Ageism in the web industry

There’s been quite a stir this weekend from an incredibly well written post by Brighton developer Benjamin Holloway. I’ve written about Ben quite a few times, both here and on the Clearleft blog, Ben is an incredibly smart and emerging front-end developer. What will surprise many is that he has only recently turned 16.

He has written how his age is often causing a problem with progressing his new career choice as a front-end developer and has focussed on recent experiences at conferences, in particular last Friday at Generate where he was refused entry to the after party (the bit with all the free beer and talking bollocks to strangers in the hopes of getting work whilst simultaneously paying lip service) because he was not old enough to enter the nightclub where Future Publishing was hosting the shindig.

I moved to Brighton at the turn of the century, I was young, but I had been bashing servers and desktops together for years, I could blast together a basic web site in a weekend and was constantly in Photoshop and Dreamweaver learning the ropes. But there was a problem. Experience.

What I found, in the first 5 years of my career as a young guy with a bit of a shitty attitude was that nobody took me seriously because I looked younger than I was and spoke like I was 20 years older. By 22, I had been on tours countless times with bands, been a photographer for two of the UK’s largest festivals, been the lead booker and second engineer at a music venue, Managed two off-licenses, acted as area manager for a chain of high-street stores across the south and been deputy manager for the bar at a large venue in Brighton.

Apparently, this worldly experience was not enough to respect me as a person who had lived and what I think was all solid experience.

Like Ben, I couldn’t afford to go to conferences as they began to emerge. It took me a year and a half to save up enough for a ticket for all three days to Flash on the Beach, and I tried to get to as many community meetups as possible to show my face and learn more. Ben told me that he had won his ticket for Generate otherwise he’d never have been able to go. That’s shit.

This year, I have felt uncomfortable with the sexism debate within the web design industry. On one hand I understand it, I think I may even have an opinion on it, but I’m scared of the backlash that could be caused from sharing it. With this however I have a very strong opinion.

Right now, Ben is working as an intern at Built By Buffalo, a new name in the Brighton scene. I spoke to Danny, the founder a few weeks ago, remarking how great I thought it was that he had Ben joining them. Danny, is quite young himself; although his epic beard would lead you to believe otherwise. He told me how he believed that it was great to have these young people in, even if it is for a short while because you get to share your knowledge, and they will always teach you something new that you didn’t expect.

As a staff member for a company that runs a number of respected conferences, I feel I have to tread carefully here on what I am going to say, but we all know that’s not me. Industry conferences are still failing on the whole to support our future. There are virtually no student discounts; something I get asked about routinely through our conference season, and there should be. sometimes I wonder whether it is in order to maximise profit for organisers, but I also believe certain speakers, frankly, are taking the piss on their fees and we’re all paying for that.

It isn’t just our access to education we need to fix from the inside. Apprenticeship schemes, not internships that last a few months at their longest, need to start happening and be accessible to anyone at 16+.

We need to be sharing our values, principles, beliefs and experiences with those who will be doing this long after we are gone and we need to be doing it now.

I don’t believe in the education system, I never have. It is generalist and fails to take a person and explore their true talent until it is way too late. Look at sport. If you are seen to have an instinct for Football, you’re in an academy before you’re 10, given dedicated focus to what you excel in. All sport is the same and yet we rarely see this in the arts or creative areas. There are of course still specialist schools, like Michael Hall Steiner Waldorf School, but is there a specialism for the gifted coder? The digital maker?

As an industry, this is our legacy. Right now, we have the choice to take the likes of Benjamin Holloway, or any of the other 15 year old creatives I met last year with Ben at Young Rewired State, and we can teach them about our philosophy of the web, allow them to discover their own views and to challenge ours. We have the choice whether we want the next 5 generations to be coming into jobs with this outdated view of how to create on the web, or we can share with them ideas behind the one web, that layout is optional and why you don’t need rounded corners.

I certainly want to be part of the solution.