If you’re a tech fanatic with a flair for design, web development may be the career for you.
Web developers are computer programmers who build websites, web applications and other online experiences. So if a website looks great and operates as it should, the web developers working behind the scenes are probably doing their jobs well.
In this guide, we discuss what it takes to start, grow and flourish as a web developer.
Web development is a computer programming discipline focused on building internet applications. While many people think of applications as software that runs directly on your computer – a web browser, an email client or an office client – everything online is considered an application, including this website.
Web developers write programs that make it all happen, from the visual interfaces users interact with to the servers that store and serve information. Depending on individual focus, a web developer may be responsible for anything in that process, like how a website looks or functions or ensuring its accessibility.
Nathan McMinn, technical co-founder at Conserv, an art collection environment monitoring startup, believes web developers have a higher calling beyond pure function.
“Web developers are responsible for building web applications that you interact with and making those experiences absolutely delightful,” McMinn says. “If you’re not delighting customers, you’re doing it wrong.”
Front-end web development, sometimes called client-side development, is the creation of user interfaces – what a user sees, clicks, taps and interacts with when using the application. Front-end developers tend to have a strong sense of design and style, and their work increasingly overlaps with that of web designers. Some front-end developers focus almost exclusively on visual presentation, while others, often called user experience or UX engineers, write code that ensures a user’s experience in the application is fluid and intuitive.
Back-end web developers write the code that stores, processes and sends data to and from the front end to the back-end servers. This data can include everything from user information like emails and passwords to posts, articles or video information. Database administrators, or DBAs, are back-end developers who focus on creating and updating databases that store information but not actually processing that information. Other back-end developers, known as systems administrators, maintain and optimize the servers that run the code and databases.
Full-stack web developers are capable of building both the front-end user interfaces and the back-end processes to varying levels of proficiency – though some in the industry believe that a true full-stack developer is a bit of a myth.
“A full-stack developer is someone who pretends to be good at both,” McMinn says. “They’re responsible for building an application from the stuff you see on your screen all the way to the database that drives the application, and literally everything in between. And it’s hard to be consistently good at all of that.”
While being a tech generalist can keep employment options open and give developers a well-rounded understanding of the profession as a whole, focusing on one major area – back end or front end – could provide a clearer path and a more rewarding career.
Markup languages are some of the simplest kinds of programming languages, as they don’t handle any logic or actual functionality. Markup languages explain the structure of a document. The most common is hypertext markup language, or HTML. HTML is the cornerstone of the web – everything you see on a website or web app is HTML. HTML is one of three types of code a web browser can understand.
But HTML alone can only go so far. To make HTML look a certain way, you need to style it with CSS, a kind of stylesheet language. HTML and CSS work together to create user interfaces in web development. In addition to “vanilla” CSS, there are several pre-processed stylesheet languages, like LESS and SASS, which can be compiled to CSS that the web browser can understand.
These server-side or back-end languages are also used to communicate with databases and retrieve information from them. A database is a structured way of storing information that makes it easy to retrieve by code, similar in some ways to a spreadsheet. Some popular databases include MySQL, SQLite, Postgres, Microsoft SQL Server and MongoDB. SQL, or structured query language, is a way of talking to the database to retrieve, create, update and delete information.
Web developers use many other tools outside of languages and other technologies. Integrated development environments, or IDEs, are text editors designed for code, and they allow add-ons and plug-ins that make writing and running code easier. Visual Studio Code, Xcode and Sublime Text are IDEs. Git and GitHub are tools that make code management easier, even if multiple developers are working on a single project. Jira and Clubhouse are two project management tools that help development teams know who’s working on what.
In addition to the technical skills required to be a web developer, certain characteristics make someone uniquely suited for the career. According to Jennifer Nelson, UX engineer at loan management and analytics company Quantalytix, problem-solving is one of the most important skills a developer can have.
“It’s impossible to know everything there is to know about web development because it’s constantly evolving,” Nelson says. “We have to be clever in the way we put information together. You really have to be creative as a problem-solver.”
More than anything, it takes a person who loves to learn and thrives from a constant challenge. Development requires a certain level of perseverance to work through tough bugs and thorny coding problems.
