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When I started in web development training in 1998, the job prospects for people who knew HTML and some CSS or JavaScript were pretty good. Everybody needed a website and relatively few people knew how to create one. The beauty of it from a career perspective was that HTML and CSS are relatively easy to learn for someone who is comfortable with computers. And basic JavaScript isn’t that tough either, but as it’s a scripting language, it requires the developer to have some basic logic skills. In those days, you could earn a living with just the basics, and web development shops appeared all over the place.

In 1999, I interned for Zefer, a big web development shop. It called itself an internet consulting firm, but it was basically a web development company with a bunch of salespeople /consultants. Zefer landed a whopping $100 million dollars in venture capital in May 1999 and another $48 million in March 2001, which turned out to be about six months before it went belly up. I’m not sure how many of its employees were on the web development side, but it literally hired people off the street. I remember one guy came into the office to ask if they were hiring and they set him up with a desk that day. These days, finding a job in web development is not that easy. It’s even hard to find an internship. One problem is that the term “web developer” is vague.

What is a web developer?

You can divide web developers into two main types:

  1. Client-side developers – people who write the code interpreted by the browser. This includes HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, and in some cases, XML.
  2. Server-side developers – people who write the code interpreted by the server. Server-side developers can further be divided into many types, including:
    1. ASP.NET developers
    2. Multiple variants of Java EE developers
    3. PHP developers
    4. ColdFusion developers

We still even get people taking our Classic ASP classes, but most of them have inherited legacy code that they need to maintain. If you’re looking to get into web development now and you’re starting from scratch, here’s my recommended approach.

Learn HTML First

HTML provides the structure to a web page: the title, headings, paragraphs, lists, tables, and so on. Every web developer needs to know HTML.

And the good news is that HTML is not that difficult, but like anything new, you’ll need to study. You can learn HTML using a free HTML tutorial or with an HTML book. And, of course, we’d love to have you take our HTML class.

You should count on being able to work efficiently in HTML after just 2-4 weeks of hard work.

CSS and JavaScript

If you want to be a client-side developer, you need to know both CSS and JavaScript, in addition to HTML.


CSS is the language that controls the display (e.g, where and which elements are displayed) and formatting (e.g, how the elements are displayed) of a web page. JavaScript is used to make single web pages more interactive (e.g, form validation, drop-down menus, moving objects on the page).

CSS is not incredibly difficult to learn, and now that browsers support it better, it’s much easier to make it work across browsers without learning a bunch of CSS hacks.

Count on another 2-4 weeks to learn CSS.


JavaScript is a scripting language. Many people find that it goes from relatively easy to phenomenally difficult very fast as you try to do more and more complex things. Anyone who has created dropdown menus using JavaScript knows just how complicated it can get. The nice thing is that you can gradually increase your JavaScript knowledge and with it increase your productivity.

Count on 2 weeks to become minimally productive with JavaScript and constant learning as you use it.

Like with HTML, there are plenty of books and free tutorials on CSS and JavaScript. And, again, we provide CSS training and JavaScript training.

Server-side Technologies

On the server-side, you have a slew of choices. The easiest languages to get up to speed quickly on are ColdFusion and PHP, and that might be a good place to start. ColdFusion is the simplest to learn, but it isn’t nearly as common as PHP. On the other hand, there are a lot fewer ColdFusion developers than PHP developers, so you might find the competition less fierce. In any case, you can become dangerous with either language in about a month, but it will likely take 3-6 months before you can become truly productive.

ASP.NET and Java EE are much more difficult to learn. Both require that you first learn a sophisticated programming language (C# or VB for ASP.NET and Java for JavaEE). While the jobs are better paying, you’ll be competing for them with people who have computer science degrees. If you decide to go down either of these paths, count on a lot of hard work over an extended period of time.

A Note on SQL

SQL is the language for querying databases. There are developers who focus on SQL (database developers), but most server-side web developers will find it helpful, if not necessary, to have at least basic SQL skills.

A Note on XML

XML is a metalanguage for storing and transferring data. It has become prevalent in many aspects of web development. Many things in life are easier to understand than to learn. For example, you might understand how an operation is performed, but you couldn’t do it yourself. XML is the opposite. Basic XML is easy to learn, but it’s hard to understand what the benefit is until you start actually using it in development projects.

A Note on Ajax

Ajax is a client-side technique for communicating with a server using JavaScript. It is the magic behind cool websites such as Google Maps and Google Wonder Wheel. In the already confusing world of web development, Ajax muddies the distinction between client-side and server-side web development. The main language used in Ajax is JavaScript (a client-side technology); however, to understand what you can do with Ajax, you must understand the business logic that happens on the server and, in many cases, it helps to have a good understanding of the underlying database(s). And now, with a zillion and a half Ajax frameworks, it’s extremely difficult to decide which direction to take. This is true both for companies making technology decisions and for individuals trying to decide how best to increase their skill sets.

Our recommendation on SQL, XML and Ajax for new web developers? Cross those bridges when you come to them. It’ll likely take at least a year before you’re ready and things in the web development world change quickly.

You may find the following table useful in figuring out how long it might take you to become a web developer.

Key: applies to shaded rows

3 Must have this skill
2 Should have this skill
1 Useful to have this skill
0 Don’t need this skill

Common languages in web development

Client-side developer 3 3 3 1 0
Server-side developer* 3 1 1 2 2
Time to learn (min weeks)** 2 2 2 1 1
Time to learn (max weeks)** 4 4 4 2 4
*Server-side developers must also learn a server-side technology.
**This is the time it takes to become minimally productive. You’ll never stop learning.

Best of luck!

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8 Responses to “How to Become a Web Developer”

  1. Well said. Those were the good old days. Projects were easy to come buy and being a freelance programmer was quite hectic what with projects lined up for months upfront. But now things are different, after the recession projects are not that easy to come by.

  2. Hi..this is saddam from india….i’m working in a software company as a production control analyst..But here i no need to develop any new things.Actually i love to do things differnt..I’m very interested in server side application development..So give me a sucession how to became a good application developer..I’m learning php after my office over at home by following some video tutorials..plz suggest me..

  3. Hi Saddam, If you are trying to learn the information on your own, you might be interested in our self-paced web development courses. Here is a link to the courses: http://www.webucator.com/instructor-guided-e-learning/courses.cfm

  4. Actually until today there are many people(pro or not pro) still very confuse with what is “Web developer(programmer)” what is “Web Designer(Layout/Display design),I don’t know what would you think but I have been working in a company that provide websites technology consultant for many years, slowly I found myself more understand about the differences between these two scopes

  5. I am looking to do training to become a web developer. Although, I need something I can do at home. Have any good schools you can recommend that have an online degree for this?? I have had a hard time finding legit ones.

  6. Great post. Thank you for breaking it down. This is exactly the information I needed to figure out what to tackle, in what order to tackle it, how long it will take and what level of productivity/proficiency to expect from my efforts. Empowering info.

  7. Excellent post, so clear and everything we’d want to know about the basics. I have it bookmarked as I start my journey, thanks very much.

  8. Is this information still current? It looks like it was posted on May 3, 2010, but things seem to change pretty quickly in the IT industry.


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