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Software Development

Learn the Basics of Web Development

POSTED 03/23/2015
By Mark Feffer

Web development is hot.

A combination of forces — including a reviving economy, technical advances and consumer expectations — have aligned to boost the popularity of Web development courses and the demand for professionals who can build, maintain, and scale everything from small-business websites to e-commerce destinations offering millions of products.

While many people with many skills can be involved in a website’s creation, it’s the developer who creates the package of technology to deliver content, sell products or allow users to communicate with businesses, government or each other.

As a career, it’s one of the most dynamic in the technology space. Recruiters and developers say that the demand for people who can create leading-edge websites is dramatic — and growing. As the economy improves, investors have increased the amount of money they’re putting into Web-related businesses. At the same time, established companies are aggressively developing their Web presence and creating new products to offer online. The result is a scramble for technical professionals who can deliver the goods.

“There’s a tremendous demand for Web developers right now, and there’s certainly a dearth of talent,” says Mark Stagno, a Principal in the Software Technology Search division of Waltham, Mass.-based technical recruiter WinterWyman. That dynamic of supply and demand is making Web development a lucrative field. Salaries are rising, with experienced professionals often earning well into six figures.

Mark Stagno WinterWyman

Mark Stagno of WinterWyman

Behind the Scenes

Typically, Web development is broken into two parts: The “front end” refers to the pages users see and interact with. The “back end” encompasses the databases, content management systems and other technology on which the site is built.

Each of these areas has its own set of tools and technical concerns. On the front end, developers rely on JavaScript, HTML and Cascading Style Sheets — CSS for short – along with frameworks like Angular.js and Backbone.js. Back-end specialists work with a variety of platforms including Python, Django, PHP and Ruby on Rails. Traditionally, developers have focused on either front-end or back-end work, though new tools, notably Node.js, are making it easier to operate in both environments.

Though HTML and CSS are pillars of front-end development, JavaScript stands apart as one of the Web’s great drivers. “JavaScript is the business logic of the Internet,” says Will Kelly, recruiting director in Dallas for the IT recruiter Modis. Browsers today, he notes, “are very powerful pipes” with the ability to distribute consumer and business applications conveniently and at relatively little expense. Think about products like Salesforce, which helps companies manage their customer relationships, or Amazon, which sells everything from books to plumbing fixtures. JavaScript’s cross-platform functionality, flexibility, and wide installed base have dramatically streamlined development and made increasingly powerful capabilities more accessible.

William Kelly Modis

Will Kelly, recruiting director at Modis.

Meanwhile, languages like Python and PHP and frameworks such as Ruby on Rails and Django have simplified the work involved in making the back end operate. They’re “making it easier to build apps, which is leading to the creation of more startups,” Stagno said.

Of course, technology and technical practices are always evolving. While most developers suggest focusing your work on either the front or back end, more companies are posting jobs for “full-stack” developers — professionals who engage with the complete span of a website’s construction and operation.

The increasing use of Node.js, says Jake Spurlock, an engineer on Wired’s tech team, allows developers to apply JavaScript to back-end applications, making it easier to have a foot in both worlds. Besides that, he says, coders usually aren’t averse to experimenting in new areas in their quest to get things done. Practically speaking, someone who codes a lot will be able to explore both sides and find the area that most appeals to them.

Times Are Good . . .

Although an improving economy and increased investment are the most often cited drivers of the demand for Web developers, Modis’ Kelly points out another dynamic: In his words, “The Internet’s not extra anymore.”

Indeed, it’s almost impossible to imagine a business today that doesn’t have some kind of Web presence. Customers have come to expect clean, well-performing sites that act as both a source of information and a channel for purchases. As a result, companies pay close attention to how their websites operate, what they should offer in the future, and how they’re going to get there. “Putting money into a website can have an immediate impact on business,” said Jim Johnson, vice president of technology staffing services with recruiter Robert Half Technology. “Consumers rely on the Web for information on purchasing, so companies will invest there.”

At the same time, the scope of Web development is expanding. Where once “the World Wide Web” was something you signed into from a desktop, today information and transactions are available through smartphones, tablets, Internet TVs and gaming consoles. That means that even companies who are satisfied with their Web presence are under pressure to step up the pace of their technical efforts. “There’s so much being done and the economy’s doing well,” Kelly said. “Everyone’s trying to do so much at the same time.”

 

That puts Web developers in a good position when it comes to finding work. “There’s a lot of demand and it’s really hard to find people, so you can be picky about where you want to go,” Spurlock said.

While candidates weigh their options, employers are focusing more on each prospect’s fundamental ability to get the job done. Some Web technologies are so new, “you can’t qualify candidates in the typical way,” Kelly said. “Some of these kids have only been coding for three years. You have to qualify them based on what they can do, not on how much experience they have.” He sees employers emphasizing candidates’ projects and code and giving less weight to the appearance of their resumés or their soft skills: “It’s all about the code.”

“You’re seeing people right out of school get into internships or jobs with brand-name companies,” Spurlock said. “People can go right from school to a brand and a real project.”

That doesn’t mean that experience has become worthless. While Stagno agrees that “demand is all across the board,” he sees many employers targeting candidates with at least two years of work under their belts. “Employers are still looking for people with engineering backgrounds and will pay a premium for them,” he said. Still, “If you have two years or 20, with the right skills, you’re going to have options.”

. . . and So Is the Pay

As you might expect, all this demand is pushing salaries higher, even for people who are relatively new to the field. According to PayScale.com, the average Web developer in the U.S. makes between $54,000 and $80,000, with experience in areas like JavaScript and HTML5 moving those numbers up.

Specializing can mean more money. For example, a front-end developer/engineer earns an average of $66,000 annually, according to PayScale. That same person with Angular.js skills can earn $78,000. Back end developers average $75,000.

Of course, those are just averages. How much an individual makes will vary according to experience, skills and the dynamics of the local market. Kelly has seen people with just three years of experience earning $90,000, and recruiters say the gap has been narrowing between a relative novice’s salary and what a veteran developer makes. No longer does simply having years in the workplace always justify higher pay.

How to Learn

For those interested in learning Web development or expanding their skills, there’s no shortage of resources available. It doesn’t matter whether you learn best through online courses, attending a class, working through texts or otherwise studying on your own. Among the most popular ways to learn:

  • Meetups. Often organized by the Web development community itself, meetups have the advantage of being local and cheap, if not outright free. Their events usually combine formal presentations with informal discussions and networking, giving you plenty of opportunities to meet people who are either just learning or have volunteered to help others out. By becoming a regular, you’ll hone your skills and get a line on projects that can expand your network or even lead to a paying job.

However you learn, it’s best to cast a wide net, said Russell Keith-Magee, president of the Django Software Foundation. “Every framework has its good points and bad points. Don’t learn just one,” he said. “Explore.”

Russell Keith Magee

Russell Keith-Magee, President of the Django Software Foundation.

When you do, pay attention to the community that has developed around the technology. How active is it? How do established members treat newcomers? Such dynamics can be important to your growth as a developer. As Keith-Magee said, “The community, after all, is the people you’ll be asking for help.”

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