The New Amateurs

Andy Clarke started it, Molly Holzschlag added her powerful voice, and Roger Johansson and Holly Marie Koltz jotted down some interesting notes. It's time for New Professionalism in the website industry.

Basically the idea is that any web developer who refuses to learn CSS and modern, unobtrusive JavaScript, either from ignorance or from a refusal to break old habits, is no longer worthy of the name "professional".

I completely agree; in fact I have been worrying about this problem for quite a while, and no doubt others have, too. Such movements aren't created out of nothing, they are ideas waiting to find a voice, and I'm glad that it happened. We have to reach the New Amateurs and transform them into New Professionals. But how?

Although CSS is not the only component of the New Professionalism, it's the one that offers the clearest break with the past and the one that's best suited to explain the new way of creating websites to newbies. Therefore I wouldn't be surprised if CSS, once again, will be the crowbar that opens up dusty areas peopled by old-fashioned developers who haven't learned anything since the late nineties to the shining light of standards-aware, accessible, professional web development.

New Amateurs don't read our sites

The main problem is not one of explanations, since, as Holly rightly points out, there are many books and sites aimed at beginning CSS developers. Anyone who wants to learn badly enough can do so without spending years on it. The days of the CSS pioneers who slowly and painfully worked out the basic rules of the new game are over; future generations can stand on their shoulders and start out by using CSS right.

All fine and dandy, but there's still a huge problem.

Anyone who reads Andy's, Molly's, Roger's, or my own site, and who follows WaSP with interest, is already convinced that CSS is the way to go. Conversely, developers who don't know CSS from roasted peanuts are not aware of these sites, because they haven't found out there is anything to be aware of.

And it's these "New Amateurs" that we have to reach. How?

Internet Hype 2.0

Holly points to the importance of education. Although I agree that it's a necessary component, I don't think it's enough, certainly not now that Internet Hype 2.0 is brewing and web developers can't serve all their clients even if they'd clone themselves ten times over. There simply aren't enough professionals to do all the work, so amateurs will once again creep in and infest the web with tag soup and bad sites.

Suppose that in a year or so company X, a participant in the new hype and currently brewing tag soup, becomes aware of CSS and sees its advantages. Its web developers don't have sufficient CSS knowledge, so it decides to hire new developers. Note that at this point company X is already going out of its way to make a clear break with the past and to do things right.

Unfortunately it doesn't find any professionals, because they've already been scooped up by other website companies. The most likely scenario is that management will decide to forget about CSS and continue working old-style. I cannot blame them; company X needs to make money and to do that it needs developers, professional or otherwise.

With a full-fledged hype going on professionalism will take a back seat to sheer availability. The New Amateurs' skills, old-fashioned as they are, are going to be much in demand, not because they're the best web developers, but because they're the best available web developers. Besides, they have experience in working in the industry, always an important selling point, especially during a hype.

Therefore I feel that the education of the New Amateurs already working in the industry is a vital part of the New Professionalism movement. Unfortunately, before educating them we have to reach them and explain that they have a problem. It's here that things turn tricky, because the web standards movement simply doesn't reach these people.

Reaching out

The main question for anyone supporting New Professionalism should therefore be: How do we reach web developers already working in the industry but blissfully unaware of modern web development? The current structure of the standards-aware web development world is not suited to reach them, because you already have to be interested in standards to find the right sites and books.

Although our standards-aware ecosystem has played an enormously important role in defining good practices, solving technical problems, and shaping a new theory of web development, it isn't designed to handle this new challenge. It doesn't reach the target audience.

I feel that it's time to leave our comfortable cradle of like-minded sites. I feel that we should go out into the world, brave the New Amateurs in their lairs and start a new wave of evangelization.

But how do we reach them? Where are their lairs? Which arguments would sway them? Could we arrange for economic pressure, for instance by lobbying for all government sites to require the use of CSS? How? Should we use psychological pressure by making tag soup sites the target of ridicule? Or would that be counter-productive? Should we try to convince their managers? How?

I just don't know. Does anyone have hands-on experience with evangelizing the New Amateurs? If so, please share your tips and tricks.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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1 Posted by John Hansen on 17 November 2005 | Permalink

Nice post, ppk. I wonder if there are any job search websites in the vein of monster.com, specializing in matching web programmer professionals with the company X who wants to do things the right way.

