A List Apart

Lyza Danger Gardner on Building the Web Everywhere

The Implicit Contract

I work with lots of different teams and different developers. I usually know innately, as does the team around me, whether the teams we’re working with are good or not. We rarely disagree on the evaluation.

Article Continues Below

But what does good mean?

I find that the most valuable web developers interact with each other along a kind of implicit contract, the tenets of which are based upon web standards and proven ways of doing things that we’ve cobbled together collectively over the years. Most of the time, good isn’t generated by an individual in isolation—it’s the plurality of tandem efforts that hum along to a shared, web-driven rhythm.

When things are ticking along smoothly among devs, I find we have a common underlying way of talking and thinking about the web. We fit together in human and technical ways, upholding a shared understanding about how best to make pieces of the web fit together.

In contrast to the tired stereotype of genius coming in the form of a lone, intense hacker, much of the effective work done on the web is done within the bounds of a certain kind of communal conformance. In a good way.

Working together

A heap of obvious things goes into making an individual web developer seem good: An innate understanding of time and effort. An indestructible drive to self-educate.  A lick-smart, logical mind quick to spot and take advantage of patterns. I think we look for these talents naturally.

And yet when devs work together, those skills fade back just a bit. In a (grossly oversimplified) way, as part of a larger team each developer is a miniature black box. What comes fiercely front-and-center are the interfacing edges of the people and teams. The way they talk to each other and the timbre of what they build, what they disclose and what they don’t think they need to mention.

When something unexpected pops up between healthy teams—which happens, because this is a complicated world—a communication like, “Hey, when I poke this service in this way, it throws a 500 at me” as often as not is enough information for the recipient to go off and fix it, because we have have similar scars to reference and a shared vocabulary built on common ground.

A common vernacular and communication style is an echo of a common thinking style. Underneath the chatter are cognitive technical models of the metaphors at hand, based on each team member’s perception of how the web fits together—REST, modular patterns, progressive enhancement, etc.—and how those components apply to the current project. Happy days when those internal archetypes align.

When you run into misaligned teams it is obvious. There’s a herky-jerky grating to communication. Seemingly dashed-off emails that don’t quite dig into the problem at hand. Teams where you can tell each member’s mental context differs. Code that feels weird and wrong.

A common ground engenders brilliant ideas

Unless it is the actual goal of the project, I don’t care too much if you can come up with a Nobel-worthy new implementation of a basic CRUD feature. In most cases, I’ll happily accept something predictable and expected.

This is not an argument for ignorance or apathy. Ideally, everyone should be pretty good at what they do—those individual technical skills do of course matter. I mean, part of the contract here does involve boots-on-ground time—to understand the lay of the land, to break HTTP into bits and pieces, leak some memory, screw up DNS a few times. We break and heal frequently as we gain deeper web mastery.

But having a web set of conceptual building blocks—standards, patterns, conventions—upon which we can frame and build gives us the freedom to focus on where we really need to be creative: the particular task, product, or site at hand. Common components, shared notions.

After all, the best chefs in the world don’t reinvent carrots. Instead, they identify what other remixed food components might plug into a carrot to make it divine.

Likewise, good developers are mixing up agreed-upon technical ingredients into the soup of the day. And just as a talented cook knows how to explain to the waitstaff the nuances that thyme brings to the potato, good devs know how to talk to those around them, team members both in the kitchen and beyond, about why today’s menu includes OAuth or moment.js.

It’s not just touchy-feely

It used to be that I would think, “Hey, these people seem like they’re on the same wavelength as my team; that’s cool,” but now I realize it’s likely that what seems merely like good vibrations saves prodigious time and money on projects.

In damaged teams, mental reference dissonance carries through to the outcome, manifesting itself in jarring technical mismatches, poorly-thought-through integration seams and, frankly, bugs. It’s as if people are thinking about the web in different internal language systems.

So? Things take longer, often a lot longer. Teams become frustrated with each other. Meetings and discussions are drawn-out and less fruitful. The results suffer. Things break.

It matters.

I’m not suggesting we all link arms and plow out code from a single hive mind. In fact, I’d argue that the constraints imposed by a common perspective help to drive a certain kind of unique brilliance.

5 Reader Comments

Load Comments