Guild, part 2 - not a grassroots movement

To anyone following my Guild adventures it will not come as a huge surprise that I hope to be elected chairman at our meeting on the 18th of September. Last week, another candidate for chairmanship, Lon Boonen of Q42, entered the fray.

When I read through his ideas, I came across a few points that I absolutely disagree with. Furthermore I believe that the difference between Lon's and my ideas nicely summarises a fundamental decision the web standards movement has to take in the next year or so. I wrote this entry because this is something all standardistas should think about.

Basically, Lon wants to create yet another online community and pressure group—a grassroot movement, in other words. I, on the other hand, want to create a quite different type of organisation.

I believe that grassroot movements (of which the WaSP is the most important and well-known example, but far from the only one) cannot take web standards much further than they have done until now, because they don't reach the large website creation companies, which are crucial to the long-term success of the standards movement.

(Unfortunately for my non-Dutch readers, all relevant documentation is in Dutch. Mijn pagina over de verschillen en over mijn mening; Lons pagina over zijn ideeën.)

Searching for a new form

When I started to plan the Guild back in March, I did a lot of thinking on the ideal mix of members. I summarised my ideas in my article Evangelizing Outside the Box: Web Standards and Large Companies on A List Apart.

This article studies the difference between large website creation companies on the one hand and small companies, freelancers, and university employees on the other.

Ever since 1998, supporters for the web standards movement have overwhelmingly been drawn from the second group, because members of this group can make a Name for themselves by writing web standards articles and books, and speaking at conferences. They need both web standards and the web standards movement.

Large company employees have less of an incentive to follow that path, because they don't have to make a Name for themselves. They need web standards, but not the web standards movement.

The web standards movement, however, needs the large company employees. Through them, and their management, we can reach the countless web developers who don't work with the standards, or who have never heard of them.

Reaching large companies

Therefore I wanted large companies to become interested in my initiative, and in order to do so I organised it along different lines than traditional web standards pressure groups.

For instance, my plans require membership dues (probably around € 150 a year), want to create a more-or-less formal certification for front-end programmers, work with offline, physical meetings a lot (in fact, visiting such a meeting is the only way to become a member until after 18 September), and the organisation I want is far more formal than any web standards pressure group's.

All this is aimed squarely at large companies and their employees, who have little interest in online, community-like pressure groups, as has been proven abundantly in the past nine years.

Current membership

But will the Guild be the exclusive domain of large companies? I always hoped that there would be plenty of interest among small companies and freelancers, too, and fortunately that turns out to be the case.

To give you an idea, here's the make-up of the current 87 Guild members (i.e. persons who attended a Guild meeting and filled out a form):

This is a healthy mix of backgrounds. Large company employees (barely) form the largest group, but they don't have the majority.

Traditional web standards pressure group

Let's now turn to a few of Lon's plans and see how they differ from mine:

In short, Lon's plans amount to nothing more than yet another web standards pressure group, using tools that have been used dozens, if not hundreds, of times before.

Now I'm not saying that these groups do not have a place. Anyone who's followed the WaSP's astounding string of successes, or the CSS Zen Garden's profound impact on web development, will know that pressure groups are quite important in getting the message out.

The old, established pressure groups have convinced individual web developers, small businesses, individual employees of institutions such as universities, as well as a few key players such as the MSIE team and Yahoo! of the need to use the standards. That's an achievement not to be despised.

Nonetheless, I'm wondering if such organisations will bring us much further than we are today. One group is still missing in the list above: large website creation companies. That's because the form of the web standards movement doesn't appeal to them or their employees.

It's interesting to note that the search for a new form has already started. The idea of offline meetings, instead of online ones with their attending flocks of semi-professional shout-boys, is gaining a hold in the web standards community as a whole.

Initiatives like BarCamp, Refresh (no central link) and GeekMeet show that plenty of people are already convinced that offline meetings can offer something that online communities can't.

So standardistas are already looking for new forms. My plans for the Guild offers one more example of such a new form; one that concentrates on reaching the large companies.

A new form

I'm not saying that the Guild form (membership dues, certification, offline meetings, formal organisation) is the only way of reaching large companies. However, now that I've experimented with it for a few months I can say that it is extremely effective.

