Driver or mechanic?

The tools vs knowledge argument goes something like this:

Random web dev
You don’t have to know CSS. Or basic JavaScript. I mean, our great toolchain has all of that covered, right?
If you’re a web developer you should know something about CSS and JavaScript. What if your tool doesn’t support your use case? Or what if they are terrible for performance?
Random web dev
Nonsense. I’m much more productive with my trusty tools.
But having some basic knowledge is part of being a professional web developer.
Random web dev
I mean, if you drive a car you don’t have to know how it works, right? You just drive it.

Over the past ten years I have heard this drive a car analogy more often than I care to remember. Superficially, it’s an interesting one, but I found I disagree with it.

To me, we are not the drivers of the car called the World Wide Web, but its mechanics. And mechanics should definitely know something about the contraption they’re building and maintaining, right?

In fact, the more I think about it the more I see this as the fundamental question.

What would you prefer to be: a car driver or a car mechanic?

I’m sure a few people’s interest will be piqued by my question. Still, analogies like this one should not be taken too far. They can easily confuse the issue instead of clarifying it.

The problem is that people start to fill in details that the analogy doesn’t support. Exactly what does the car represent? The web, a web site, or the production process? And what does driving mean? Surfing the web, building a site, or something else? And who exactly is symbolised by the mechanic? Or the tools?

The discussion could easily degenerate into a shouting match about the meaning of the analogy while everybody forgets about the actual tools vs knowledge issue the analogy was supposed to clarify.

Something else I noticed over the last twenty years is that people resort to homely comparisons only when they have run out of actual arguments, or when they don’t really understand the issues involved. So they conjure up an image of something that everything can relate to and pretend it settles the discussion.

The question of whether tools are enough to build websites or knowledge of the underlying technologies is also necessary will not be solved by homely car comparisons, but only by actual arguments about the tools vs knowledge issue.

Despite all this I find I like the question I asked above, since it forces you to make a fundamental decision. So I’m going to let it stand, even though it hitches a ride on a potentially confusing car analogy.

As a web developer, would you prefer to be a driver or a mechanic?

This article has been translated into Russian.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, web developer, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter or Mastodon.
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