WEB Advent 2012 / Make a Difference

I remember that particular day, driving home from my job at Apple Computer, talking to a friend on a cell phone the size of small brick. I asked him how to get files onto a server so they show up at a given domain. I was looking for a new career path and web development seemed really interesting, but admittedly I had no idea how any of it worked. He told me about something called FTP and, while sitting quietly in the parking lot that the 237 had become, my tiny mind went poof. Black magic.

It’s hard for those of us in this field to consider our daily chores of pixels, markup, and databases to be anything more than a job. A great job, but a job nonetheless. We are multi-lingual experts skillfully constructing experiences that are responsibly responsive. We bring skeuomorphic interfaces to life with little more than photo editing software that we then plug into a machine that responds to our touches and gestures. I ask it a question, it tells me an answer. In some places throughout the world, it would probably seem like witchcraft. In fact, more often than not, we find ourselves bemoaning one feature or another that doesn’t live up to our astronomical standards. I think it was Louis C.K. who said “It’s going to space! Can you give it a second to get back from space‽

My friend Joshua Blankenship put it this way: we are wizards. I agree. We have the ability to do things that most folks find too complex to bother with. We create the worlds they engage in on their computers and their phones. To us it’s no big deal, but to the users, it’s straight-up magic.

Building for the Web is the future, of this I am convinced. Software and hardware do more with greater efficiency than ever before. What we do with smart phones today once took a semi-truck-sized pile of hardware. The future is here and we are the architects.

So with that said, I have to ask — why do we spend so much of our time, effort and money on building useless junk?

Don’t get me wrong, your disruptive-social-mashup-startup sounds awesome but is it solving any problems? Yes, yes, it may be solving the age old dilemma of how to take a 30 second video of me eating breakfast while staring at my shoes and share it with “friends” (friends I wouldn’t recognize if we crossed paths on the street), sans audio. But what real problems are you solving? Researchers of chronic diseases who could benefit from a worldwide sample of patients, educators unable to accommodate the various learning styles of children in their overloaded classrooms, or unemployed people in desperate need of training for a chance at an interview — what are we doing to help them solve their problems?

Some of us are ideators, some of us are doers, others are a bit of both and, while the solution may not come from you, the ability to execute a viable solution can. Write an algorithm to detect patterns in patients, customize an online course to teach lessons based on a student’s previous answers, or build a simple tool to allow others to share their knowledge with those willing to learn. We do this stuff every day — maybe not in the context of solving real problems, but we do it nevertheless.

You don’t have to work at a non-profit to solve these problems. You don’t even have to quit your job. Our tools of creation have improved so much that we’re able to build in hours what used to take days. Frameworks, auto-magically-scaling-distributed servers, one click this and that… it’s getting faster and easier to do what we do. A few hours in the evenings or on the weekends is all it may take to breathe life into a new idea.

When you dream up your next big idea, or you find yourself looking for a side project to take on, consider your magical powers and wield them for something good, something that makes a difference and solves real problems.

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