Career Overview: Web Development

Posted by The Editors on December 3, 2012

Web development is a blanket term that can be used to cover all the people who plan, build, and manage a given website-which can include everyone from product and project managers to writers, designers, information architects, programmers, and database administrators. Web dev professionals are charged with nothing less than conceiving, designing, building, programming, populating with content, branding, marketing, supporting, and managing websites.

The Web developer's is a 24/7 world. The Web developer contends with server migrations, download times, and site crashes in a virtual space driven by databases. The Web developer's Holy Grail is to optimize user experience to drive e-commerce sales, website-content subscription purchases, or online ad click-throughs (or whatever else is the primary strategic goal of a specific website).

Web developers typically work long hours, either as part of an in-house staff, professional service, or consulting organization, or on a contract basis. At smaller organizations, the Web developer will wear a variety of hats; at a larger organization, his or her role will be better defined.

What You'll Do
The job of the Web development team is to create a compelling website. Such websites, generally speaking, are designed to support a business, be it selling things ( or enabling other kinds of transactions (Charles Schwab & Co., eBay), providing financial advice (The Motley Fool) or other online content (The Onion), or helping people search the Web (Google).

Web developers conceive of the website strategy, working for or in consultation with the decision-makers at a company. They figure out the hardware that the site should use, the software necessary to make it function properly, the design and navigation that will get the public to use the site in a way that will support its business, and the information that will keep users coming back. Web developers also program the site so that it functions effectively, adding tools like community discussions and newsletter sign-up capability. They also set up reporting tools and databases to record traffic to the site and what visitors are doing there. (Buying things? Chatting with others? Clicking through on banner or popup ads? Reading?)

These days, because Web surfers are increasingly accessing the Internet via wireless devices, be they Wi-Fi- or Bluetooth-enabled computers, cell phones, or personal digital assistants, Web dev professionals are increasingly facing the need to optimize the websites they run for wireless devices.

Who Does Well
Some Web development positions require technical skills. Creating the back end of a website (the database and hardware infrastructure on which it sits and through which orders are fulfilled, for instance) and the front end (the design and navigation and tools used by site visitors, such as stock quotes, relocation calculators, polls) requires programming skills.

Other positions may require a familiarity with technology, but not technical skills. Producing a site-coordinating between front-end and back-end developers, making sure the site supports the company's brand, working with users and designers to come up with a navigable site, ensuring that the content supports the site's business objectives-does not necessarily require high-level technical skills, though a familiarity with technology is generally a prerequisite.

Product management and content development jobs can also require an understanding of a specific industry or business niche; for instance, a potential content developer at an investment-advice website will typically need to display an understanding of stocks and the markets to get the job.

Content developers write, edit, shape, and aggregate information. Project managers work across functions to make sure projects get finished on time. Their role requires exceptional communication and organization skills. Since all roles typically interact with others, interpersonal skills are a must in this field.


Because there are so many varied functions in Web development, there are many varied skills that can lead to a job. Experience with scripting and markup languages such as HTML, XML, CGI, and Java is required for many production and programming positions. Knowledge of Web development tools such as Acrobat and Dreamweaver can be invaluable.

If you're going into Web design, minimum requirements include knowledge of HTML, Photoshop, and Illustrator. If you're going into content development or production, HTML and writing skills will be important. Experience with Web databases is a required skill for most database jobs.

In addition to technical skills, companies want to hire people with a good knowledge of how the Web works, experience using the Web for research, and knowledge of trends in e-business. Across the board, the ability to work effectively with a team and communicate both in writing and orally will be necessary. Organizational and project-management skills are critical to production, and many roles require the ability to persuade others who don't necessarily report to you.

Colleges and universities are beginning to offer programs specializing in Web design or e-commerce. Traditional marketing, graphic design, communications, computer science, and engineering degrees can help you break into the field, but probably won't be enough on their own. Many vocational and technical schools offer specialized training. One of the best ways to get your start is by building up a portfolio through internships or classes. A good internship or course will expose a student to all aspects of Web development, including group collaboration.

