Building, Gardening and the Development of the Web

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In a recent interview, Paul Coelho drew a contrast between building and gardening.

When you construct a building, you essentially build it and leave it. Buildings require some attention once they’re built, but usually only when something’s broken.

Gardens, on the other hand, require constant attention. You can’t just build a garden and walk away (in my backyard I usually unintentionally try this approach, it doesn’t work). Planting, watering, pruning, weeding, cultivating… A garden requires constant attention.

I immediately applied this contrast to web development, and found myself asking the question:

Is the web a building or a garden?

Often we use construction terminology when we talk about web design. We build websites with infrastructure on top of frameworks, and when websites are broken we say that they crash. The web developer’s dream is to build a product that will stand the test of time. We want to ship an amazing product, then wash our hands and start on the next project (web development pricing structures often reflect this thinking too).

Then we’re surprised and frustrated when a website starts to demand constant attention. Technology shouldn’t be so needy, we think, it should just work!

But I wonder whether we’re thinking the wrong way about web development.

Maybe the web is more like a garden.

Sure, some of the biggest effort in building a web product happens at the beginning with planning, designing and building its core. But maybe we shouldn’t expect to walk away from a site after it’s built.

Should we be surprised when a product requires constant weeding, pruning, watering and attention? Today more than ever we require technology to be dynamic, flexible, and something almost more like a living being than a static structure. And living things require care and attention. You can’t “set it and forget it” and expect living things to flourish.

If websites are like gardens, then web developers are in the business of growing things, not just building them.

Sure, the designing, building, and launching of things will always be fun, but the job doesn’t end there. There will be weeds, overgrowth, drought, and little creatures that will threaten your garden. It will require the care of a skilled gardener to see it grow and flourish.

Fortunately, we call it web development, which points to growth and progression, not static bricks and mortar.

So after the launch party, hang up hard hat and slip on gardening gloves. This thing won’t grow without you.