UPDATE: Check out a more recent post on the best way to learn to programming for beginners.
So you want to become a web developer? Smart move. The web is a growth industry and I don't know of any university curriculum that adequately prepares people for this career. A good web developer can pull in well more than the median annual wage and job benefits and promotion opportunity are great.
So what do you need to know?
- Programming 101
- HTML & CSS
- Read the Manual
- Pick a Content Management Systems (CMS)
- How Long Will It Take?
First things first, web developer is really code for web programmer. As a programmer you've got to know programming fundamentals. Concepts like an if statement and for loops allow you to create programs that do things. In my own personal experience learning programming fundamentals requires consistent exposure and rote learning followed by an epiphany, where you actually discover why you've been writing the things you've been writing down.
While you can certainly start with online tutorials, I think the best place to cut your teeth on these concepts is in a classroom, surrounded by people who are likely just as puzzled as you are. It's likely that these classes will be conducted in C, C++ or Java. Remember: you're getting core concepts, so the language doesn't matter much.
HTML & CSS
HyperText Markup Language & Cascading Style Sheets (aka HTML & CSS) are the most important elements in the display of every webpage you visit. While a basic well-formed webpage can be created in as few as 6 lines...
<!DOCTYPE html> <html> <body> Hello World </body> </html>
...the art of HTML & CSS is a long and storied tradition. Hand-coded HTML/CSS (using a text editor) and getting websites to display consistently across web browsers (FireFox, Safari, etc.) is something akin to alchemy. No matter what you do in this regard, no matter how painful it is, stay away from WYSIWYG editors, like Dreamweaver (sorry Adobe!).
NOTE: in your browser, look for the command that reads "View Source" and start examining the HTML on the websites you visit the most.
Read the Manual
Now that you've got the basics covered, it's time to go back to the beginning and read the PHP Manual. Yes, read the manual. Not only will you get a thorough review of a true web-based language, but you'll also likely pick up some brand new concepts that will broaden your horizons.
Pick a Content Management Systems (CMS)
These days knowing web-fundamentals is not enough. If you want to be marketable, you need to pick a Content Management System. I am a huge advocate of Drupal, with WordPress coming in at a close second. Both of these CMSs are built on PHP, are on fast growth curves and boast strong communities. These communities mean there is plenty of contributed code and consensus around best practices, while the fast growth curves mean jobs.
How Long Will It Take?
Why I Wrote This Article
Those people who are regular readers of the Metal Toad Blog, may be wondering why I wrote this article. Our content, in general, tends to be very technical and targeted at people already in the industry. It's a tale of two worlds. As the rest of the economy has been faltering, the internet economy has been seeing a huge boom, from ecommerce to consultancies. Many of the services and tools traditionally practiced offline have increasingly become web-enabled, while the educational system has been falling short of providing people with a good inroad into what is becoming increasingly a closed loop system. People and companies are rewarded work, based on a track record of successful projects.
As an employer and as someone who cares about other people I would like to see a broader field of employees and companies competing with Metal Toad. I'd like more people riding the wave of web technology. If you are a web developer, encourage people to consider it as a career and give them pointers.
If you are transitioning to web development from another career, plan for a 3 year ramp up. Roughly speaking, Year 1, should be devoted to taking classes, stumbling around and being confused. Year 2, should be devoted to building websites for anyone and everyone who asks you for one (and there will be a lot of people) and contributing to opensource projects (like Drupal and WordPress). And Year 3, is when you should be able to expect to either start charging for your work as a freelancer or when you might be able to pickup an intro position (or internship) with a company.
No matter how far you make it in your journey to becoming a web developer, the above steps will open new doors and opportunities. You may find along the way, you prefer the discipline of Project Management or you might become an iPhone App developer or a blogger or an instructor. Pursuit of technology will enrich your life and broaden your horizons and just may put you on a career path in an industry that is destined for even more growth in the coming decades.
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