“The No. 1 thing is grit,” McMinn says. “If I give you, as a web dev, a list of 20 bugs, it might take you 15 minutes to do 10 of those, but three days to solve the hardest one … I’ve seen a lot of really technically talented people fail in the workforce because they give up too easily.”
Everyone starts their careers in web development differently. While the traditional route of getting a college degree in computer science or a similar program is common, it’s not necessarily the hallmark of a good or successful developer. A growing number of successful web developers are self-taught through online resources and local classes.
Gauging the necessity of a degree depends largely on what kind of work a developer wants to pursue, according to McMinn.
“If you’re building an app to show people pictures of cats, a bug or two isn’t the end of the world, and you can get by without deep training,” he says. “If you’re writing flight training software, you probably need to go get a master’s.”
The developer community tends to be fairly gentle on beginners offline, and local communities can be an excellent learning resource. Consider finding a developer Meetup group in your area to get started.
Tech boot camps that offer introductions to the vast world of web development are popping up in cities across the U.S. and can help prospective developers get their foot in the door with local and national companies. But thorough research is important when considering the time and monetary investment of a boot camp, and understanding learning opportunities, company connections, acceptance rates and job placement rates is vital.
Nelson, who transitioned from middle school teacher to developer through a Flatiron School coding boot camp, says not all boot camps are created equal.
“The role of most boot camps is really just to get someone into an entry-level position, or to give them some foundation to grow on,” she says. “I do recommend to anyone looking into that to do their homework.”
Generally, no matter which route is taken – traditional degree, self-education or boot camp – training is only half the battle. Getting a job and succeeding as a web developer can be challenging and may not happen overnight. Diligence in job hunting, learning beyond just what is taught and self-guided practice will help you go far.
While there is no set path to becoming a web developer, there are a few things you can do to get started.
1. Make sure it’s what you want. The reality of the job isn’t always fun and cushy. There are lots of videos, blogs and interviews online that explore what the day-to-day life of a web developer looks like at various companies, and these can help determine whether this is the career path for you.
“Find somewhere that offers free learning to start, to see if this is even something you want,” Nelson says.
2. Start learning the fundamentals. Whether through self-education, college or boot camps, learn the programming fundamentals that you can develop further on your own.
“Find a language that’s widely used and learn it deeply. Really focus on the foundation of coding languages and how they work,” Nelson says. “The technology is going to change … (but) you’ll have what you need to pick up other things.”
3. Expand your knowledge. Once you have learned a language or two and understand the core fundamentals, it’s time to go deeper into other disciplines. Learn the most popular frameworks in the languages you know and build a few projects on your own. Some of the most useful projects you could take on at this stage would be a portfolio, personal website or virtual resume.
“Once you’ve got a good base, start working with a component-based framework like React or Angular,” McMinn says. “That’s way more satisfying than seeing a console spit out numbers.”
4. Apply for jobs. When you have some training and experience under your belt, start applying for jobs. If you’re looking for entry-level jobs, your best bet may be to find a startup that needs help.
“The amount you’ll learn in that first year at a startup is what you’d learn in four (in a corporate job),” McMinn says. “Good leadership will show you areas where you struggle and help you get better.”
5. Consider freebie and open-source work. If you can’t find a job or you’re blocked by companies looking for someone with more experience, contributing to open-source projects and small, nonpaying local teams can be a great resume booster. Open-source projects are software whose source code is publicly available and is built through community contribution. You’ll learn a lot about working on a team when contributing to open-source projects, which is valuable to potential employers.
6. Keep learning, and start teaching. No matter how new you are to web development, teaching what you know to someone less experienced is a great way to reinforce your knowledge. They’ll ask you questions you may not have the answers to, leading you to research them and learn something new. The world of web development is ever-changing, so be ready to keep learning.
The job market for web developers is growing each year. Web developer jobs are widely available across the U.S. While larger cities like San Francisco and Seattle are among the highest paying cities for web developers, many smaller metro areas show significant growth in the tech sector.
Wherever you begin, McMinn says he believes that trajectory defines the web development field, both in terms of financial growth and skill advancement.
“Learning to code is like learning to use a hammer,” he says. “You know the tools, but are you building a garden bench or are you going to build the Taj Mahal? It’s just a tool. There’s no wrong answer.”