As in any of the other IT professions, Web developers must continually update their skills. Computer technology changes in the blink of an eye. The skills that helped you get your last job might not help you keep the next. Continuing education classes, trade shows, seminars, and periodicals on Internet topics abound. Take advantage of them.

Job Outlook

Web development is no longer the anyone-can-get-a-job-at-a-Web-company career it was half a decade ago. But the Internet is here to stay (indeed, the number of people using the Web nearly tripled between 2000 and 2005), and advances in technology will make Web skills an ongoing need in the corporate world, in government, at academic institutions, and in the nonprofit sector.

As wireless and broadband technologies move us ever closer to an Internet that can be integrated with all aspects of our lives, the nature of jobs in Web development will continue to evolve. Those seeking a career in the industry should pay attention to the development of new technologies as well as industry trends. They should work to continually learn new skills relevant to the changes taking place in the industry.

Career Tracks

Web developers come from a variety of backgrounds. Some have grown up with the Internet. Others have adapted skills from the offline world, such as brand management, desktop publishing, or journalism, and applied them online.

The following description of career tracks provides a general introduction to the range of opportunities in Web development. Keep in mind that job descriptions in this field are fluid, rather than fixed; many roles evolve into other roles, and where a title means one thing at one company, it can mean something quite different at another.

Web Design
Web designers are responsible for creating the look and feel of a website. They create logos, banners, and other graphics; determine where to put text; and structure a site's navigation. Designers need to think about download times as well as creating an attractive and functional site. They also work closely with the marketing team and branding experts to ensure that a site conveys a consistent image. The design function is frequently outsourced by smaller organizations that do not have the budget or inclination to maintain a website themselves.

Web Programming
Programmers turn the Web development team's concepts into a functioning site. They must know HTML, the basic coding language of websites, inside and out. Most are experts in the more sophisticated programming languages such as Java, JavaScript, CGI, and Perl. Programmers should also have experience with Web development tools such as Dreamweaver, Flash, and ColdFusion. These languages and tools enhance the capability of websites by adding animation, sound, interactive games, online forms, and e-commerce functions to otherwise flat pages.

While highly technical coding knowledge is essential, programmers must also have a strong understanding of user interface design. They need to know how people view, use, and interact with their computers. A successful Web programmer is able to put this understanding into practice.

Web Production
Web producers play different roles in different organizations. In some cases, they code the text and graphics that are on a site. In other cases, they coordinate across departments to make sure a website's content works the way it's supposed to. That is, they make sure links lead where they are supposed to lead; online forms function the way the programmer intended; and everything else that's on the site works the way it was intended to.

Producers coordinate between various Web developers to make sure the site supports the company's business objectives. They work with users to define the look, feel, and products offered through a site; coordinate between the design, content, and programming teams to make sure the site functions effectively; and track user behavior and work with other departments to incorporate what they learn into the site's general operation. In a sense, the producer orchestrates the other developers to ensure everything works as harmoniously as possible to improve the company's business.

Content Development
Content developers often work in the Web production department. They create the content-whether text, audio, or video clips-that visitors see when they access a website. Content developers write, edit, shape, and publish articles, features, and other information on a website. They also work with programmers to define and build, for instance, a salary calculator or interactive game. Often, content developers are responsible for the look and feel of a particular area within a site, adding information, moving information around, sending newsletters to users, and so on.

Project Management
Project managers lead teams to get things done. They set a production schedule, set deadlines, and make sure everyone works together. They are usually responsible for allocating resources-both human and financial. Project managers can lead discrete projects, such as adding community to a website; they can also oversee wider areas. The role requires excellent communications skills, a strong technical background, an understanding of budgets, project plans, and schedules, and management experience.

System Administration
The systems administrator is the information-technology professional responsible for maintaining and servicing an organization's server, hardware, and software. System administrators look after the security of the computer system and how it interfaces with the Internet service provider (ISP).

An e-commerce site can also have a technical administrator for its transactional software. The programming behind online transactions is far more complicated than standard Web production. Security and technology issues are the main concern of a technical administrator. He or she ensures that e-commerce transactions run smoothly and do not bog down other Web applications. And more and more companies are hiring specialists to help ensure the security of their sites and any transactions that take place on those sites.

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