Web Work and the Insidious Balance of Automation, Control, or Gobs and Gobs of Money

This has been on my mind of late and so I wanted to write it down.

I have worked with the Web now since probably 1996, both for fun and for, well, profit. Mostly for fun because even if I’m earning a living at it, I find it is work I enjoy. It incorporates both sides of my brain; it allows me to write and edit, to organize information, and also to code and troubleshoot. I have run blogs on several platforms, I have created my own MYSQL queries, I have run the Web presence for a large national trade association. My CV runs pretty well in and around the Interwebs.

So I thought I would take a moment and explain what I’ve found to be the most essential balancing act of it all. Because it can help explain to a non-webbie why your developer scrunches up his nose at you like that.

Web work is, essentially, a balancing act between automation and control.

If I want a Web tool to do the work for me, I might have to accept that the formatting might be incorrect at points. Or that the data might not come out the way I want it to. Or that it might not just look just right somehow.

If I want to exercise more control over those factors, I might have to get in there and exercise a bit of elbow grease. It might involve some labor. You might have to tweak some code here and there or do a bit of editing. It might require some time and effort.

Here’s a simple example. On most WYSIWYG editors, there is a button that is supposed to create a bulleted list. You highlight your text and click on the button and it creates the bullets for you. However, I find this button, which is an automation, to be generally useless in HTML. It usually gets the spacing wrong, or it mis-attributes the bullets. And if you’re doing nested bullets, well, ferget it.

I have stopped bothering to use Web editors to create bullets and just do them all by hand. That means code. UL LI LI UL. That means time and effort and expertise. And it is a pain in the ass. But it is the only way I can get the bullets to look

  • Exactly
    • as I want them to look.

Another example: This blogging platform has a thingie you can use to upload a picture and insert it into a post. It’s handy. But I never use it. Because I am particular about how I want a photo placed, generally. Or because I want to see it spaced in a certain way in relation to my text. Or because I want to include a cutline, and I have a way to do that in an exacting way using tables. And yes, I know that tables aren’t cool anymore. But I like them and can use them adeptly. I can make a nested table in an eighth of the time it would take you to place that element using style sheets. So screw it. Tables it is.

That is the balance you’re striking any time you’re working with the Web. Do I want to rely on the available automation, or do I need to finesse it and, therefore, do I have to do some work?

The problem is that most people want both.

Most people you deal with if you’re a webbie do not understand this balance. They think it should just work. They think they should just be able to wiggle their fingers and have it look or feel or behave exactly the way they think it should. If they’re working with an automated system, they are stunned when they’re told that they can’t fix this or that part of the template without additional work. It somehow stymies everybody. But it is the grand universal truth of Web work. You can have automation. Or you can have control. You cannot have both.

Unless.

Yes, there is an exception.

The exception, my friends, comes down to what is often in life the great equalizer. The exception is that you have gobs and gobs of money to throw at the thing.

If I had zillions of dollars, I could pay a developer to create a modified version of WordPress with a plug-in that would import pictures and place them exactly as I prefer them to be placed, and there would be a field where I could put in a cutline and it would put it right there, just so. I would get my control, I would get my automation, and I would just be happy as a clam. Though I would no longer have all that nice munny.

That is the only exception. If you do not have a budget for the project, it will require you either to accept the platform out-of-the-box as it is, or it will require you to edit some code. You can do one or the other, but unless you can support a developer’s happening lifestyle for six months or so, there’s no other way around it.

Suffer the balance or get out your checkbook. There is no other way.

Peter Schoettler, 44; Musician and Scholar

Pay attention. You never know when you might be witnessing the end of something grand.

That was how it was, in the eighth grade, when you’re in that hot stinky band room, seated in that metal folding chair, trying to master some crappy musical composition written for eighth grade band called “Sirocco,” or “Windstar,” and
your band director—in the middle of YELLING AT YOU to play quietly—your band director awkwardly announces that the director of the band at the high school collapsed with an aneurysm and died.

And you have no idea at the time, but the world just tilted.

Because the next year in high school marching band you’re in the first class to have four years with the new guy. So your first year is the last year with the full compliment of traditional pomp before the new guy starts whipping your band into shape to compete. Before you start going “corps.” And your immediate mentors are the last ones to know first-hand why to hate that.

The changes soon to come will have you, an adolescent in 1984, feeling wistful over John Phillip Sousa. Eventually, you will no longer do run-on, which is one of the most exciting performance devices you’ve ever been a part of, the driving
cadence, the double-time march, the grrrrrr, such a hormone rush that you’d end each show with more zits than when you started. The first time I did run-on, my squad leader fell down. Instinctively, I tried to help her up. She looked at me fiercely and yelled KEEP GOING! And she was right. Tell me you don’t learn things in marching band.

Anyway. There will be shows that blow minds—six drum sets on the field for “Sing, Sing, Sing” comes to mind (not written by Benny Goodman actually, but by Louis Prima? Really?)—but there will be lots of geometrical shapes in your future as well. Sigh.

For definition’s sake: In a marching band, there is a position known as “drum major,” or “field director.” This is a position of student leadership, usually filled by a senior or seniors who have conducted themselves admirably in a strong marching band career and who pass a vigorous audition. It is the drum major or the field directors who actually direct the marching band during a show while the band director actually sits up in the press box and video tapes the whole thing so he can watch it later and tell you all what you did wrong.

The person or people who fill this position always start out as the most awesome people you know, and the experience makes them even better people. At least I think that’s how it works. These people seem to preternaturally exude leadership, charisma, showmanship, and generally good nature. This was true of every person who played this role every year I was at high school.

But every one of them was trying to be Pete Schoettler.

Pete was the last of the Kent Roosevelt marching band old guard, the last drum major, the last to wear the Q-Tip hat, the last to wield a baton. The following year, we went to field directors, and I do not want to belittle the considerable talents of those student leaders. But if you asked any of them through the years what one person inspired them, what one person served as their model, there’s not a one of them who’d not come back to Mr. Schoettler.

Pete was iconic in this role. If Elvis, if Einstein, if Tiger Woods had instead aspired to lead a high school marching band, they would have been Pete Schoettler. He was the role; he defined the role; he created and mastered the balance among
showman, mentor, and commanding officer that is needed for the job. I am convinced that the four years of excellence our marching band was able to achieve would not have been possible without the leadership of Pete Schoettler. By example, he inspired at least four years of young performers who were so privelged as to have marched and played under his mentoring.

Schoettler’s obituary says he died in August, but I have just today learned of it. He’d gone to Juliard and had a Ph.D. from NYU; and I quote: “…he also transcribed the Renaissance madrigals of Carlo Gesualdo for brass quintet (for his doctoral dissertation).” Always impressive, he died a law student.

But in Kent Roosevelt High School marching band, Pete Schoettler held an important historical role, and he executed it brilliantly. He was the last drum major. I like to think that after Pete, they needed two people to do a job he did alone. Pete was the end of an era. And his brilliance and his integrity were rare but were so powerfully staying that they became a part of the atmosphere at my high school.

I just thought I might mention it.