What it Takes to Start a Web Development Career

If you're looking to start or accelerate a career in the Web industry the path isn't always clear. Nathan shares his advice to get educated, get experience, and get noticed.

For the last 8 years, I’ve run Dayton Web Developers, a local monthly meetup that offers an opportunity for developers to learn from each other, network, and socialize. I find I’m often asked by attendees how to get into the industry, or how to become more in-demand so they don’t have to take jobs that require chewing on glass rather than doing what they love. So at our last meetup, we held a panel discussion on the topic of careers in the Web industry, and I thought I’d share some of the key takeaways from that discussion.

Education

One of the most frequent questions we get at our meetup and a big question during our panel discussion was about education.

What kind of degree should I get? Is a degree required? What about these new bootcamps that are popping up all over?

When it comes to education, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for every person. We are all different and learn in different ways. We also come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and our education options don’t always look the same. The great thing about the Web industry is that it’s not an exclusivist club just for those who can afford the entrance fee.

Self-taught

If you have the drive, you can take the self-taught route to becoming a web developer. That’s the route I took, both because I lacked resources for higher education and didn’t thrive well in that environment. The self-taught route requires either a fair amount of self-discipline or just an obsessive/compulsive mental disorder related to creating things with computers (that was me). Everything you need to know to be a great web developer is online, and much of it will cost you nothing.

College Degree

A college degree is the best option if you thrive in a structured academic environment, or you have aspirations to work in the Web as a legit scientist (think Google search algorithms). There are some companies out there that will not consider hiring anyone without that 4-year diploma, but most companies are more interested in your experience and expertise. One of the great benefits of a college education is that you will learn in a very systematic way starting with fundamentals and building on top of that. As someone who skipped the college experience, I found myself having to learn fundamental concepts later in my career that would have been helpful earlier.

If you go this route, in almost all cases, a general Computer Science degree is what you want. There may be different flavors of that degree at your school, but don’t be too concerned with which track will get you the better job. Just take the one that you are most interested in.

Bootcamps and Apprenticeships

Bootcamps have become very popular these days as an alternative or supplement to a college education. These schools are small and intimate and provide a short-term but intensive learning environment geared very specifically to web development or design. These bootcamps are not cheap, but they are certainly less expensive than a 4-year degree and will actually provide you with more in-depth and up-to-date training in specific areas of web development than a typical university would. However, not all bootcamps are as great as they are marketed to be. Choose carefully, and find one that has a good track record of happy graduates.

Apprenticeships have also gained in popularity in our industry recently. These programs will vary but offer a similar experience to a bootcamp in a setting with a diverse group of experienced developers. Sparkbox has been running an apprenticeship program for the last five years, and we recently launched a site to help aggregate some of the best apprenticeships in the industry.

Keep Learning

Regardless of which path of education you take to get started in your career, keep in mind that the learning will never end. The Web moves faster than almost any other industry, and if you don’t keep up with the changes, you will become irrelevant. For most of us in this industry, that is one of the reasons we love it so much.

Experience

Another big question is from those finished with or just finishing school. They have the education but little or no real-world experience of actually building stuff on the web.

How do I gain the experience I need to get the job I will really love?

One of the common pitfalls of our academic systems is that there is a lot of book learning with not nearly enough hands-on practical experience. The only way to get real, valuable experience is to just build stuff on the web every chance you get. Don’t wait until you are finished with school. Build stuff right now.

You don’t have to start by building an entire website from scratch. Let me share a dirty little secret with you. Every single web developer on the planet has started out by installing Wordpress. With a couple of clicks you have a nice website with a cool theme. Instant success. Then you figure out how to change some colors and add a new logo. You move some things around on the page. You tinker and break things and put them back together again.

As you build stuff, you’ll find some things more interesting than others. If Javascript fascinates you, and you dream of getting paid to write Javascript all day, then start building Javascript stuff. Right now. Then do it again tomorrow. And the next day. And before you know it, someone is going to plop down a bag of money and ask you to write Javascript all day.

Get Noticed

The next big question is from people who know they are doing great work but want potential employers or clients to notice them among the seemingly ever-expanding sea of web developers out there.

I feel like I’m doing great work, but how do I get the company I want to work for to take notice.

Share Your Work

One of the most important things you can do to establish your credibility as a web developer, especially early in your career, is to share your work with the world. It’s easy to list projects and skills on your resume, but nothing establishes more credibility than showing someone your actual designs, sites, or code out in the wild.

On the web today, there is no end of pathways to sharing your work, but here are just a few examples:

  • Designers can create a Dribbble account and start posting design work to get feedback.

  • If you do any frontend development writing HTML, CSS, and Javascript, get a free Codepen account and start creating examples of your work. Show the world that new navigation technique you came up with or some examples of how to create a logo in SVG.

  • If you write any kind of code, get involved in open-source projects on sites like Github. Create a public repository to host the code you use for your own blog. If you use a certain library or plugin found on Github, find ways to contribute with bug fixes or improvements to the code or even just with suggestions.

  • Consider blogging or tweeting about the work you are doing.

Then, when you send in a resume to a company you really want to work for, include links to these accounts to show the work that you have done. Your application will stand out from others who have nothing tangible to share.

Make Personal Connections

The other important way to get noticed is to make personal connections with people who are working in the web industry, and that means being social. Employers and clients don’t just hire people for their skillset, they hire people they know, like, and trust. Every time you get to know someone new or deepen a connection in the web industry, you increase your opportunities for the future.

Look for opportunities on a regular basis to meet or socialize with other people in the Web. Look for meetups in your local area to attend, and when you go, be intentional about meeting new people there. Look for conferences to attend, keeping in mind that conferences are not just about learning new things but about connecting with people. Many web workers have found jobs they love because of someone they met at a conference.

There is also great value in connecting with people online. If you are on Twitter, don’t just follow people, but engage in conversation.  If you use Github, add friendly and helpful comments on issues, even if it’s just a thank you for all the hard work. Comment on blog posts that you enjoy, and share them with others.

Even though all these small interactions with people don’t seem like much, they all work toward building extremely valuable social capital that will pay back huge dividends.

Love What You Do

I love what I do. Working in the web industry has been such a fulfilling way to make a living, and I get excited about other people joining the same path. Opportunities in this industry to do work that you love will most likely not just fall in your lap, but they are accessible to just about anyone if you just work the basics: learn, build stuff, share your work, and make personal connections. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself excited to go to work every day, wondering how you got so lucky to get paid to do what you love.

 

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