The Lost Art of Apprenticeship

November 25, 2008

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend a two-day overview of the capabilities and features of Adobe's Dreamweaver CS3 product.  The session was a highly level look at the major features and workflow the software provides.  My employer is looking at using the tool for interface mock ups and screen design. With that responsibility shifted from the Information Technology department to the product planners and their Business Analysts, something was needed to give the BAs a way to capture web page layouts and interface designs.

What struck me most about the two day session was the utter lack of consequence presented with most of the features.  The focus was on what the tool could do for you, but there was an utter lack of discussion about the merits of the technique at hand, or the costs (hidden and otherwise) of using it.  For example, Dreamweaver allows you to point-and-click your way to embedding some dynamic controls on a web page. The controls are JavaScript based and rely upon proprietary, copyrighted code that Dreamweaver inserts into your site.  As long as you continue to use Dreamweaver you can modify those controls as needed.

However, if you should stop using Dreamweaver, you would lose the ability to modify or maintain those controls.  In our case, the page or site developed in Dreamweaver will be used as a guide for development, with the actual code being written outside of the Adobe product.  It will be impossible therefore to do any kind of roundtrip engineering; once the site is developed and placed in to production, the proprietary code will be long gone.  The Business Analyst will be forced to start over fresh, or try and build upon the non-Dreamweaver code to design the enhancement.

Simply because a tool or process gives one the ability to create a thing, doesn't mean they understand that thing.  Yes, Dreamweaver is a powerful tool, and it allows people with relatively little, or even no, web design experience to create a feature rich site.  However that doesn't mean they can support it, not does it mean that the output of their efforts can be integrated into a larger workflow.  Tools which detour around the understanding and skill that comes from an apprenticeship have a hidden cost.  Knowledge doesn't equal skill or understanding.  I'm not saying that Dreamweaver is bad, or that sites generated and maintained with it are bad either.  I am saying that relying of the software to be your experience base, rather than having some experience of your own, is potentially dangerous.

We were all taught how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide in our heads using nothing but pencil and paper.  Most of us use calculators today to perform these functions but we all have experience and skill doing it ourselves.  Without having gone to the trouble of learning how to "do it by hand" we would fully appreciate simple mathematics nor would we really understand how it works.  Building a web site is the same way.  Without at least a cursory apprenticeship, using a point-and-click tool to generate a site for us may cripple our ability to fully appreciate its true potential or its real cost.

Apprenticeships, indeed, artisanship, is a lost and dying art.

Author's profile picture

Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.