How I Got into Web Development
I thought it would be a good idea to share with you all how I got into Web Development, whether you are someone who’s trying to get into the industry yourself, or you might just be interested in my own personal experiences. This will no doubt show my age because I started in the late 90s and early 00s so technology has moved on quite a bit since then. Still, a lot of the core principles have stayed the same, as well as the soft skills associated with them.
My journey started when I noticed the home computer was gathering dust in the corner of the living room, once the initial excitement of Windows 95 (yes I’m that old) faded, the household didn’t really have any use for it. This would have been around 1999/2000 the days when I would walk back from home after school and boot the old thing up, dial-up using the modem, and log in to MSN Messenger to carry on the conversations I’d just left with my mates at the school gates. At that point, it felt like we were right on the edge of modern technology.
Anyway…I stumbled upon the computer having Microsoft FrontPage pre-installed, it was kind of like Microsoft Word but you could link the pages together which would form some kind of website and then you could publish it onto the web. Looking back I guess it was an incredibly crude WYSIWYG Editor.
I got frustrated with the lack of control the software gave me in terms of design and functionality and learned that the pages I was making in the WYSIWYG were being generated into HTML. That was the Eureka moment for me. The fact that you could control the way something looked by code blew my mind.
Soon after I went to my local Waterstones and started looking for books on this magic wizardry. I found only a handful of coding books, I guess it wasn’t really that popular at the time. But I did find one ‘DHTML and CSS Advanced’;
School was coming to an end and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do career-wise so I enrolled at my local college. There was no specific ‘Web Development’ course, none that would give me enough credits to get into University anyway so I found the nearest thing was a general IT course. I guess it was a means to an end for me personally, but there was one module on there specifically for Web Development so I thought it was the closest thing to what I wanted to do.
First taste of a successful website
I can’t say that I enjoyed College, but I got Wednesday afternoons free so I would get home as soon as I could and I used that time to build my own personal websites. A lot of the time was spent just playing around with HTML and CSS and seeing how much I could push the boundaries of what it could do. When the Web Development module came around in College I thought I’d better create something a bit more tangible so I built up a fan site for the band Blur. The timing of the website was really fortunate because it was around the time of MySpace and people were trying to customize their pages to set them apart from everyone else.
My Blur fan site hosted the little milk cartoon gifs which would link back to my site and it really took off.
The site wasn’t at all particularly complex but it seemed to gather quite a following, I would often follow the website statistics, and at its peak, it reached 1 million views in 2 years. It was featured in the blur fanzine, the producers of the Coffee & TV video Hammer & Tongs gave it a nod on their website, and even Graham Coxon gave it a mention in a Pitchfork Interview.
Finally, after my college years, I managed to get a place at Teesside University which in itself felt like an incredible achievement and I was keen to accelerate my learning to a more advanced level so I could use my skill set in the real world. In my first year, I learned Adobe Flash and ActionScript (I know incredibly obsolete now), a great module where we had to build a whole website using Notepad which really brushed up on my HTML and CSS, and a module using Visual Studio to build a basic CMS in ASP.NET and C#.
And in the 3rd year, I built an online game using PHP and MySQL for my dissertation, developed e-commerce websites, built a website in JSP (Java Server Pages), which I can say I’ve never used ever again, and studied a module on future technologies.
My first job!
To be honest I didn’t really enjoy the tail end of the second year, and final year of University. They felt like a drag. I was ready to go out into the real world and start developing and creating websites for businesses. In between my final exams, I applied for my first full-time web development job back in my hometown, and I managed to secure it before I graduated! I was super happy and fully ready for something I had been waiting for since high school.
Initially, the role was to build HTML Emails and convert web designs into flat HTML and CSS pages. I really enjoyed creating clean pixel-perfect code and before too long we were developing our own CMS in PHP. WordPress was around at this time but it was primarily used for blogs and the platform wasn’t ready to build fully functional websites, so at that time the majority of agencies would build their own CMS platforms.
The major difference between education and a full-time role was that there were often times when you have to learn new skills on the job, whether this is a payment gateway or API for example. So typically I would read the documentation and spend a little bit of time understanding the task at hand before giving an estimation based on predicting time/cost.
The most rewarding part of working for a company is definitely your colleagues. When working full time you will spend 40+ hours a week with these people, which can be more than family and friends. So it’s great to collaborate and share ideas with different types of people.
Biggest lessons I’ve learned in 15+ years of Web Development
Know your worth
The hardest lesson I learned in that first role was not properly understanding my own value, I was just happy doing the thing I enjoyed and worked so hard to get. If I could go back and give myself advice it would be to spend a good amount of time looking at the various jobs on offer to understand the salary brackets and to have multiple interviews to give me a broader sense of the opportunities that are presented. My second bit of advice would be that your first job is just that, I think once you have put down a marker for your career after a couple of years you give yourself a much better chance at getting a higher paid salary in another company (unless you are lucky enough to land a good job first time around).
Surround yourself with smarter people
Another good life lesson I’ve learned along the way is that you learn much more by surrounding yourself with people that are smarter than you. When I was younger my ego got in the way of me learning more but now I’m much more likely to admit when I don’t know something and that is ok. Also, the range and type of people is also a good factor, if the team is small your reliant on only a select few people which can hinder your progress. Unfortunately for employers, one of the ways around this is to work at multiple agencies throughout your career developing more experience with each move. The other option for this is to work for a company that is open to things like attending tech conferences for example.
Understand your limits
It’s much easier and beneficial for everyone around you to know and understand what you are good at and what you aren’t. Good companies will home in on your core strengths thus allowing you to concentrate on those skill sets instead of trying to bend you into something you’ll never be good at. That’s not to say that there isn’t room for improvement in other areas but everyone has their own limitations to what they can achieve. If you know what your colleagues are good at, then you can rely on them to help you and vice versa.
Always learn new things
The sector of technology is always evolving and changing so understanding evolving technologies like a new language or framework will help you be one step ahead if a client or colleague should ask you about it. That’s not to say you need to learn the whole language/framework altogether but understanding the pros/cons and when to use certain things will help in the long run. For example, when ACFs came into WordPress it was a game changer. I regularly check in on Udemy and YouTube videos to make sure I’m up to date with the current trends. Some of my favorite YouTubers are:
The University Debate
Due to eLearning, it’s become much easier to learn a new skill such as coding without the need for a University degree. A recent survey from StackOverflow suggests that 60% of programmers in full-time employment have a bachelor’s degree or greater. While this data suggests that a degree is still important I’ve seen firsthand many self-taught developers get into employment. Having said that I would have always taken the path of University even though the degree was a bit of a drag I enjoyed the social aspects, it made me a much more confident person and I’m glad I have those memories. I think looking back I was more than capable of holding down a part-time job in web development while I was learning and this would have given me more of a structure whilst still in education.
Conclusion / What I would do to get into Web Development today