This essay by Paul Ford, published in Wired, is magnificent. I’ve been letting it stew all day, re-reading it a couple of times here and there. It’s beautiful, haunting, gutting, and romantic. Two excerpts from a dozen or more I could have picked to share here. First:
I keep meeting people out in the world who want to get into this industry. Some have even gone to coding boot camp. They did all the exercises. They tell me about their React apps and their Rails APIs and their page design skills. They’ve spent their money and time to gain access to the global economy in short order, and often it hasn’t worked.
I offer my card, promise to answer their emails. It is my responsibility. We need to get more people into this industry.
But I also see them asking, with their eyes, “Why not me?”
And here I squirm and twist. Because— because we have judged you and found you wanting. Because you do not speak with a confident cadence, because you cannot show us how to balance a binary tree on a whiteboard, because you overlabored the difference between UI and UX, because you do not light up in the way that we light up when hearing about some obscure bug, some bad button, the latest bit of outrageousness on Hacker News. Because the things you learned are already, six months later, not exactly what we need. Because the industry is still overlorded by people like me, who were lucky enough to have learned the etiquette early, to even know there was an etiquette.
Tech is, of course, not the sole industry with an insular and specific culture; but, it is something that can be changed by readers of websites like this one, or Wired. Technology has been commoditized so that you see people of every age, race, gender, and personality walking around with a smartphone or a DSLR or a smartwatch or wireless headphones, but the creation of these things haven’t followed suit at the same rate.
The second excerpt:
I have no desire to retreat to the woods and hear the bark of the fox. I like selling, hustling, and making new digital things. I like ordering hard drives in the mail. But I also increasingly enjoy the regular old networks: school, PTA, the neighbors who gave us their kids’ old bikes. The bikes represent a global supply chain; when I touch them, I can feel the hum of enterprise resource planning software, millions of lines of logistics code executed on a global scale, bringing the handlebars together with the brakes and the saddle onto its post. Then two kids ride in circles in the supermarket parking lot, yawping in delight. I have no desire to disrupt these platforms. I owe my neighbors a nice bottle of wine for the bikes. My children don’t seem to love computers as I do, and I doubt they will in the same way, because computers are everywhere, and nearly free. They will ride on different waves. Software has eaten the world, and yet the world remains.
This sounds dour and miserable but it isn’t all that — I promise. As much as Ford examines the failings of the industry in this essay, there’s an undercurrent of optimism.
In some ways, Ford’s piece reminds me of Frank Chimero’s 2018 essay about how web development is increasingly like building software instead of just writing a document. I remember when I learned that I could view the source of a webpage, and that’s how I began to learn how to build stuff for the web. That foundation drove my career and a passion for learning how things are made. Things are different now, of course. Common toolchains now generate gnarly HTML and indecipherable CSS; the web is less elegant and human-driven. But I’m not sure that different and harder are necessarily worse.
Thinking more comprehensively about Ford’s essay, perhaps there’s a new perspective that can be brought only by those new to tech. After growing up with the stratospheric rise of the industry and seeing how it has strained, maybe that context will inform how they read this piece.