Frankly, I hadn't expected the success the Guild is having with the management of large companies. Sure, I expected individual developers to become enthousiastic. However, I assumed that, after convincing employees, we'd go into a long and occasionally frustrating period of trying to gain the management's ear. My most optimistic plans called for the first signs of management support at the end of this year.

Nothing, I'm glad to say, could be further from the truth. Within a few weeks, the PIBN, an organisation that unites about 40 or so of the largest web companies in Holland, offered the Guild sponsorship for its founding conference.

After that, I've been regularly phoned by managers of other web companies who offered their support for the Guild, either in money or in kind (Eden Design, a large design and web development company, is busy creating our logo and graphic design for free).

Finding hosts for our meeting turns out to be no problem either. Far faster than I expected, web companies started offering us hospitality and threw in a bit of catering and a beamer—out of their own pockets.

I'm still a bit stunned by these sure signs of interest. It seems the Guild has succeeded in reaching the large companies while not alienating the traditional support groups of the web standards movement. Better still, it has achieved all that in the first few months of its existence; an existance that hasn't even been formalised yet.

If we'd follow Lon's plans for a traditional online community, we'd throw away all these achievements and return to the old state of affairs that does not appeal to large companies. Even worse, chances are that this online community would follow the lead of most of its predecessors and lose its impetus within a few months. If that happens, we'd be left with nothing.

That's why I'm opposed to Lon's plans. They don't constitute anything new; they're just a re-hashing of old forms and thoughts that have reached (or maybe even passed) their peak.

Conclusion

Concluding, I feel that it's time for standardistas to leave their comfortable cradle of online communities, like-minded blogs, and other old forms. These forms have served us well—in fact they've had a much greater success than anyone could have hoped for back in 1998. Nonetheless, in the future they will serve us less well because their audience increasingly consists of developers who have already embraced the standards.

I feel that we need a new form of web standard evangelism, and I feel the Guild can become the template for such a form. That's not to say it's the only possibility, but it's definitely one that works.

We're on the brink of entering a new phase in the web standards movement.

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 Mark Wubben on 3 September 2007 | Permalink

I do like offline meetings, simply because I like meeting people. That's also why Barcamps etc are popular. However, in terms of meaningful discussion, online discussion works better because more people will be able to attend, better arguments can be constructed and soft-spoken people won't get drowned in the noise. Yes, there will always be people who do not share the same goals as other participants of such a discussion, but I believe ruling them out through offline discussion is too costly.

For example, I *did* attend last months meeting in Rotterdam, but only because I was working in the Hague during the summer. Now that I'm back in Enschede, I won't be able to attend meetings.

Coincidentally I view this as a problem with the way the guild has been set up. Very little room for discussion, and the meetings are not the place for well-thought out arguments. As a professional (and student, for what it's worth), it worries me that an organization is being set up that wants to tell me how to be a professional, without good public debates on the matter.

2 Posted by Mark Wubben on 3 September 2007 | Permalink

And, to continue (the word limit got in the way), as I alluded to in an earlier post on my own weblog [1] there are very good reasons for big companies to join the guild. Primarily the certification and its effects. One has to wonder though whether all the trouble certification and formalities give is worth it. I don't think so, and neither does Lon.

[1]: http://novemberborn.net/web/guilds-and-certifications

3 Posted by Lon on 3 September 2007 | Permalink

Hi Peter-Paul,

and once more you are misrepresenting my views.

It's sad that you have declined all invitations to discuss this. Your only way of discussion seems to be one-sided communication using the official site (that you control), the mailing list (that you can post to exclusively), your blog and heavily censored comment system or doing offline meetings that you present and whose proceedings you write and publish. One can wonder how objective those are.
Again: very one-sided.

It's time to come out of the closet Peter-Paul! What are you hiding? What is your agenda? I really don't know.

I want to invite everyone to the Google group where all of this is discussed without censorship: http://groups.google.com/group/frontendersgilde. (at the moment dutch only, but feel free to comment in english)

4 Posted by Robbert Broersma on 3 September 2007 | Permalink

ppk, you defined semi-professionals as 'people who either don`t have a professional attitude, or don`t follow the web standards'.