If not, there seems to be a growing market for this type of undertaking, and it would definitely provide a transition from the "comfortable cradle of like-minded sites" as you posted.

2 Posted by Jules on 17 November 2005 | Permalink

How do you change anything? From the root, in this case, the schools of Web design. We must teach the teachers and the administration that Web standards are the way to create Web pages/sites.

However, clients must also be trained too and this might be a more difficult challenge: it is easier to train students by forcing them, through grading, to learn the better methods than to train clients. Clients, however, may respond to financial pressure and if they can be shown hard numbers that it is cheaper to code to Web standards, then they too may bow to pressure.

A comment has been made about marketing Web design services: a client may not really care how you do it but the results. Therefore, a Web design outfit should market their services on the basis of the results of what Web standards can produce: faster loading pages, reduced bandwidth costs, higher search engine ranking and these are the types of results that clients would listen to.

When schools teach Web standards and clients request the types of results that Web standards, then the Web will become a better place.

3 Posted by grumpY! on 17 November 2005 | Permalink

look at the most popular game-changing sites you use (slashdot, craigslist etc)...design plays a limited to nonexistant role in their success. the design junkies need to get over themselves.

4 Posted by holly on 17 November 2005 | Permalink

Yes, to reach everyone has always been a big issue. Though we cannot give up trying.

Ideas?

[A] Google. [Include all other popular search tools here.]
Well-known, on the TV, Radio, just about anyone searching the web, knows Google.

Years ago on a google dev forum, a few of us *old* professionals advocated/promoted standards, CSS, and accessibility. We asked Google.

1. Use Standards. Set a good example, and let it be known. Generated a big discussion, speed vs standards. Google devs feeling standards would add too much weight to their pages.

We also asked.
2. Promote standards by giving it a noticeable link on their search pages.

3. Google could give standards supporting sites higher ranking? People are always interested on how to beat the SEO game.

[B]Authoring Software. Front Page, Dreamweaver, and other web authoring tools. They need to put standards and accessibility items and tools at top level, instead of buried in the drop downs or GUIs. There has been much improvement in software, though more could be done.

[C] News. Outside media. Tech sections of newspapers, television news, radio shows on technology, tech tv channels, etc.

Educational, The WaSP EduTF -- working on some creative and helpful options for edu, and are always open to ideas. http://www.webstandards.org/act/campaign/edutf/

5 Posted by chris eidhof on 17 November 2005 | Permalink

There are a lot of people who just want quick results. If you're used to layout a website using tables, it's easy to keep doing that. Also, it just works.

For lots of people, that is the most important part. It just works.

Most people and companies won't switch unless they have financial advantages. But it takes time to master the things that we consider as normal. It thus takes money to master it.

And when you're at the point that you've fully mastered the standards as prescribed by the W3C, you must do all kinds of hacks to make your site work in Internet Explorer. Also, you've lost your . People just want to make websites that immediately work, and you can't blame them.

What I tend to use when convincing people that they should build their new site using structural markup and CSS is that it really matters for search engines. They don't care that it's easier for me to maintain the site, they do care about more traffic. And it does really work.

Also, more and more sites are using structural markup and css, it's not as bad as you present id. Give them some time :).

6 Posted by Kamil on 17 November 2005 | Permalink

They are all keep talking "we know it is good, but it is not worth a price, client will not pay for this"... How to convince them?

7 Posted by Scott on 18 November 2005 | Permalink

Granted, fixing the education system doesn't educate the existing bad developers, but it at least slows down their population growth. After the education system is fixed and most new developers are good developers, then there will be less bad developers out there. Also, if some of the new good developers end up working for the old bad developers, that gives us somebody on the inside to help initiate change.

8 Posted by Edwart Visser on 18 November 2005 | Permalink

The same thing took place when Flash started to become mainstream. A lot of amateurs started to pick up the jobs that the "professionals" could not do because of too much work.

A good way to reach those amateurs was to be in the forums they where in and answer their questions over and over again. We have a long way to go... but is has to be done.

9 Posted by Iain on 18 November 2005 | Permalink

I forget where I read it now, but someone scored near the mark by saying a lot has to do with the self-teaching books that are available to buy. When I decided to teach myself HTML, by sheer luck born of ignorance I picked up Elizabeth Castro's excellent book on XHTML and CSS. Right from the off I was firmly entrenched in the idea of using separate code to style my pages and clean, semantic markup. I realise what a lucky escape it was when I wander into bookstores now and browse the other titles that advocate tables for layout and presentational tags.
The horror... the horror...

