Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There

One of the most beautifully freeing aspects of the internet is that it makes information easily available to anyone willing to put in the effort. This includes all the materials one might want for learning to develop web applications. Fortunately for the web development community as a whole, this has allowed many an intrepid adventurer to climb up the mountains of knowledge and claim the moniker of web developer”. This poses a problem for businesses, however – with so many candidates vying for their attention, how does one filter out the good, from the bad, from the just plain ugly? Simple: choose the one who doesn’t feed the Jabberwocky!

Say Hello To The Monster

jabberwocky

What is the Jabberwocky? To find out, we make a quick trip to Wonderland …

In a land of Red Queens, strange metamorphoses, and funny hats, the Jabberwocky wins the gold medal for the most nonsensical entry in Alice’s trek into the realms of the fantastic. Yet despite this (or perhaps because of it), Alice can’t help but try to find meaning in this strangely written tale. Of course, she really doesn’t understand the poem (it is nonsense, after all), but she does come up with something:

‘It seems very pretty,’ she said when she had finished it, ‘but it’s rather hard to understand!’ (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate’
– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There

The Jabberwocky Is Waiting… In Your Website

What Alice didn’t know is that Jabberwockys are very real! Vile and manxsome creatures, they hide in the shadows of otherwise perfectly innocent web pages, waiting for the right moment to bare their gruesome teeth. The inexperienced – unfamiliar with its cruel and cunning ways – try to placate a Jabberwocky when they find it, feeding it the finest bits and bytes in a desperate attempt to convince them to turn away and slither back to their lair. It works, of course, for a while, but Jabberwockys are a clever lot – they feed on the bits and bytes to make themselves stronger, fiercer, and far more menacing than they ever were before. Finally, the Jabberwocky makes its strike! In one mighty swoop, the beast consumes the once proud web page, leaving nothing but a tangled mess behind.

Although Sun-Tzu wasn’t talking about web development, a quotation of his applies aptly here:

“If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.”

We need to understand the nature of the Jabberwocky if we are going to slay it. So what is this Jabberwocky, and more importantly what does it mean for your website?

The “Smelly” Code Phenomenon

In the website context, the “Jabberwocky” is a collection of code on your website that is collectively “smelly”– that is code which, while it may not actually be broken (the website does what its supposed to) but is riddled with design flaws. Now, to a business owner, this probably seems a bit philosophical – after all, if your website works the way you want it to, who really cares if the Jabberwocky lurks beneath?

To look for an answer, we’ll need to return to our poem, and ask ‘how difficult would it be to expand on this poem’? Could you easily write more about the Jabberwocky, keep the same “poetic style”, and still keep consistent with the plot? Better yet, how can you even be sure that the plot was consistent in the first place?

When a website transmogrifies into a Jabberwocky, making changes starts to become just like making a change in the poem. Worse, since the Jabberwocky’s prime feature is nonsense and disorder, it will be less and less likely that anyone would be able to reliably say that it is free of bugs. The greater a hold the Jabberwocky holds over your website, the greater the chance that something unexpected will happen.

So how do we avoid the Jabberwocky? You can’t – sooner or later, the Jabberwocky always gets its due. However, a careful developer will take steps to keep it at bay for as long as possible. How long the Jabberwocky can be kept at bay is what differentiates a professional web developer, from someone who has simply mastered the art of Google Fu.

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