Wednesday, March 11, 2009

There is no such thing as a Master of Flash

I'm in the process of reading Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell's latest book. Without giving away anything you can't find on Amazon... the book covers a wide variety of topics while exploring why some people succeed and why others do not.

In one of the earlier chapters he quotes Dr. Ericsson's 10,000 hours theory. The premise of the theory is that you need to practice for 10,000 hours before you are a master of anything. Gladwell goes into detail by referencing superstars such as Bill Gates, Mozart, Bill Joy, and even the Beatles.

I'm not going to sit here and argue for or against the theory. Plenty have done so already... just google it... or read Outliers.

For the purpose of this post, lets assume for a second that it is true and that mastery comes after 10,000 hours of practice (or basically 10 years). Using that rule, can anyone master Flash?

Flash has been around for a little over 12 years, so theoretically someone could get their 10 years in. However, the environment is changing so rapidly that what we are practicing now is completely different then what we were doing a few years ago. So the question becomes, do our number of hours restart as technology makes leaps and bounds?

Think about when you had to switch to AS3. Sure what you learned in AS2 helped make the transition easier, but did you jump in and feel like you picked up right where you left off or did you feel like you had to relearn a lot of things? Similarly, with Flash 10 and 3rd party engines such as Papervision3d and Away3d, do you truly feel like you are mastering the subject or are you just trying to keep up with the latest build?

Sure, people can become master programmers (such as Bill Joy) or even master digital artists (I would throw Bert Monroy out there), but can anyone actually master Flash... or in more general terms: online interactive media?

We have some extremely talented people doing some extraordinary and mind blowing work. All you have to do is follow the blogs, FWA, and conference finalists to see what is the latest and greatest. However, are any of these sites going to be considered master pieces in 50 years? 100 years? Are there any developers that will stick out as masters in the field?

To put it in perspective... have we seen our Sistine Chapel? our Mona Lisa? Do we have our DaVinci or our Mozart?

What do you think?


Richard Leggett said...

That's a very interesting thought. After 9 years of pretty much solid usage I'd agree that it's not possible to be a "master" or even simply keep up with every new feature release when it comes to Flash in general. But it was arguably possible back with the limited scope of Flash 4, 5 or maybe even MX, there was only so much you could do. Those were golden years where any question could be answered by one or two people, now it takes the collective experience of many to satisfy every esoteric query even if that's just down to rare situations where on one hand you've got someone writing a low-level FTP client, or doing a PUT for REST-based services, and on the other someone experiencing a bug related purely to session ID's not being passed when doing a FileReference upload to a Java server (these things may never be encountered even after 10,000 hours).

The same can be said for Flex developers who know the SDK in minute detail to avoid the bugs, the next SDK has a re-written component set so it all starts over.

Now there's just so much its akin to saying you're a master at "programming" in general, something that is undoubtedly a cumulative process regardless of language, but when you expand into 3D, sound processing, multi-touch and geo-positioning (in the near future perhaps), you're never going to have time to put in the 10,000 hours before the next thing comes along, it seems to be leading to some specialisation.

I like to think the skill level is actually measured not in explicit knowledge of the functions and bugs, but instead in the speed you can learn and solve problems within the established platform/domain, this seems to be the case when bug-fixing, almost always the "veterans" are able to find the problem and solve it faster than someone with less experience who's already been working in that very problem space because they have an intuition for how things go wrong in the Flash platform, and an extensive internal list of checks and external influences that may be the root cause.

Anonymous said...

I definitely agree. I'll be straight, I'm a smart guy ( there are also lots of smart peeps ) and I get stuff pretty quick. I also get prejudices that because I haven't been doing something for a long time, I'm not as good as someone who has been doing it longer. Absurd. Hey, you might have worked at a certain skill for 10 years, but if it was 10 years of doing it half-assed. you might still be mediocre.

10,000 hours to master a skill? No way. In my experience I've learned that what is more important in skill building is not to focus on one particlar skill, but rather learn how to learn. Spend 10,000 hours doing that, and your time to acquire other skills will drop dramatically.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure there's such a thing as "mastery", but I'm pretty sure there is a "road to mastery"... good musicians will play each piece for the first time each time, and many accomplished interaction designers approach each project fresh.

Mozart started on the clavier, and there was (relatively ;-) rapid evolution in the whole keyboard family... different instruments, just like we have different interaction technologies.

Asking whether people will view today's designs in 50 or 100 years, that's harder. How many of us today watch movies from the early 1900s?

Unknown said...

When you ask whether or not some of this work will be viewed in 50, or even 100 years it leads to another question that I'm concerned with: What would it take to make that the case, and who's taking steps towards it?

We still view and enjoy paintings, sculptures, and architecture (perhaps a more appropriate comparison to what we do with interactive media) from 100 years ago. Will we do the same with digital media?

I think in a lot of ways it's up to the community to acknowledge and commemorate its own accomplishments. Maybe somebody should start some sort of museum of digital media.

Anonymous said...

Great question. During my recent career upheavals I've been thinking about this topic quite a bit.

Here's my take: Pretty much all day, eveyday since I was 18 I have worked on digital media, be that in PhotoShop, Illustrator, 3DS Max, Director, Flash, After Effects, Premiere, Dreamweaver or even PHP, Java or .NET. etc etc

I'm now 28, so that's 10 years.

What I've noticed is that even though there are many tools and platforms, which are continually changing, there are only a few ideas. There are timelines and there are layers. There are vector graphics and there are bitmap graphics. There are static languages and there are dynamic languages. There's OOP and there's scripting. There's audio and there's video. There's 2D and there's 3D.

The technologies may change, but in using a technology you learn more than just the hacks, bugs and keyboard shortcuts... you learn something about the underlying structures of communication that you are using.

Guess what - animation programs will always have layers and timelines. FOR EVER! Future civilisations with flying cars and only 3 fingers will still use a timeline to create animation, just as we still arrange words into sentances like the romans did, and still edit films like the soviet russians did, and still draw doodles like early humans did in their caves.

Things I worked out when I started using Director in 1999 I still use every day. Lingo is dead, but the dream of Lingo remains....


Anonymous said...

Just another quick thought. When I moved from AS2 to AS3 I don't feel like I RE-learned anything. If there was a learning bump, it was because it was my first time using a language with Error reporting and an Event model. These are new skills that are now in our toolboxes for ever!