Demystifying Web Development: What It Means to Be a Modern Web Developer

The world of modern web development is not understood by anyone outside of it. The intricacies, the intense segmentation, and the true strength of the professional community is often overlooked by the layperson.

“So what do you do?” they ask. “I’m a web developer.” I pause for a moment. “I build and design websites and web applications.”

“Oh cool I used to do some of that at my old job with Frontpage.”

I’ve had about a million conversations with people that start off like this. For sake of brevity, I usually leave things at this – but secretly I’m steaming inside. Not necessarily because they’re not familiar with my realm, but because how the profession is written off as something almost trivial. The value is constantly being eroded and stereotyped, making educating clients and consumers that much more difficult. This is partly because to get your hands dirty in development the only thing you really need is a text editor and a web browser. That’s where many people think development ends.

If web development was an iceberg that would be the 18 feet sticking out of the ocean. What you don’t see is the remaining monstrosity that sinks the hive-mind Titanic as it approaches and blows people’s minds so much so that they nearly refuse to acknowledge it exists or is even nearly as complex as it truly is.

Being a web developer means three things:

  1. You program for the web – anything you program or develop is meant to be executed on a web server or presented to an end-user in a browser
  2. Most of the work you do is never seen or understood by those who use it. They just accept that it works and don’t ask questions as to why or how.
  3. You have a specialty. You are awesome using AJAX, web design, PHP, Haskell, ASP.net, Actionscript, Zend Framework or any of the other 149.54 million tools, methods, languages, and utilities that help make web development such an interesting field.

This escapes a lot of people even in 2010. Think of it in terms of construction. You want to build a house (or website) so you draw up plans that meet your needs, find a suitable plot of land for it, start estimating costs, and start assembling a team to complete the job. You’re going to need a general contractor or foreman, a drywall crew, framing crew, clearing crew, electricians, plumbers, masonry crew, cabinet crew, and the list goes on. And within each of those general fields there are also long lists of specialties. You have to be careful to select the right candidate for the right purpose and stay mindful of each crew’s specialties and core competencies. Don’t expect your master masons to be able to run electrical wiring…

The same is true in web development. Given the nearly endless array of specialties and qualities that development professionals possess, the world that consumes the fruits of our labor needs to know what it truly takes to make a monster like facebook, a twitter, a blog, or even a digg or reddit. This comes through on sites like craigslist where someone wants to create the next facebook or myspace – for a budget of $220 and a 24 pack of Miller Light. There is no concept to what it takes to actually create something from the ground up, make it function properly, design a great user interface, and get people to start using it.

As professionals we all develop specialties to serve a certain purpose – it’s about time we stop generalizing and start educating. The next time someone asks what you do for a living tell them as succinctly as possibile – any of the following are good examples:

  • “I’m a web developer. My main focus is developing applications that balance the servers for large sites like facebook and myspace so that they will run smoothly even though 18 million people are using them at one time”
  • “I’m a web developer specializing in designing highly usable web sites and applications. I make the web sites your love easier to use – so it just works the way you expect it to.”
  • “I’m a web developer and build the technology that powers web-based video streaming so you can watch the latest “Keeping up with the Kardashians” on hulu.”

Don’t cop out. Tell people what you do – don’t be mad at them for having no idea what it means to be a developer. Educate them.

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Chris Malpass

I'm a web developer, photographer, casual gamer, and technophile from Virginia, USA.