10 Posted by John on 18 November 2005 | Permalink

Sloppy code is bad, I'll give you that. No one likes it, least of all me. We should shoot all the developers who create it and burn all the HTML editors that generate it. Now, with that is out of the way, lets move on to the meat of my post.

I have seen many good sites created with tables. I have also seen many simple problems made difficult with CSS, even on respectable sites frequented by the 'Professionals'. Take sliding doors (http://www.alistapart.com/articles/slidingdoors/) for example. A creative solution, no doubt about it, but it takes pages to explain something that anyone can simply do with tables. How about tableless forms, from this very site http://www.quirksmode.org/css/forms.html? I found the article edifying but will I use it for my forms… probably not.

So, my first question to the professionals is… Is something better just because it is CSS?
I don't subscribe to this idea but that seems to be the attitude of the web design elite. Here is your chance to convert one of the amateurs.

11 Posted by Johan Olsson on 18 November 2005 | Permalink

In response to John's entries above:

No, a webpage doesn't become better just because you use CSS. But it probably will. Remeber that CSS is not just about positioned divs; it's also about being able to control fontsize, colours and such from a centralized location (external CSS file). This can cut development/maintenance time dramatically.

Furthermore, I can't say I feel that table-designs are easier to maintain than CSS-designs. A clean HTML file with logical id and class names, together with a well-structured CSS file, makes a lot more sens to me than "table, tr, td, table, tr, td, font, table..." etc. But i guess that is a lot about habit.

And last but not least: A lot of CSS solutions are complex not because of CSS itself, but because lack of browser support. The day that Internet Explorer understands "position:fixed", you'll see what i mean.

12 Posted by Krijn Hoetmer on 18 November 2005 | Permalink

"Just doing it will get you further than talking and talking and talking to people who're just not interested."

There will always be amateurs who call themselves professionals, professionals who call themselves beginners, beginners who are called ignorant, ignorant professionals who are hired by the uninterested management, management which doesn't give a damn about how the job's done, jobs requiring experienced people, experienced people who are called amateurs now and quit school years ago, schools which teach deprecated techniques (because those are used today) and 'hobbyists' who like to read blogs (as in eager to learn new stuff) in their spare time and are called professionals by some. Now who are the amateurs and who create them? I don't know, nor care. Let's just do what feels right and not care about the ever changing label we have to stick on people.

Indeed, a quiet revolution is boring :)

13 Posted by Roger Johansson on 18 November 2005 | Permalink

"If you're used to layout a website using tables, it's easy to keep doing that. Also, it just works."

Thing is, it doesn't "just work". Not if you're using anything but a graphical browser on a desktop computer to visit the site. Try using a table-based layout with a screen reader or in a mobile phone. Sure, you can probably get to the info, but it's a lot more awkward than with CSS-based layouts. CSS layouts degrade well, table layouts do not.

"Take sliding doors (http://www.alistapart.com/articles/slidingdoors/) for example. A creative solution, no doubt about it, but it takes pages to explain something that anyone can simply do with tables."

Just how would you create something like the sliding doors technique without CSS? Remember that sliding doors tabs scale with font size and can be made to wrap if all tabs don't fit on the same row.

"A lot of CSS solutions are complex not because of CSS itself, but because lack of browser support."

This is something I've had to repeat over and over. Table junkies are generally very quick to blame CSS instead of Microsoft.

14 Posted by John Hansen on 18 November 2005 | Permalink

The way to solve the problem isn't education, for many reasons.

1. The web dev job market will ALWAYS be flooded with those who haven't even gone to college, or participated in a secondary school program. They will have no interest in paying for a class when what they do "works" in their eyes.

2. The shortage of standards-based web developers is imaginary. We just don't really have a voice in the job market yet.

3. It's putting the cart before the horse. People view education as a means to land a job. Capitalism and the job market determine education, not the other way around.

If we really believe what we preach, that standards are better, faster, more efficient, and easier to use than tag soup, let's put it to the test. My prediction: There is or will be a demand for a job search site which matches good-intentioned Company X with a slew of standards-educated developers. If standards are as useful as we believe, every Company X will have a better chance of excelling because of lower development costs all around. Larger, older companies will take notice or take a hit. And THEN, education will come around because of the new demand.

