How to Be a Web Developer – Part 1: What you’ll need to know

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Welcome to Part 1 of our How to Be a Web Developer series! If you’re just joining us, you’ll want to check out the series intro. Otherwise, read on for a look at some of the essential coding skills you’ll need to pick up to be a web developer.

What is Web Development?

The first thing you need to know in order to become a web developer is what web development actually is. It’s a term that gets used very broadly, and one person’s definition of web development can be pretty different from the next.

Generally speaking, web development is working on the technical aspects of a website. A web designer is the person in charge of the visual design and layout of the website, and the web developer takes that design and vision from a static design to a fully working website that is online and available to the world.

It’s important to note that many web designers are also developers in that they build the websites they design. Also, occasionally, a self-identified web developer will also offer design services. The terms are not interchangeable, but they also aren’t mutually exclusive.

So far, this definition is pretty standard, but where it gets more hazy is the specific tools and technologies that are being used to complete the technical aspect of any given website. Some grumpy web developers out there believe that you aren’t a “real” web developer until you’ve mastered this or that programming language, but this distinction is arbitrary and unhelpful. If you focus on learning new coding skills and perfecting the ones you already have, you’re a “real” web developer.

Anything you do to help get a website up and running (that isn’t specifically design) can be considered web development for practical purposes, from something as simple as entering content for a page, to projects as complex as building WordPress themes from scratch.

Must-Have Coding Knowledge

HTML and CSS are the building blocks of all web development, so it’s important to know these two technologies relatively well. To be a successful web developer, you’ll probably need to know more than just these (more on that in a minute), but in the very least, being able to whip up some custom HTML and CSS is an important skill. More than anything, it’s important to understand how these two technologies work together: HTML sets the structure on the page and CSS changes or styles the way it looks.

Keep in mind, too, that it’s perfectly all right to stop and look things up as you go. Anytime I’m working with forms and inputs in HTML, for instance, I have to pull up some sort of reference to remind me of how each item is coded. While it is rewarding to sit down and create a webpage with HTML & CSS from memory, that ability is something you can strive for, not a requirement to start.

Beyond the Basics

You can think of HTML and CSS as the raw materials of web development. Everybody starts with them, but there are wildly different uses for them and methods to manipulate them. It’s like how all woodworkers start with wood, but they have many different tools and techniques to craft that wood into an infinite number of beautiful woodworkings.

As I mentioned in the first section, the only skills you really need to know as a web developer are those that enable you to meet the needs of your specific clients. This almost always includes HTML and CSS, but as you move forward from there, you need to consider what clients you want to work with and what websites or apps you want to build. We will go more in depth on these considerations in future articles, but here are a few examples of what to be thinking about:

  • If you build an online store for a jewelry designer, you’ll need to know some kind of e-commerce platform.
  • If your clients want responsive websites (that adapt to various devices, like iPhones), spend some time learning about media queries.
  • If you decide you want to work primarily on WordPress sites, then your next steps will be to learn about how to build WordPress themes and gain a working knowledge of PHP (the language behind WordPress).

When deciding what to learn next, focus on developing the skills that enable you to build the specific types of sites that you want to build (or that your ideal clients are going to need).

Become a Master Researcher

One essential skill for web developers is the ability to research and find solid information about the language you’re coding in. You don’t need to have languages completely memorized, but you do need to know how to find the information you don’t have at your fingertips.

With each language you work with, you’ll want to get comfortable with credible resources and manuals. For example, one great starting point for HTML, CSS or JavaScript questions is the Mozilla Developer Network. If you’re working on PHP, you’ll want to bookmark the the PHP Manual. At first glance, these resources can appear intimidating due to their technical nature, but if you jump in, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised how much you already understand.

Often times, a well-phrased Google search can get you to your answer quicker than “paging” through a manual can. For instance, imagine you’re customizing a WordPress theme and you want to place a widget on a part of the page that the theme has not been set up for. If you start by searching “add widgets” you’ll find lots of resources about how to add widgets to a “widgetable area“. This isn’t exactly what you’re looking for, because your theme lacks the so-called “widgetable area” you need. But! At least you now have some new vocabulary to work with as you continue with your search. From this point, you could start Googling “add widgetable area”. If you do this search, it’ll lead you to some articles about “registering sidebars” which, as it turns out, is exactly what you need.

With practice, you’ll get better about crafting queries that get you to your solution quicker and quicker. In the meantime, don’t give up! The beautiful thing about being a web developer is that all the answers are at your fingertips, you just have to find them.

In Summary

  • Every web developer must start out with HTML and CSS.
  • From there, identify the languages you’ll need to accomplish the kind of projects you need to build.
  • You don’t have to know all the answers, you have Google.

We have a long way to go from here, but I hope this gives you a clear pictures of what skills you need to know, and, perhaps more importantly, what skills you don’t need to know in order to become a successful web developer.

Stay tuned for the next article in this series where I’ll cover some non-coding related skills you’ll need to know to be a sucessful web developer.


Hope Connell is an INTJ, podcast enthusiast, and English major turned web developer. When she isn’t providing down-to-earth web development for creative women, you can find her reading, brainstorming, and chasing her two toddlers.

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