Technology plays a huge role in our daily lives, from the simplest of apps to the most groundbreaking inventions.
Every website or piece of software that we encounter has been built by a developer—but what exactly is web development, and what do they do?
All of this will be answered in this guide to how to become a web developer.
To the outside eye, it can seem like a complicated, confusing, and somewhat inaccessible field. So, to shed some light on this fascinating industry, we’ve put together the ultimate introduction to web development and what it takes to become a fully-fledged web developer.
In this guide, we’ll go through the basics of web development in detail, and then show you the essential skills and tools you’ll need to break into the industry. If you decide web development is for you, the next step is to start learning those skills, which you can do in this free coding short course designed for beginners.
First, though, we’ll take a look at the web development industry as it stands in 2023, and consider whether web development is a smart career move.
1. Is now a good time to become a web developer? (2023 update)
Before you jump into a new career, it’s important to consider the path ahead. Can your new industry offer you ample opportunities and stability? How likely are you to get hired after you’ve graduated from your chosen program or bootcamp?
In the wake of the past two years these questions are more important than ever. The Covid-19 pandemic has had a major impact on the economy and on the job market.
Initially back in 2020 the pandemic caused hiring to slow down, as global lockdowns took effect. However the vaccine rollout and economic bounce-back led to a huge increase in 2021, with hiring only slowing slightly towards the end of year, according to a report by Glassdoor.
Tech hiring, however, continued apace throughout 2021 and into 2022, as workers gravitated towards industries which are more “covid-proof”, as well as recession-proof. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the state of the web development industry in 2023.
Are web developers in demand right now?
You’ll have noticed that, no matter what’s going on in the world around us, technology is omnipresent in our lives.
Whether it’s scrolling through our favorite social media apps, checking the news, paying for something online, or connecting with colleagues using collaboration software and tools—most of what we do relies on some form of technology. Behind this technology is a team of web developers who have not only built it, but constantly maintain it to ensure it works flawlessly.
Those who can build and maintain websites, apps, and software have a crucial role to play in today’s technology-driven world—and this is reflected in the web development job market. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of web developers is projected to grow a whopping 23% and 25% for software developers from 2021 to 2031—much faster than the average.
But does this still stand after the unpredictable twists and turns of the past two years? In a word, yes: web developers seem to have weathered the storms relatively well.
Web developer was ranked as the 6th best job title in tech based on salary and employment rates, with software developer finishing 2nd!
At the time of writing, the average base salary for a web developer in the United States is $77,623 per year. Of course, salary varies depending on location, years of experience and the specific skills you bring to the table; have a look at our guide about how much you could earn as a web developer
Software engineer came in seventh on Indeed’s list of the best jobs of 2022, with backend developer and C++ developer also getting into the top twenty.
We can see this continuing through 2023 and beyond—just search the web for the most in-demand tech skills and you’ll find things like web development, software engineering, cloud computing, DevOps, and problem-solving.
If you’re keen to quantify the demand for web developers, search for “web developer” or “full-stack developer” roles in your area on sites like indeed, glassdoor, and LinkedIn. We did a quick search for web development roles in the United States and, at the time of writing, found over 135,000 vacancies.
As you can see, web developers continue to be in high demand—in spite of, and perhaps even more so because of, the coronavirus pandemic. Speaking of which, how did Covid-19 affect the web development industry? Let’s take a look.
How has Covid-19 affected the industry?
While many industries have struggled (and continue to do so) as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the tech industry not only fared relatively well, but thrived.
Many organizations relied (and are still relying) on digital tools to enable them to operate remotely, placing even more importance on technology and the people who build it. The biggest change that new and aspiring web developers can expect as a result of Covid-19 is the rise of remote work.
When it comes to looking for your first job within the field, you should be prepared to work remotely at least some of the time, if not on a full-time basis. The figures don’t lie—the 2022 Jamstack Developer Survey showed that 62% of respondents work fully remotely and 83% work remotely at least half the time.
Fortunately, web development is a career that lends itself to remote work. You can learn more about what it’s like to work as a remote developer in our guide.
Full-stack development in particular will continue to be highly attractive to employers. Writing for TechCrunch, Sergio Granada noted how full-stack developers were been integral to businesses during the Covid-19 crisis:
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the ability to do full-stack development can make engineers extremely marketable as companies across all industries migrate their business to a virtual world. Those who can quickly develop and deliver software projects thanks to full-stack methods have the best shot to be at the top of a company’s or client’s wish list.
We’re also anticipating that web developer jobs will increase in certain sectors as a direct result of the products and services that are most in-demand right now. For example, sectors like healthcare, media and entertainment, online banking, remote education, and e-commerce will continue to grow to reflect consumer needs and behaviors in a more socially-distant world.
In all, the impact of Covid-19 on the tech industry, and on web developers, has been minimal compared to other sectors. Although the situation is still unfolding, new and aspiring web developers can feel confident that they’re embarking on a future-proof career.
So…should you become a web developer in 2023?
So what’s the verdict? Is now a good time to become a web developer?
Looking at the job market and projected employment growth from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we think the answer is pretty clear. Now is an excellent time to become a web developer!
Now more than ever, technology is pivotal to how we work, connect with loved ones, access healthcare, shop…and the list goes on. If you’re thinking about joining this exciting industry and building the technology of the future, we say go for it.
On top of that, tech has turned out to be not just “Covid-proof”, but also a fairly recession-proof industry as well.
But first, let’s get back to basics. What exactly is web development, and what does a web developer actually do? Keep reading to find out.