15 Posted by Jo on 18 November 2005 | Permalink

Anyone can publish a website due to the nature of the Internet. There is simply no law that says your website must be compliant to any webstandard or coding ethics before you publish and go online. There are lots of methods to create a website which results in different sorts of websites. It is like life - a undefined order in a steady chaos. Valid, unvalid, ugly, beautiful websites ... it always will be there.

16 Posted by Jeroen Coumans on 18 November 2005 | Permalink

An important part of my job is to clean up tagsoup from Open Source CMS. This leads me to believe that many, "New Amateurs", are not dedicated "web developers" (HTML, CSS & Javascript) like we are, but actually software engineers (the Apache/MySQL/PHP/Perl/Python people) who have to write the serverside applications. Most of the time, the clientside code is an afterthought, hacked together until it works in IE. Heck, even one of our software engineers writes bad code, because, as he puts it, he has me to clean it up! These are an important lump of the people we have to target. (That, and teach them to use proper separation of display logic and application logic, so a dedicated client-side developer can do a proper job.)

17 Posted by Zanbowser on 18 November 2005 | Permalink

I work for a growing corporate entity who is beginning to focus heavily on .NET and webservices as the "end-all, be-all" solution. It's something with which I'm comfortable as an application developer; however, it goes against the grain of my standards-based philosophy as a web developer. Fortunately, there are the few out there who put their knowledge to the fore and enable fellows like me - those without the time to themselves to come up with the solutions - to create feasible go-forward plans which make standards important to the higher-ups.

I think that we'll always be in flux on this particular issue since there is a significant gulf between "amateur" and "professional" in our business; even the larger business world as a whole can be blamed for this. It's truly a matter of a dearth of "professionals" in the workplace, and the positions - needing a body to fill them - going to less-talented and less-motivated individuals. I have no formal schooling in any of this stuff, but I worked my way up by doing it (at least mostly ^_~) right. The more folk who are encouraged to do the same; the more "professionals" I think we'll find in our midsts.

18 Posted by Sean Fraser on 19 November 2005 | Permalink

I've found that "New Amateurs" don't need evangelizing. It's the Art Director not wanting to know anything about CSS; or, the Marketing Director not wanting the CMS broken or made complicated; or, the Editorial Department not wanting their templates touched. Or, site stakeholders that "just don't understand these things". They'll agree to hybrid HTML/CSS site pages "after" ROI has been bullet-pointed and search optimization benefits are shown.

New Amatuers need encouragement; management needs flying mallets.

19 Posted by Sara on 19 November 2005 | Permalink

I'm a new amateur. I learned all my coding from web tutorials and I am the coding expert at work! The problem is that there are so many tutorial sites, many with info from 1995. An amateur like me doesn't have time to sift through it all to find the best practices. Evangelization should start with W3C -- change the homepage to be amateur-friendly. Next come those tutorial sites -- volunteer to help them update their old info. Of course, it would help if we could agree on what best practices would be!

20 Posted by Ryan Cannon on 20 November 2005 | Permalink

"'If you're used to layout a website using tables, it's easy to keep doing that. Also, it just works.'

Thing is, it doesn't 'just work'. Not if you're using anything but a graphical browser on a desktop computer to visit the site. Try using a table-based layout with a screen reader or in a mobile phone. "

The problem, Roger, is that the average client could care less about any type of rendering except the one he can see on his screen, and will not listen much to arguments about accessibility. He just wants it done--fast and cheap.

In order for "New Professionalism" to catch on, the paradigm of web design has to change. Hand-coded pages are best, but are inefficient and have a steep learning curve. Mass produced dev tools bloat code and do bad things by default--which few people will change so long as it works. We don't paint pixel-by-pixel any more, and we don't tape film together to composite. In order for the semantic web to take off, new design tools have to be developed that are built for New Professional design. Until then it's an uphill battle.

21 Posted by Nick Nadboralski on 20 November 2005 | Permalink

I understand the point and message that you're trying to convey. However, I feel alienating new web developers for using techniques that pervade the web in it's current form is not a worthwhile endeavor.

That being said, what you say is true, a real professional web developer will be one that constantly seeks to push the envelope of their knowledge. The problem I'm having is this is almost like begging to put another rift in web design, which, with all the different schools of thought and design already, just doesn't seem like a great idea.

