Tuesday, 18 March 2008

So there's only web development...

So, after talking to a friend of mine he came up with a statement that I believe sums up the New Zealand IT industry pretty well. "Its all web development". The industry here contains a few large companies, which hire some CS/SE graduates, but the vast majority will find themselves after university working on some aspect of developing essentially web pages.

For someone who doesn't particularly enjoy web development, this is a rather bitter pill to swallow, learning that if you want to work in any other aspect of IT, you should probably move to Australia/UK/America.

What's even more disappointing is that during my 5 and a half years at university, there was hardly any emphasis placed on web development. I think in total there were 2 courses that dealt with any kind of web development. This leaves a large gap in my education, as people that are hiring are looking for experience with CSS, Javascript, AJAX, technologies which the university does not teach at all, and PHP/ASP.NET, MySQL/MSSQL which the university does a poor job of teaching. In fact looking at the curriculum the only thing that the Computer Science degree seems to prepare you for is more Computer Science.

So anyway... It's no use bitching about the past now. If I'm doomed to become a web developer then I might as well become the best fucking web developer this side of the equator. But this is going to involve a lot of learning. The type of learning I dread and generally avoid. Learning by yourself, in your own spare time. Having to force yourself to read another chapter after coming home from work tired and worn out from your shitty job. The really hard kind of learning... fuck.

But I do in fact have a plan. And having a plan keeps me from having a total nervous breakdown, something which I've been really close to this last month.

My plan essentially involves learning everything about web technology, from the ground up, from setting up a LAMP server to AJAX. This is an ambitious goal for me, one which might take over a year or more to complete as I don't know how much time I will be able to commit to my "2nd education". But I do know roughly what it will involve.

Step 1: Wiring up my house. That is to say put in ethernet cables connecting the bedrooms of the house, the living room and the garage. This will allow me to put my de facto webserver (old HP pentium 4 my girlfriend was going to throw out) into the garage and to have it running full time. This computer is a mixture of web server and storage server (after adding a 320GB HDD) and will serve files to the internet and to the different devices around the house (in the future I could have a separate machine as a file server and a webserver) This should also give me experience on how to set up a network for a SOHO (Small Office Home Office).

Step 2: Domain Name. Opening an account with a dynamic dns provider and setting up a domain name. Probably going to use dyndns.com as it seems to be quite popular.

Step 3: Learning about webservers, file servers, ssh servers, nfs servers, ftp servers, proxies etc... Because I want my web/storage server to be universally accessible it needs to be able to serve files across a wide range of protocols. For each of the types of server I need to
  1. Install the software
  2. Configure the software i.e. get it to do what I want securely
Luckily I have found a resource that deals with these issues and a lot more. The resource being www.linuxhomenetworking.com. The website is well written, easy to read and up to date. It's also free.

[NOTE: I should mention now that I intend to use only OSS software as a part of this education, for reasons which I will probably write about later]

Step 4: Install software for the management of my server. This includes things like Webmin, MySQL Administrator, PHPMyAdmin and perhaps some software to configure Apache (is there a decent GUI frontend for Apache or does it come down to editing config files?)

Step 5: Installing existing CMSs' and understanding how they work. Looking at software such as Joomla!, Drupal, Wordpress, Blogger (is the blogger source code available?), Silverstripe (Go NZ!) etc... and looking at how they are made, paying particular attention to how they handle extensibility (add-ons, extensions) and theming. However for the basic ideas on how to create a CMS I'll probably start with php-mysql-tutorial.com. It should be interesting to see how much difference in the designs of these CMSs' there is and the benefits/disadvantages of each approach.

Step 6: Learn Cascading Style Sheets. I have a real love/hate relationship with CSS. That is to say I f***ing hate CSS. As far as I'm concerned, CSS is a great idea (separation of content and presentation), implemented in a totally illogical, counter-intuitive, overly complex way. But to be fair, that's what I thought of a lot of programming languages I learned until I "got" them. So maybe sometime in the future I will really love CSS, but I wouldn't bet money on it. I'm probably gonna go with the tutorials from W3Schools or failing that get a book from the university library on CSS.

Step 7: Learn Javascript. Again, I feel like I'm 10 years behind the learning curve with this one, but thanks to university (and my own lack of interest in web development) this is another area which I have hardly any experience with. With this one I'm gonna follow the W3Schools tutorials and if needed get a book from the uni library.

Step 8: Learn XHTML. Another one from W3Schools. Basically need to learn along with Javascript to be able to understand AJAX in step 9.

Step 9: Learn AJAX. Start with W3Schools tutorial on AJAX, then can move on to other examples on the internet. There's so many on the web that the biggest problem learning is going to be information overload. A book might be useful as well.

So then the question arises as to what to do with all of this new web development knowledge and the server sitting in my garage. The thing to do I guess would be to make a website to showcase my talents which could be a point of reference for people seeking examples of my skills/knowledge.

Also the idea of creating a photo gallery CMS based on the work I did with LaPhotographie is an idea I've had for a while. Such a system would, of course be open source and perhaps some day take off and become more than a pet project.

And the possibility of turning the setup in my garage into a web hosting company is there as well.

So there you go, that's my plan. It helps me to keep busy and ignore the fact that I'll probably end up doing web development for a long, long time.

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