As a web developer of some 10 years, there are two things I’m regularly asked by friends and acquaintances: “Can you build me a website?” and “Can you teach me web design?”

The answer to the first question has changed a bit over the years from “Yes, for a price” to “No, but I know someone who can”. I’ve come to value my free time more and more as I’ve got older. The answer to the other has always been:

“Sure, have you got 5 years?”

A number plucked arbitrarily from the air, but large enough to make a point; learning ‘web design’ is not a quick thing.

Well at least it didn’t use to be. Since around about the time I was considering whether to go to university or not, and still today, I’ve heard post-grads complain that what they’re taught during the 3 or 4 years that leaves them with a heap of debt, is way behind the working practices of the industry. This has always led me to believe that the best way to learn digital design or development is through experience, and that experience took me years to gain (at least to the extent that I would call myself a good developer).

More recently however, we’ve seen services like Treehouse and Steer aim to teach people with little or no experience the skills to become employees in the digital industry, with the later claiming to teach HTML, CSS and Javascript in just 5 days.

This has got me thinking recently;

Q. Could I teach someone all this in 5 days? A. Most probably, but with a few caveats.

First of all, I could only teach HTML and CSS to the latest W3C draft (and so I should) but unfortunately it would take an age to go through every little browser quirk and the preferred solution (if there is one).

Secondly, Javascript is a much bigger fish than people give credit for and it has many uses. Within the 5 days it would most likely only be possible to touch the basics of DOM interaction, animation and AJAX. I wouldn’t call this ‘learning Javascript’, it’s more ‘learning to use Javascript to enhance website interactions’ - but that’s a bit of a mouthful.

And I can only teach the way I work. This is important. In a small case where I might show someone the ropes, the fact that those ropes are Mat Hayward™ branded makes no difference to the industry; just another average developer to add to the pool. However, if someone (or someones) is teaching a whole bunch of people at once, churning out ‘job-ready’ graduates and they’ve all learnt to code in the same way, then what differentiates them from each other when they apply for those jobs? Nothing. So how can an employer make that choice? Personally, I’d go to the person with some experience.

I think it’s important to realise, if you’re thinking of taking one (or more) of these courses that, although you’ll no doubt learn a lot and will definitely be able to build a website when you’ve finished, you should never be done learning. In this industry, that I love and hate in equal measures things change very quickly, and before you know it you’re looking over your shoulder at the young, up-and-coming kids that make you question how much your experience actually counts for.

And while you can be reassured that it does count for a lot, it’s important to note that relying solely on that experience will soon enough count for nothing.