Working as a Web developer is something like playing a sport with a continuously changing set of rules. One minute you’re charging down the field at full throttle, and then suddenly the rules change and you need to readjust your strategy -- fast -- or find yourself benched.
Successful Web developers -- at least, those who enjoy their work -- thrive in this topsy-turvy environment, reveling in the ever-evolving nature of Web development. Web 2.0, mashups, Ajax, audio and video all provide ample fodder for active brains -- even if it means difficult technical skills mastered over the years may be in-demand one moment, close-to-worthless the next.
“The Web is still the Wild West in many aspects,” says Adrian Holovaty, who writes a blog about Web development and serves as editor of editorial innovations at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive. “I love the fact the rules haven’t yet been set in stone and that new techniques and technologies come along all the time.”
Web Developer Basics
A Web developer is responsible for the behind-the-scenes code and programming of Web sites and Web-based services. While the edges are often blurred in Web positions, Web developers typically have a more technical orientation than Web designers, who focus on a site’s look and feel, and information architects, who focus on sites’ organization. Web developers’ projects vary widely, ranging from bare-bones active Web pages to complex, multilayered Web applications that might power an ecommerce site.
Web developers need to have broad-based knowledge, encompassing areas such as:
“To me, the title Web developer implies a level of knowledge and ability that spans multiple layers of Web development -- sort of a jack-of-all-trades skill set,” says Holovaty.
Given the collaborative aspects of Web work, strong soft skills are crucial. “Eighty percent of this game is about communication, another 15 percent is about expectation management and 5 percent is actually doing the work,” says Thomas Myer, author of No Nonsense XML Web Development with PHP.
- Usability and interface design.
- Web 2.0 skills, including Ajax.
- Server-side technologies, such as ASP, PHP and Ruby on Rails.
- Databases such as MySQL, SQL Server, Oracle or IBM’s DB2.
- Online marketing and search engine optimization.
Today’s Web developers typically have at least a bachelor’s degree, even if they have gained much of their know-how from on-the-job experience. To break into the field, you need to demonstrate you can create Web sites and services. “Build a Web application for fun,” suggests Holovaty. “The best way to learn is if you’re applying your new skills to something that you genuinely want to do.”
Or contribute to an open-source project. “Why?” asks Holovaty, who is a lead developer of the open-source programming framework Django. “Because I can see for myself the quality of the person’s code. I can see how the person works with other developers, I can see the person’s communication skills and I can see that the person is genuinely interested enough in development that he or she devotes spare time to working on projects purely for the love of it.”
Web developers need top-notch technical skills and a willingness to switch to new technologies as they evolve. “The hard skills come and go…you must have the ability to learn new programming languages quickly,” says Myer.
And those skills should extend beyond hardcore technical skills. “You can’t be a good developer without having some knowledge of terms such as accessibility, usability and search engine optimization,” says Cristian Darie, coauthor of AJAX and PHP: Building Responsive Web Applications and other books about Web technologies.
“As a Web developer, it is very important not only to be skilled in today’s technologies, but also to keep an open eye for future developments and emerging technologies,” adds Darie.
Other key skills include tasks like gathering requirements and working with clients to review prototypes and designs. “If a developer can keep a good attitude, ask lots of questions, gather requirements, set the customer's expectations and handle all the little project things that come up -- they’re much more valuable to me than the antisocial ubergeek who never emerges from his cave and scowls at all mere mortals,” says Myer.