Web development is hard, m’kay?

This post is more than 14 years old.

Posted at 07:00 on 17 August 2009

There seems to be a bit of intellectual snobbery among some non-web developers, who regard web development as a soft skill, something other than software engineering that’s only for programming wusses who can’t make the grade to get into desktop development. It’s an attitude that is typified by this flabbergastingly arrogant post by Michael Braude (hat tip: Jeff Atwood) who has this to say:

But then, that’s just it, isn’t it?  The reason most people want to program for the web is that they’re not smart enough to do anything else.  They don’t understand compilers, concurrency, 3D or class inheritance.  They haven’t got a clue why I’d use an interface or an abstract class.  They don’t understand: virtual methods, pointers, references, garbage collection, finalizers, pass-by-reference vs. pass-by-value, virtual C++ destructors, or the differences between C# structs and classes.  They also know nothing about process.  Waterfall?  Spiral?  Agile?  Forget it.  They’ve never seen a requirements document, they’ve never written a design document, they’ve never drawn a UML diagram, and they haven’t even heard of a sequence diagram.

Well I have news for you, Michael. This is just plain wrong. As web developers, we have to know and understand almost everything you’ve listed above—and more. Practically the only exceptions that he has listed are compilers, pointers and virtual C++ destructors, and even then some of us may need to get to grips with them from time to time. We need to understand class inheritance, interfaces, abstract classes, virtual methods, pass by reference versus pass by value, garbage collection and so on or we’re toast.

In fact, some of the concepts he’s listed above are even more critical to the web than other, supposedly more superior, forms of development. Take concurrency for instance. This is a particularly difficult concept to understand, debug, work with and test, and on desktop applications which only ever run in single user mode, it is very often a non-issue. You can build desktop applications for years without needing to know jack squat about concurrency, but once you start building web applications, which are multi-user by their very nature, it’s only a matter of time before you get bitten by it.

There are other aspects to web development that we need to understand to a much greater extent than desktop application developers. Security is much more important, for instance. It isn’t exactly a non-issue for desktop applications—web browsers, Microsoft Anything, and so on can be potential attack vectors, especially if they allow scripting—but web servers and web applications are low hanging fruit as far as hackers are concerned, and you have to contend with bots actively probing your site, 24/7, for data injection and cross site scripting vulnerabilities.

I could give other examples. We have to understand scalability and caching. We have to understand not only HTML but also the protocols that run the web, such as HTTP, TCP/IP, SMTP, SOAP, and so on. We have to work with several different languages at once—HTML, JavaScript, PHP or C#, SQL, CSS, and XML and its many domain-specific variants.

We need to work in cross-browser environments that very often make test-driven development particularly tricky if not impossible. (How do you unit test CSS positioning, for instance?) We need to understand graphic design, accessibility, and usability. We certainly do need to understand business processes such as agile, waterfall, scrum, and so on. We need to understand UML. Most difficult of all, we need to know how to bridge the gap between the exact literalism of computers and the vagaries of humans and other living beings.

And guess what? Far from being a cuddly toy, JavaScript is a rich, powerful, functional language that, despite its C-style syntax, was originally heavily influenced by Scheme.

To be sure, there are a lot of incompetent web developers out there, and the barrier to entry is ridiculously low, but it is thoroughly incorrect and misleading to say that this is “because you don’t need to know complicated things to be a web developer.” On the contrary, if you’re working on a site of any significant proportions, you need to know some pretty hard stuff. You need to be pretty smart to be a successful web developer.