Every now and then the question gets asked. It's a completely innocent one and it's something I'm sure we've all asked at some point in our lives, yet it's a question that is still to this day shrouded in such mystery when you're looking to break into the Industry, "How do I become a Web Developer?".

A few months back I had an email asking this very question. It's always nice to be able to help others as you were once helped, so of course I replied with a few suggestions. After realising they may be of some help to a wider audience, I thought I'd turn this into a little blog post.

Formal Education

First things first, formal education. Is it required? Which course should I go on? But what about the loans!? Don’t worry, again, we’ve all been there. The idea of formal education is currently a hotly debated topic in the Web Industry and I could sit here for hours debating it with myself, never mind anyone else. So, as a graduate of a highly recommended course I sum things up as...

Is it required? No, although it definitely helped me. Whilst other industries may see Formal Education as mandatory, it's not the case for this one (at least at the time of this writing) and I know many great Web Developers and Designers who did not choose the formal education path.

That being said, I’d still recommend it to anyone who asked. Why? Well because it gives you the freedom that you can’t get from anywhere else. Yes you will have assignments and what seem like crazy deadlines at the time, but you also get the chance to explore, both yourself and the potential career path you’re looking to go down.

Quick note

I will not be getting into whether or not I agree with the current state of our Educational system here in the UK. I'm also not going to argue about the financial costs, that's for you to decide but the way I see it is when I was earning around £20000 per year before tax I was paying ~£50 per month.

If you'd rather that money go on something else then more power too'ya, but I stick by the decision I made and things worked out for me yet I appreciate that's not something everyone is willing to do and would rather get a subscription to Treehouse or explore different paths.

Being comfortable with the basics

OK, so regardless of whether or not you want to go into formal education, you need to get comfortable with the basics. It's not enough to simply be on a course, to complete a track on Codecademy or to read a few books and assume by the end of it you know everything you need in your first job.

For brevity sake let's imagine that at a base level there are two clear career paths as a Web Developer:

  • Front-end Developer: The more creative, design-focused option which stereotypically involves the styling and interaction of a website.
  • Back-end Developer: The more engineer focused option which stereotypically involves creating the functionality of a website.

Whilst it's perfectly acceptable to study both, most will choose one to focus on at least for the start of their career before branching off into different areas. Depending on your choice you'll be required to study different languages.

Front-end Developers

For the majority of budding developer's I'd recommend looking into Front-end Development as it typically has a more gentle learning curve. That being said it's important not to mistake this learning curve as the 'easy option' and does not mean it lacks the complexity of Back-end Development but rather at a base level Front-end Development has simpler languages to interact with and get started.

So when starting out with Front-end Development you'll have two languages to get familiar with:

  • HTML: The markup, structure and content of the website.
  • CSS: The styling and layout of the website.

With both of these you will be able to learn and produce an awful lot of work and you can then start utilising the power of JavaScript to add more complex interactions, animations and features to a website.

Back-end Developers

On the flip side, Back-end Development has a lot of different languages that you could go into first.

Based on my own experience I'd recommend first looking into PHP, which in my opinion has a lot more beginner-level tutorials to help you understand the fundamentals surrounding Back-end Development. There are many other back-end languages but for now I'd recommend sticking with PHP.

Whichever path you take

Naturally this all leads onto the next question. "Where do I start learning these languages outside of academia?"

The beauty of the web is that you don’t even have to go outside of your bedroom to learn about the Industry, just go online. Regardless of the paths you've taken, I'd recommend looking at the following online tutorial websites to understand the fundamentals of your given languages:

All of which are great ways to understand the fundamentals of the Web and introduce you to it's many languages.

Of course, there are also many other ways to learn, so don't stick to one medium:

  • Blogs - Many creatives love to give a little back to prospective professionals (Heck, that's why Assortment exists!). Start following blogs such as Tutsplus or CSS Tricks and go from there.
  • Podcasts - Listening to podcasts such as Boagworld and ShopTalk Show is how I found my passion for the Web and I could never thank my college tutor enough for introducing me to them. I'm sure they won't be for everyone, but give them a try.
  • Books - There's so many to count. I’d recommend giving the HTML and CSS Book a try at first and then working your way through the A Book Apart catalog.
  • Networking - Going to small events in your town/city such as Hey! and Forefront Leeds are great ways to share your thoughts with professionals in your local community. There's a real warm feeling in knowing everyone in the room is just as much of a nerd about the Web as you.

Build stuff

Whilst going through all of the above, remember to keep it practical. In the past few years guest lecturing at Universities and running Work in the Web I’ve noticed that people respond better when tackling a real problem, rather than theorising with dummy syntax.

Say you’re looking into 'technique X’, why not try building something with it? Theorising about a technique is very far removed from using it in practice. Knowing it's quirks, shortcuts and bugs are just as important as the syntax itself, if not more.

Just! Build! Websites!

Fig 1: Just! Build! Websites! - Chris Coyier's slogan from the Shoptalk Show podcast.

Over on the Shoptalk show podcast Chris Coyier uses the phrase "Just! Build! Websites!". It's become a little mantra of theirs and even has it's own soundbite. Whilst perhaps a little cheesy, I do agree with the notion whereby you need experience of developing websites just as much as you need to read about developing them. If you're not putting the skills you're learning from research into practice then how do you hope to solidify your understanding?

I appreciate sometimes it can be hard to think of something to build so don't worry I've got you covered. Take a look at this repository from Melanie Richards which has a plethora of different ideas to work form.

Family member has a small sweet shop? Design said member a website then. Or maybe your local pizza shop has a logo that makes it seem like the 90s are calling? Design them a new one! If you’re still stuck, why not ask your friends for inspiration? Or better yet, talk to the professionals you’ll meet at those Networking events you're already researching about... right?

Work experience

Finally, after you’ve ticked off all of the above I’d recommend seeking out some professional work experience. Being able to get a first hand look at the profession you’re going into is crucial. You’ll be able to see the full project lifecycle, what it's like to work with clients and creating a piece of work for specific goals in mind.

I've known of many agencies who offer a wide range of Work Experience roles, ranging from a few weeks to a full year, which is what we offer at Mixd, the agency I work for. All it takes is a quick introduction, be that speaking to them at Networking events (another reason to go to them!) or just sending them over a quick email. Whats the worst that could happen? They don’t respond? They say no? /shrug Oh well, ask someone else.

When I was looking for work experience I remember emailing around 30 different agencies and after some no's and "sorry we don't have the capacity right now" I ended up with 3 interviews, with the last one landing me a full year's worth of work experience and a part time job in my third year of University. All you need is one agency to say yes, it's not that farfetched is it?

Concluding thoughts

I hope that this post has given you a brief insight into how you can become a Web Developer. It may be daunting at first but try to take it in your stride, remember that everyone has been in your shoes at one point. If you have any questions on any of this post then feel free to leave a comment, I'd love to help.

Until next time 🙌


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