The Internet is one of the fastest-evolving technologies ever invented. Think about all of the websites you visit each day and how they’ve changed over the past five years: Facebook’s News Feed, Tumblr’s infinite dashboard, even something as straightforward as the Los Angeles Times, which has transformed from a replica of a foldable newspaper to a multimedia news site that includes embedded video and social-media friendly “sharelines” to help users understand and spread important news stories.
Today’s web developers need to be able to easily navigate the web of today as well as prepare for the web of tomorrow — which is coming faster than we think! The Bureau of Labor Statistics cites the median web developer salary as $62,500 per year, and indicates that this career is expected to have faster than average growth over the next decade.
As it looks like there will be many web developer jobs in the near future, what should today’s students do to prepare for those careers? I talked to two web experts to see what advice they had to give.
Changes in the industry
Sven Aas, Vice President of the HighEdWeb Association and Lead Web Applications Developer at Mount Holyoke College, explained that the past decade has been marked by forward-thinking web developers who have driven innovation beyond the initial limitations of the web browser.
“Ten years ago—there’s an important book in our profession called Designing With Web Standards by Jeffrey Zeldman, and that book came out in 2003. There were people working with the concept of web standards, but it really got moving in the next few years after the publication of that book. What that meant is that those people who were creating content on the web and creating tools for the web were beginning to focus less on what the browser makers wanted to support and more on how the web was intended to work,” explained Aas.
Social media, dynamic web pages, streaming video, the writeable web — all of these concepts developed in the past decade and are now an integrated part of contemporary life. Because of this, and because the web is now such a fundamental user experience in all of our lives, people who can design and innovate these experiences are becoming more and more valued.
“It seems like there’s becoming more of a dichotomy between back-end and front-end developers,” Joel Meyers, Web Director for AIGA Seattle and Partner and Director of Business Development of Fuse IQ, told me. He explained that the back-end developers are “real engineers that can go in and write script from scratch and know different libraries,” while the front-end developers are people who “come from a design background and have worked with CSS and HTML.”
In short: the back-end developers provide the structure that supports everything else, and the front-end developers create the user experience.
“The really hot careers are the ones who can really understand UI/UX and also code it,” Meyers said.
Where might web careers develop in the future? “That’s a little hard to predict,” Aas said, “because you’ve seen the amount of change in the last decade.” Aas suggests that content strategy might be an area of future growth, while Meyers notes that another emerging area involves developers who are able to create experiences across multiple devices, such as tablets, wearables and laptops.
Most of all, people who want careers in web development have to be ready to shift along with constant changes and new trends. “They have to be an open cup and be able to sense where the market is going,” Meyers said.
How today’s students can prepare
“People who are interested in designing [should] learn something about programming,” Aas said. “People who are into programming [should] learn more about designing.”
Understanding current web languages and libraries and combining them with a strong sense of design helps people prepare for web development careers that will be increasingly focused on optimizing user experiences.
“The most important thing college students can do is to get involved somehow,” Aas said. “Look for the folks in their institution that are working on the web now, people in IT or communications offices, or a student organization that needs someone to run their website.”
Building your own websites while you’re still in college is an essential way to prepare for a web development career. “Sometimes that might mean knocking on doors and asking people to let you get involved in something that maybe they weren’t already including students in,” Aas said.
Why is it so important to get hands-on work in web development while still in college? Consider it a way of building a tangible, real-world resume.
“People can see, ‘oh, you’ve actually done this,’” Meyers said. “You’ve created a front end, this really nice-looking fresh design, because you’re a fresh designer and developer, but also you’re using the latest technologies [and] the latest libraries that are coming out.”
How to get hired as a web developer
“A lot of big companies are starting to snatch people out of college,” Meyers said. “Even some of the larger associations and non-profits are needing the heavier-duty developers to implement these ideas that they have for greater impact and social purpose.”
Meyers says students should ask themselves:
“What is the niche that I want to get into? Do I want to specialize, and become that Android developer, or do I want to diversify, and be a jack of all trades and be able to pull in partners to supplement development in other areas?”
Meyers stresses that the more students know about particular industry fields, the more they’ll be able to understand how to enter the field and get a good job. Mobile development, for example, is different from business-to-business web development. Understanding how industries differ can help students prepare to focus on a specific industry or to navigate between industries as they transition from job to job.
Today’s students should also be prepared to continue to adapt and diversify throughout their careers.
“Constant change is here to stay,” Meyers said.
Or, as Aas put it:
“The key thing, as a web professional, is to never stop learning. Personally, I’m attracted to this profession because it never gets boring. I don’t know what my tools are going to look like in three years, or in 10 years.”
I think we’ll all be excited to see what happens in web development in the next decade, and what new career opportunities emerge.
Nicole Dieker is a freelance copywriter and essayist. She writes regularly for The Billfold on the intersection of freelance writing and personal finance, and her work has also appeared in The Toast, Yearbook Office, and Boing Boing.