Finding Help

Everyone Starts Somewhere

The web community is different from many other programming communities because so many of its members are not formally trained. Most people don't get a degree in web development, and certainly not an advanced degree. Many of us got into this field because we were interested in the communication possibilities of the web, not because we wanted to become coders. If, along the way, we have managed to turn this into a discipline and a trade, it's not for lack of missteps and mistakes.

The result of this amateurization is that web development is riddled with misinformation and hearsay. Copy and paste code makes its way around the Internet in a flash, and inexperienced developers are happy to use it without understanding how it works. The proliferation of jQuery plugins did not help with this--nor, to be fair, did the often-confusing world of browser compatibility and bugs, which made building web pages that worked in both IE6 and Firefox 3 (to date myself) an act of voodoo as much as it was skill. Luckily, these kinds of inconsistencies are increasingly rare.

As an instructor, it's easy enough for me to tell students "don't use W3Schools" and "write your own plugins." It is somewhat harder to say which resources web developers should use when they're first starting out, or how they can distinguish between trustworthy and untrustworthy advice. Online guides are often written from an assumption of either no experience or vast expertise on the part of the reader--this leads to what a friend of mine calls "the cliff," where moving beyond the basics immediately throws a student into the deep end, to either sink or swim.

To be fair, reading documentation and evaluating resources is a fundamental skill for programming, and it is much more difficult to write a guide that covers this middle ground of experience. In this chapter, we'll try to cross that divide, not with detailed instructions, but by providing a list of trustworthy resources, as well as some rules of thumb you may find useful when searching for solutions to your coding problems.

Trust No-one Someone

Okay: say you've promised not to visit the W3Schools or ExpertsExchange. Where does that leave us? What are the trustworthy destinations for information about web programming?

Choosing Wisely

Often times, even with all the resources above, you won't be able to find information on the solution to your problem. At that point, a search engine will point you toward plenty of advice, but how do you know whether it's any good? Evaluating quality is a tough skill to learn--one that most programmers develop, but can't break down into a real process. It is probably not any comfort to know that you'll be able to distinguish good from bad in a few years. How do you tell the difference now? Here are a few rules of thumb that may be handy.