22 Posted by Johan Olsson on 20 November 2005 | Permalink

A web designer is not that different from, say, a professional carpenter. It's not hard to make sloppy jobs and get away with it, and in the end someone will have to face the consecuenses. I dont't mind alienating those who doesn't take their job seriusly, even though they know they should.

23 Posted by Dennis Suitters on 21 November 2005 | Permalink

Being around the web design traps for quite some time now, I find it annoying and foolish, that, trained (yes trained) designer's can spend in Australia from 15k and upwards for certification, only to be taught how to design in Front Page, Dreamweaver, and know absolutely nothing about html/CSS acronyms, and especially not w3c, and standards compliancy. I myself, have never done any web deisgn courses, and have self taught. Not to put myself on a pedestal, but I have had professional designer's and lecturer's peruse my site's and believe I have had training. When I ask them if they follow and standards, they ask what w3c is. This lack of knowledge from people that are supposed to be our peers, dishearten's me, and scares me too think what they are teaching people. Anyway that's my rant....

24 Posted by Mat Findlay on 21 November 2005 | Permalink

I think the first step toward reaching people who need to be educated about standards compliant design is to drop the elitist atitude that is prevalant in the web development community. Even the very idea of redefining the title of ones competence within the field that they've chosen is confrontational, and when people are confronted with what is essentially name calling, they immediately close their minds and are likely to drop to the same level.

In order to reach people, it is important to ensure that they will be open to suggestions that will convince them that standards compliance is the way to go. Instead of dividing the arena into two sides, us and them, New-Professionals and New-Amateurs, keep it as one group - us, Web Developers... and as one group, it can be our responsibility to bring the stragglers up to speed with modern technique, as opposed to casting them out for not adhering to precious standards that they might not even be aware of.

In the end, it doesn't matter how "right" or "wrong" the movement you support is if you present it in a manner that causes your target audience to ignore you.

25 Posted by Jonny Schneider on 22 November 2005 | Permalink

I too have recently entered the web development arena (somewhat unwillingly), label me a new amateur if you will.

Those with a conscience (and a little brains) will always try and build things that are flexible and accessible. As others have, I've found it difficult, and its not CSS's fault, but lack of browser standards and the attitudes of the management folk upstairs.

Typically I'm happy to settle on a bit of a hybrid. I'll use 1 simple table for main structure (because it seems like the only fast solution with PREDICTABLE results across browsers) combined with CSS and javascript to look after styles and interactivity.The result is a (somewhat) flexible site, that is fast to develop.

Me (and thousands of others i'm sure) will jump straight on the table-less layout bandwagon just as soon as IE comes up to speed and things dont take forever to 'fix' for cross browser support.

The only time i think its feasible to do otherwise would be when accessibility is of high importance AND the client is willing to pay for such accessibility. Otherwise, we have stressed out Newcomers freaking out at night, not sleeping, trying to learn dev methods that are seldom appreciated. Wish it was otherwise, but that is reality...

26 Posted by Carps on 22 November 2005 | Permalink

Turning code into cash. That's what your company does. If work is priced correctly, and the brief is clear enough then yes, all our work should be standards friendly. But not all work is priced correctly, and not all briefs are clear. Not all customers even care about their website but its a box they've got to check and so long as it "looks like their brochure" - they're happy.

So - sometimes you're faced with a choice of making a loss on a job, or waving a banner that few people care about. I've done sites that make me cringe when I think of the crappy non-semantic markup, nested tables and spacer gifs that I've been responsible for.

But: these sites sometimes work. They made money for us, and they made money for the customers. Some of them take in thousands of pounds in sales even though I know they don't work in IE5, Safari or whatever. And you know damn well that a guy with a screenreader will *never* buy anything there.

But you know what? Somewhere out there, there's an alternative site that does validate, is accessible and uses good code, unobtrusive javascript etc. That's competition. If that site is truly better, then it will prevail.

Bottom line: it's the bottom line.

27 Posted by Small Paul on 22 November 2005 | Permalink

I reckon you gotta put your money where your mouth is. Hire the un-clued folks, then teach them on the job.

28 Posted by ppk on 22 November 2005 | Permalink

Entry closed. Please continue the discussion in my new entry "The New Amateurs - part 2".