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October 31, 2012

Filed under: tech»web

Node Win

As I've been teaching Advanced Web Development at SCCC this quarter, my role is often to be the person dropping in with little hints of workflow technique that the students will find helpful (if not essential) when they get out into real development positions. "You could use LESS to make your CSS simpler," I say, with the zeal of an infomercial pitchman. Or: "it will be a lot easier for your team to collaborate if you're working off the same Git repo."

I'm teaching at a community college, so most of my students are not wealthy, and they're not using expensive computers to do their work. I see a lot of cheap, flimsy-looking laptops. Almost everyone's on Windows, because that's what cheap computers run when you buy them from Best Buy. My suggestion that a Linux VM would be a handy thing to have is usually met with puzzled disbelief.

This makes my students different from the sleek, high-profile web developers doing a lot of open-source work. It's a difference both cultural (they're being taught PHP and ASP.net, which are deeply unsexy), but technological as well. If you've been to a meetup or a conference lately, you've probably noticed that everyone's sporting almost exactly the same setup: as far as the wider front-end web community is concerned, if you're not carrying a newish MacBook or a Thinkpad (running Ubuntu, no doubt), you might as well not exist.

You can see some of this in Rebecca Murphey's otherwise excellent post, A Baseline for Front End Developers, which lists a ton of great resources and then sadly notes:

If you're on Windows, I don't begin to know how to help you, aside from suggesting Cygwin. Right or wrong, participating in the open-source front-end developer community is materially more difficult on a Windows machine. On the bright side, MacBook Airs are cheap, powerful, and ridiculously portable, and there's always Ubuntu or another *nix.

Murphey isn't trying to be mean (I think it's remarkable that she even thought about Windows when assembling her list--a lot of people wouldn't), but for my students a MacBook Air probably isn't cheap, no matter what its price-to-performance ratio might be. It could be twice, or even three times, the cost of their current laptop (assuming they have one--I have some students who don't even have computers, believe it or not). And while it's not actually that hard to set up many of the basic workflow tools on Windows (MinGW is a lifesaver), or to set up a Linux VM, it's clearly not considered important by a lot of open source coders--Murphey doesn't even know how to start!

This is why I'm thrilled about Node.js, which added a Windows version about a year ago. Increasingly, the kinds of tools that make web development qualitatively more pleasant--LESS, RequireJS, Grunt, Yeoman, Mocha, etc.--are written in pure JavaScript using Node. If you bring that to Windows, you also bring a huge amount of tooling to people you weren't able to reach before. Now those people are not only better developers, but they're potential contributors (which, in open source, is basically the difference between a live project and a dead one). Between Node.js, and Github creating a user-friendly Git client for the platform, it's a lot easier for students with lower incomes to keep up with the state of the art.

I'm not wild about the stereotype that "front-end" means a Mac and a funny haircut, personally. It bothers me that, as a web developer, I'm "supposed" to be using one platform or another--isn't the best thing about rich internet applications the fact that we don't have to take sides? Isn't a diverse web community stronger? I think we have a responsibility to increase access to technology and to the Internet, not focus our efforts solely on a privileged few.

We should be worried when any monoculture (technological or otherwise) takes over an industry, and exclusive tools or customs can serve as warning signs. So even though I don't love Node's API, I love that it's a web language being used to build web tools. It means that JavaScript is our bedrock, as Alex Russell once noted. That's what we build on. If it means that being a well-prepared front-end developer is A) more cross-platform and B) more consistent from top to bottom, it means my students aren't left out, no matter what their background. And that makes me increasingly happy.

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