Having said that: either you think most webdevelopers of the larger companies you target are part of the semi-professionals you'd like to get rid of because they don`t use web standards [1], or you think the quality of use of web standards is up to par at these companies.

Both would mean that there is no target audience for your Guild, which renders the need for a Guild unnecessary.

[1] http://www.quirksmode.org/blog/archives/2007/08/getting_rid_of.html

5 Posted by Matthew Pennell on 3 September 2007 | Permalink

Central link for Refresh: http://www.refreshingcities.org/

6 Posted by Riddle on 3 September 2007 | Permalink

I just want to say that because of what I've seen and read, Netherlands seems like a fantastic country with many passionate people.

Keep up the good work :)

7 Posted by David Hopkins on 3 September 2007 | Permalink

This is a very interesting discussion. Let me bring some thoughts to the table from the UK...

As a designer/developer based in the UK, one of the biggest things I have going for me is that the UK is a cesspit of web development knowledge and ability. Most UK web developers are still making sites like it was 1997. Although I feel I still have a lot to learn in my some of my favourite technologies and am constantly aiming to improve my core programming methodology, the total lack of web development know-how among my fellow Brits (both freelancers and companies) is what keeps me going. My ability to get work is solely based on clients being able to spot that my work is better than the load of tabled shat that everyone else is pouring out, not because I am some loud-mouth sales person or a web 0.1 psychobabble sales pitch about META keywords and extinct search engines. Yes, that is a good summary of most UK designer’s pitch.

...

8 Posted by David Hopkins on 3 September 2007 | Permalink

As with all web standards advocates, I have chosen to choose high standards in the quality of my work and always have open ears to how I can improve because I enjoy what I do. Whereas these large web development companies just churn out endless number of web sites – in many cases for companies that don’t need them. When was the last time a large web company released anything worthwhile? Mootools, Scriptalicios, RoR, Lightbox and so on were all innovations of the little guys. By telling the large and sloppy development companies how us little guys have managed to survive in a saturated and difficult industry I feel you could be putting the brilliant work that freelancers and small companies are doing around the world at risk.

Web standards and Web 2.0 has more or less been driven by the little guys and girls. Do we want Web 3.0 and emerging standards to be hi-jacked and squeesed for financial gain?

9 Posted by Alper Çugun on 4 September 2007 | Permalink

Where do freelance webdevelopers fit in?

The initial interest you mentioned is primarily from government and large companies who will create and applaud certification institutions to cater for each other and protect their own markets.

Think how the same has already happened with any techhnology that caters for bigcorp and is provided by bigcorp: Microsoft, ITIL, Java etc.

This certification would really need to take off and also provide solid benefits outside of the aforementioned sectors for it to be any use for individual webdevelopers.

10 Posted by Jan Vermaat on 4 September 2007 | Permalink

I miss the javascript part in this guild discussion. I think there is no real front-end development without javascript.

Javascript is one of the most used programming languages in the world but most of the people writing in JavaScript are not programmers.
As far as I know students on ICT high schools learn Java. A Java programmer don't know anything of DOM and DOM-scripting.

I think is is a big challenge to improve the javascript skills of front end developers and this could be one of the tasks of the guild.

11 Posted by Robbert Broersma on 4 September 2007 | Permalink

As certification examination, you had questions in mind such as: "Do you develop websites without using tables for layout, why did you choose for position: absolute here, as opposed to float: right, how would you implement rounded corners for a input type=text?".

A certificate that proves that you have at least these very very basic skills, would be worthless to me as employer. Nothing could be concluded about the quality of websites a potential employee would make, because these tests are only theoretical and at a low level.

If employers deem such certificate useless, wouldn't such a certificate be a fake quality assurance towards clients? Such certificate would be no more useful than a 'Healthy Food' certificate invented by the McDonalds that requires one slice of picle in every meal and the understanding that fast food is bad for you?

12 Posted by Angielski on 13 September 2007 | Permalink

I agree with your concluding remarks. Those forums are visited by ppl that possess the knowledge of how to write validating code. One of approaches that will certainly work is to leave cradle of online communities. I believe that Guild will do the trick. Let the power of web standards evangelism be with you!