Digital Carpentry: Web Development as a Work in Progress

5 min read

Think you know what carpentry is? Sawing wood into precisely sized pieces and fastening them together? Swinging a hammer? Using a drill? Isn’t there something called a dado head cutter? Are you beginning to realize that your ideas about carpentry are all based on episodes of New Yankee Workshop you used to watch on Saturday mornings, between bites of caramel pecan cinnamon roll? 

What about web development? What comes to mind there? Oversized coffee cups? Even-more-oversized monitors? Hailstorms of green data like those scenes in The Matrix? 

Carpentry and web development are, of course, much more than this. And they happen to have a lot of elements in common. But it would take someone who’s conversant in both worlds to illuminate those similarities.

Someone like Well Done developer Nate Deisler.

Nate comes to us, most recently, from the coding bootcamp at Eleven Fifty Academy—a nonprofit bridging the tech talent gap in Indiana by providing courses, workshops, and programs to build participants’ digital skill sets. Before Nate was a developer, he was a carpenter for Indiana Wesleyan University, where he learned to appreciate the deepening sense of mastery that comes from pursuing a craft.

Nate’s current job is neater than his former one, and it carries a lower risk of bodily injury. As he grows into his developer career and reminisces about his carpentry days, he sees more and more parallels between them. I sat down with Nate at our office’s long wooden table to hear what those parallels might be.

For someone like me—who thinks he knows but suspects he might not know as much as he thinks—what is carpentry?

It’s a skilled trade, primarily the cutting, shaping, and installing of building materials of many kinds. That includes wood, but it’s not limited to wood. And it can include work on ships, bridges, concrete framework, buildings, interiors. It encompasses building almost anything.

When did you begin working as a carpenter?

I had graduated from Indiana Wesleyan University and worked for the facilities maintenance department, as a student. I started training under some of the carpenters in that department. They had a position open, and I applied for that job and was trained under them.

What kind of work did you do?

At first a lot of maintenance, fixing something that was either cosmetically or mechanically broken or doing installations of desks or cabinets. As I got more experienced, I dove more into project-level work—work orders and that kind of thing.

In your experience, how is web development similar to carpentry?

Web development is both a trade and skill, and when you’re looking at it from a carpenter’s standpoint, it’s another kind of tinkering and building—taking things apart, putting them back together, and restructuring them at times. As in carpentry, you can be called upon to work on either the internal stuff, which is the back end, or the surface, cosmetic stuff, which is the front end. They’re both important to the experience.

Thinking from a carpenter’s point of view, the paint on a wall is important to the facade, but there are also studs, insulation, electricity, and plumbing behind it that make a building useable. A website has a surface and inner workings as well.

So say I hire a firm to build a website, and I don’t really know anything about websites, but I have worked with a contractor to build or remodel a house. Can I expect that the process is going to have any useful analogies?

When someone comes into Well Done and wants a new website, there’s a whole process behind that: step by step. When you get ready to build a house, you may not know anything about it, but you hire the people who do what you can’t do. They ask you about your needs, and they take those things you need and configure them in a way that best fits your situation. At Well Done, we understand the right questions to ask to understand your needs, and we have the experience to understand how a well-built website can help to meet those needs.

So we go through that discovery stage, we make plans and revisions, and eventually we get to designs or wireframes—which are kind of like the blueprints.

There’s an established method behind every step in the process. Not to go too far into that, but we follow every step, and in the end we have a working website. It’s launched, it’s out there in the world, but we understand that it’s still a work in progress. There are issues that crop up, things that may still need to be fixed, and—as with a construction project—there’s maintenance that will need to be done. 

And because we know things never go exactly as planned, we always look back to see how well the process worked.

Right. There’s a postmortem, where we look at what went well and what we need to work on, so we can improve for the next time. 

And as to fixing what happens after the contractors are gone, we also do that as web developers. Sometimes you go into other people’s code and restructure, fix a style, that kind of thing. You can’t always tear down the whole house, but you can remodel. And sometimes you do tear down and rebuild.

Are there lessons you take—either from web development or from carpentry—that you’d apply in an even larger sense? Any life lessons here?

That’s a good question. When I get done with a project, there are always those moments when I think: I could have done something this way, or I could have done a different thing that way. But it’s all about the learning process. 

What I like about web development and what I like about carpentry are having my fingers on the keyboard, or having my hand on the mud knife, and those help me tremendously. The learning is in the doing.