VB procedural "object aware" cludge paradigm to the ASP.NET OOP/Event driven paradigm is not an easy transition once you move below the superficial facade on the face of ASP.NET. I've been bought in almost too many times to count on projects going into the toilet because the development team did not understand what it was getting itself into and because the business didn't understand the true cost of the transition.
I am one of the lucky ones. I understood OOD and associated patterns early, even though I must admit the exact names of some of the more abstract GoF designs and those derived from them eluded me (come to think of it one or two of them still do until I need it...). I had had the opportunity in the earlier days of my life to play around with opcodes (MC68k assembler), Just In Time technologies and other abstract things such as event driven models (the Amiga had one great big event driven OS that multitasked better than XP does now!). Very, very few people have had that chance.
The problem is this, and it comes in several parts:
- Lack of individual opportunity and motivation to improve
- Lack of knowledge on the part of the developers and their employers
- Lack of a willingness to really invest in the future
And in the UK specifically, one driving thing:
- A saturated IT job market where loyalty is virtually non-existent and the employers just don't care.
[Here ends part 1]