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Guess what one thing successful web developers have in common across the board?
A degree in computer science? Nope. A background in programming? Not that either.
The answer is, a fervent enthusiasm for their work. The only thing 100% necessary to success as a web developer is passion. A deep interest in the field fuels the perseverance that the best developers use to hone their technical skills, keep up with industry updates and trends, and challenge their creativity in order to deliver the best possible work.
Career paths are more circuitous than ever before: gone are the days of the linear route up the hierarchy within one company. That means, if you’re interested in web development, but are currently employed in a different field or have zero professional experience in the industry so far, you’re totally not out of luck. The career successes of three of Udacity‘s top-tier web developers—Michael Wales, Cameron Pittman, and Ben Jaffe—demonstrate just how far you can get as a developer, no matter where you begin or how you build from there.
We’ll start with Michael, Udacity’s Web Dev Curriculum Manager.
Michael got his first computer around age 10. It was, typical of the early ’90s, a clunky desktop with a hard drive of 100 MB, what seemed to him like an infinite amount of space that one could never fill up. Michael did fill up part of that family computer’s hard drive as he dabbled away at writing programs. Yes, even at age 10, Michael’s path to professional web developer unfurled before him. “I was the kid who was never asked, what are you going to be when you grow up?” he said. “I just knew, and everyone else knew.”
When Michael turned 12, a new development kicked his hobby up a notch and further solidified his professional destiny. His household got Internet access. Bolstered by the previous few years’ experience writing software programs, Michael cut his teeth as a novice web developer building sites on Angelfire and the now-defunct GeoCities. In fact, his father, afraid Michael might break or crash the computer, had forbid him from signing up for GeoCities. Defiant, Michael went against his father’s advice. Recently, the latter assured his son that disregarding that directive was the best decision Michael ever made.
That’s because Michael now boasts more than 16 years of web development experience, all of which has been self-taught. Free and inexpensive online courses weren’t available when he was growing up learning the ropes of the field, and college just never stuck for him. What was around? QBasic library books, which he checked out with the fever of a kid bit by the bug of something just a little bit more compelling than your average enjoyable pastime. One book in particular Michael set his sights on as a resource well worth owning: PHP Fast & Easy by Prima Publishing. To this day, he can still picture the cover of the book in his mind. He saved his allowance for nine weeks to earn the $45 that the book cost. Aside from that expense, Michael’s path from neophyte to pro was paid for only by his dedication and intellectual curiosity. “You could DIY [Do It Yourself] it with the text editor that came with the computer,” he said.
Your code either works, or it doesn’t. The site you’re building is either easy to navigate and quick to load, or it’s not.
The lack of formal education in web development did him no disservice in landing top-tier jobs. From 2003 to 2009, Michael was employed by the United States Air Force as a Computer Systems Administrator NCO. He developed everything from client systems and network infrastructure for the Joint Space Operations Center, which serves as the focal point for all military space operations, to web-based real-time satellite maps of interior Alaska wildfires for use by military, civilian, and emergency personnel during disaster response. He was also the sole system and network technician for five General Officers within the Joint Functional Component Command for Space and the 14th Air Force, addressing all software, hardware, and infrastructure issues across all network classification levels.
He saved his allowance for nine weeks to earn the $45 that [PHP Fast & Easy] cost.
His favorite aspect of the job specifically, and web development in general? “I learn something new every single day,” he said. “What is popular and relevant today will be completely outdated in six months.” In other words, no matter your level of experience, it’s crucial to stay up on industry trends and best practices. Michael also appreciates how working as a dev lets you see immediate results and get instant feedback. Your code either works, or it doesn’t. The site you’re building is either easy to navigate and quick to load, or it’s not. There’s no murky confusion like there is in fields that are less quantitative when it comes to product.
The benefits of pursuing a career as a web developer, to Michael, are manifold. There’s little overhead—you can make it without a hundred-thousand-dollar degree—and there’s no chance of being “past your prime” like in professional sports, dance, manufacturing, or other physically demanding jobs. It’s also, according to Michael, something anyone can do, regardless of their background or what types of skills come easiest to them. “I believe there’s a misconception that programming is hard,” he said. “It’s not difficult to do. You just have to sit down and do it.”
If you can’t afford, or can’t justify the expense of, a college degree related to web development, that by no means invalidates your career prospects. Take Michael’s lead and teach yourself (Udacity’s course catalog is a great place to start). Some of the tools he refers to today include CSS Tricks, Mozilla Developer Network, HTML5 Rocks, and the blogs of Christian Heilmann, Paul Irish, and Paul Lewis. “As I’m learning a new language or framework, I tend to just learn through reading the documentation, following through with their simple examples, then building a real project I’m interested in with that technology,” he said. “For deeper learning, read their source code. When you get stuck, Google and Stack Overflow.”
Collect knowledge along the way as you gain more and more experience, until you find yourself in a professional home that feels just right.
Stay tuned for Parts Two and Three of the series.