Christian Heilmann

Of impostor syndrome and running in circles (part 3)

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015 at 3:15 pm

These are the notes of my talk at SmartWebConf in Romania. Part 1 covered how Impostor Syndrome cripples us in using what we hear about at conferences. It covered how our training and onboarding focuses on coding instead of human traits. In Part 2 I showed how many great things browsers do for us we don’t seem to appreciate. In this final part I’ll explain why this is and why it is a bad idea. This here is a call to action to make yourself feel better. And to get more involved without feeling inferior to others.

This is part 3 of 3.

Part 2 of this series ended with the explanation that JavaScript is not fault tolerant, and yet we rely on it for almost everything we do. The reason is that we want to control the outcome of our work. It feels dangerous to rely on a browser to do our work for us. It feels great to be in full control. We feel powerful being able to tweak things to the tiniest detail.

JavaScript is the duct-tape of the web

There is no doubt that JavaScript is the duct-tape of the web: you can fix everything with it. It is a programming language and not a descriptive language or markup. We have all kind of logical constructs to write our solutions in. This is important. We seem to crave programmatic access to the things we work with. That explains the rise of CSS preprocessors like Sass. These turn CSS into JavaScript. Lately, PostCSS even goes further in merging these languages and ideas. We like detailed access. At the same time we complain about complexity.

No matter what we do – the problem remains that on the client side JavaScript is unreliable. Because it is fault intolerant. Any single error – even those not caused by you – result in our end users getting an empty screen instead of the solution they came for. There are many ways JavaScript can fail. Stuart Langridge maintains a great flow chart on that called “Everyone has JavaScript, right?“.

There is a bigger issue with fixing browser issues with JavaScript. It makes you responsible and accountable for things browser do. You put it onto yourself to fix the web, now it is your job to keep doing that – for ever, and ever and ever…

Taking over things like page rendering, CSS support and page loading with JavaScript feels good as it fixes issues. Instead of a slow page load we can show a long spinner. This makes us feel good, but doesn’t help our end users much. Especially when the spinner has no timeout error case – like browser loading has.

Fixing a problem with JavaScript is fun. It looks simple enough and it removes an unknown browser support issue. It allows us to concentrate on building bigger and better things. And we don’t have to worry about browser issues.

It is an inspiring feeling to be the person who solved a web-wide issue. It boosts our ego to see that people rely on our brains to solve issues for them. It is great to see them become more effective and faster and free to build the next Facebook.

It gets less amazing when you want to move on and do something else. And when people have outrageous demands or abuse your system. Remy Sharp lately released a series of honest and important blog posts on that matter. “The toxic side of free” is a great and terrifying read.

Publishing something new in JavaScript as “open source” is easy these days. GitHub made it more or less a one step process. And we get a free wiki, issue tracker and contribution process with it to boot. That, of course, doesn’t mean we can make this much more complex if we wanted to. And we do as Eric Douglas explains.

open source is free as in puppy

Releasing software or solutions as open source is not the same as making it available for free. It is the start of a long conversation with users and contributors. And that comes with all the drama and confusion that is human interaction. Open Source is free as in puppy. It comes with responsibilities. Doing it wrong results in a badly behaving product and community around it.

Help stop people falling off the bleeding edge

300 cliff

If you embrace the idea that open source and publishing on the web is a team effort, you realise that there is no need to be on the bleeding edge. On the opposite – any “out there” idea needs a group of peers to review and use it to get data on how sensible the idea really is. We tend to skip that part all too often. Instead of giving feedback or contributing to a solution we discard it and build our own. This means all we have to do is to deal with code and not people. It also means we pile on to the already unloved and unused “amazing solutions” for problems of the past that litter the web.

The average web page is 2MB with over 100 http requests. The bulk of this is images, but there is also a lot of JS and CSS magical solutions in the mix.

If we consider that the next growth of the internet is not in the countries we are in, but in emerging places with shaky connectivity, our course of action should be clear: clean up the web.

Of course we need to innovate and enhance our web technology stack. At the same time it is important to understand that the web is an unprecedented software environment. It is not only about what we put in, it is also about what we can’t afford to lose. And the biggest part of this is universal access. That also means it needs to remain easy to turn from consumer into creator on the web.

If you watch talks about internet usage in emerging countries, you’ll learn about amazing numbers and growth predictions.

You also learn about us not being able to control what end users see. Many of our JS solutions will get stripped out. Many of our beautiful, crafted pictures optimised into a blurry mess. And that’s great. It means the users of the web of tomorrow are as empowered as we were when we stood up and fought against browser monopolies.

So there you have it: you don’t have to be the inventor of the next NPM module to solve all our issues. You can be, but it shouldn’t make you feel bad that you’re not quite interested in doing so. As Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame put it:

We all have different desires and needs, but if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled.

So, be active. Don’t feel intimidated by how clever other people appear to be. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get thousands of followers and GitHub stars. Find what you can do, how you can help the merging of bleeding edge technologies and what goes into our products. Above all – help the web get leaner and simpler again. This used to be a playground for us all – not only for the kids with the fancy toys.

You do that by talking to the messy kids. Those who build too complex and big solutions for simple problems. Those doing that because clever people told them they have to use all these tools to build them. The people on the bleeding edge are too busy to do that. You can. And I promise, by taking up teaching you end up learning.

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