Whatever Happened To Design And Build?

Greg Harvey muses on his shift in perspective as a web developer over the last decade

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Fri, 2013-06-21 16:48By greg

I don’t know about anyone else, but when I first started developing websites full time as a career, for an advertising agency in London at the start of the ‘noughties’, it was all about getting a design, chopping it up into pages, coding them up, FTPing them somewhere and walking away. It was the classic ‘product’ model, if you will. Customer paid a fixed price for a thing, that thing was built, customer paid for it. We might as well have been manufacturing custom guitars. The process was the same.

No one was interested in supporting anybody. In fact, no one outside of the ad agency even seemed to know what to do with a website, never mind have any interest in learning about it, so who would you support anyway? Sharing knowledge with clients? Who would you find who’d even listen to you? No, people didn’t want to know how stuff worked, they didn’t want to have to maintain things, they just wanted to pay their money and get it done.

If I stop to think of my working life now, as a jobbing Drupal developer for the last 5+ years, it’s quite incredible how much my work has changed. In essence I’m still doing the same thing. I’m building websites for people, right? Well, kind of, but that’s where the similarity ends.

If I think of our clients now, most of them are not one-off fire and forget builds like we used to do. Most of them are relationships. Relationships, in fact, that have continued for years. Nowadays we do loads of training and consultancy, support retainers, helping, empowering, informing. We work on projects, often on and off, over extended periods, gradually improving and adapting, often not actually developing software at all but guiding and steering the client’s own teams.

But we categorically do not “just build it”. It’s no longer a transaction of money for goods. For the most part it’s a two-way collaboration between like-minded businesses who both gain from the relationship. If I’d said to my manager back in the day, “Hey, you know what? We should offer capacity building as a service...” I would’ve been laughed out of the office. These days it’s a large part of what we do.

So much so that several recent new business wins for Code Enigma have focussed heavily on helping organisations - some in local government, some in private industry, a charity - to develop themselves. Half of them don’t actually want us to do any website building for them at all! They want us to come and show them how it’s done.

Perhaps it says something about the sort of organisation that selects Drupal in the first place? I think it might be more than that - though it might, at least in part, be down to the open source movement. To expand on that, discovering Drupal was an absolute revelation for me. Wow. An open source product I can actually use. Sure, there had been lots of open source projects for years, but the output wasn’t consumable by Josephine Public. I remember trying a Linux desktop for the first time - quite late as it happens, probably 2003 - it was horrible! As were various CMS and bulletin board systems I tried out around the same time.

But some time around when Drupal 4 came out something clicked in the open source community. It wasn’t just Drupal. Somehow, for some reason, they collectively started to get it right. Linux distributions like Ubuntu started to get popular, open source computer desktops that enthusiastic technologists could foist on their unfortunate relatives without it being a total disaster. Open source browsers started to be good. Various open source development stacks for Windows started to become really usable, as did a number of SDKs. Open standards started to get real traction, especially the Internet ones. Wordpress appeared. By the time I became head of technology at Rareface, in 2006, it was perfectly viable to run a small technology company with entirely open source software. And we (almost) did.

Open source was nothing new, but for the first time ordinary people, who don’t make jokes about hexadecimal numbers, could engage with it, and were collectively introduced to a whole new way of thinking about computer software that fundamentally shifted their relationship with computers.

I’m speculating of course, but reflecting on how much my work has changed, I believe the stigma of tech has started to dissipate and that is the underlying reason for our emerging role. The Wizard Of Oz has been revealed for what he is, just a load of flashing lights and whirring cogs. Computers just aren’t that scary anymore. People are rolling up their sleeves and diving in. In their millions! For example, 1.2 million Raspberry Pi computers have shipped since their inception. Call me out if you want, but I do not believe that would’ve happened if the Raspberry Pi had been released in 2003.

The world has changed very rapidly and yet very subtly. Now designers write code. Department managers look after intranets. CEO’s have Wordpress blogs. Everyone’s a “webmaster”, to resurrect an almost dead job title. I almost didn’t notice it happening, and then suddenly here we are. The teachers, not the doers.

Anyway, I digress. Regardless of the cause, I think the effect is great! It makes me very proud and happy that our work is as much about education as it is about manufacture. Given the choice, I much prefer to have a long-term relationship with a client, developing their online presence over a period of years, working together, growing together, getting better and better. Sure, building stuff is fun, but supporting and training people is more rewarding in the long run, if you ask me, and the more you teach, the more you learn.

I like this brave new world.