2. What is web development?
Web development is the process of building websites and applications for the internet, or for a private network known as an intranet.
Web development is not concerned with the design of a website; rather, it’s all about the coding and programming that powers the website’s functionality.
From the most simple, static web pages to social media platforms and apps, from e-commerce websites to content management systems (CMS)—all the tools we use via the internet on a daily basis have been built by developers.
If you want to learn more, check out our web development overview guide.
Web development vs software engineering
A hurdle to those wondering how to become a web developer is all of the jargon and buzzwords—including for the role itself! Some people introduce themselves as software engineers, others web developers, and others software developers! Are there major differences between them?
While generally software engineers tend to work more on operating systems and web developers on internet-based technologies, the reality is a little bit different. Both roles share programming languages and technologies, and as a result which term is used can depend on the location, the industry, and the company.
To give you a rough sense of the fluctuating popularity of these terms, this graph from Google Ngram Viewer charts the evolution in popularity of the three terms as they’ve appeared in books:
Source: Google Ngram Viewer
If you’re interested in more graphs charting the differences in use of these terms, we’ve created a full guide to the similarities between web developers and software engineers.
For now though what’s important is that web development and software engineering bootcamps tend to teach you the same programming tools and technologies. Once you’ve graduated and are entering the job market, remember to look more at the technologies in each job description than the title itself to see if they match your own.
Types of web development
Web development can be broken down into three layers: client-side coding (frontend), server-side coding (backend) and database technology.
Let’s take a look at each of these layers in more detail.
Client-side scripting, or frontend development, refers to everything that the end user experiences directly. Client-side code executes in a web browser and directly relates to what people see when they visit a website. Things like layout, fonts, colours, menus and contact forms are all driven by the frontend.
Server-side scripting, or backend development, is all about what goes on behind the scenes.
The backend is essentially the part of a website that the user doesn’t actually see. It is responsible for storing and organizing data, and ensuring that everything on the client-side runs smoothly. It does this by communicating with the frontend.
Whenever something happens on the client-side—say, a user fills out a form—the browser sends a request to the server-side. The server-side “responds” with relevant information in the form of frontend code that the browser can then interpret and display.
Websites also rely on database technology. The database contains all the files and content that are necessary for a website to function, storing it in such a way that makes it easy to retrieve, organize, edit, and save. The database runs on a server, and most websites typically use some form of relational database management system (RDBMS).
To summarize: the frontend, backend, and database technology all work together to build and run a fully functional website or application, and these three layers form the foundation of web development.
The difference between web development and web design
Just like with software engineering, you might also hear the terms “web development” and “web design” used interchangeably, but these are two very different things.
Imagine a web designer and web developer working together to build a car: the developer would take care of all the functional components, like the engine, the wheels and the gears, while the designer would be responsible for both the visual aspects—how the car looks, the layout of the dashboard, the design of the seats—and for the user experience provided by the car, so whether or not it’s a smooth drive.
Web designers design how the website looks and feels. They model the layout of the website, making sure it’s logical, user-friendly and pleasant to use.
They consider all the different visual elements, asking questions like:
- What color schemes and fonts will be used?
- What buttons, drop-down menus and scrollbars should be included, and where?
- Which interactive touchpoints does the user interact with to get from point A to B?
Web design also considers the information architecture of the website, establishing what content will be included and where it should be placed.
Web design is an extremely broad field, and will often be broken down into more specific roles such as User Experience Design, User Interface Design, and Information Architecture.
In short, a web designer is the architect, while the web developer is the builder or engineer.
3. A brief history of the world wide web
The web as we know it today has been decades in the making. To help understand how web development works, let’s go back to where it all started and consider how the internet has evolved over the years.
1965: The first WAN (Wide Area Network)
The internet is essentially a network of networks, connecting all different WANs.
WAN stands for Wide Area Network, a telecommunications network that spans a large geographical distance. The first WAN was established in 1965 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Later on, this WAN would be known as ARPANET. It was initially funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the US Department of Defense.
1969: The first ever internet message
In October 1969, UCLA student Charley Kline sent the first ever internet message.
He tried to send the word “login” to a computer at the Stanford Research Institute via the ARPANET network, but the system crashed after the first two letters. However, about an hour later, the system recovered and the full text was successfully delivered.
1970s: The rise of the LAN (Local Area Network)
The early 70s saw the development of several experimental LAN technologies.
LAN stands for Local Area Network, a computer network that connects nearby devices in the same buildings—such as in schools, universities, and libraries. Some notable milestones include the development of Ethernet at Xerox Parc from 1973-1974, and the development of ARCNET in 1976.
1982 – 1989: Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), Internet Protocol (IP), the Domain Name System and Dial-Up Access
In 1982, Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and Internet Protocol (IP) emerged as the ARPANET protocol, and TCP/IP remains the standard internet protocol today.
In 1983, the Domain Name System was established, providing a more user-friendly way of labelling and designating websites (i.e. careerfoundry.com instead of a series of numbers). In 1987, Cisco shipped its first router, and in 1989, World.std.com became the first commercial provider of dial-up internet access.
1990: Tim Berners-Lee and HTML
In 1990, Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) developed HTML—HyperText Markup Language. HTML became, and still is, a fundamental building block of the internet.
1991: The World Wide Web Goes Mainstream
With the rise of the visual internet browser, the World Wide Web made its way into the mainstream. As of 2018, there are more than 4 billion internet users around the globe. This has risen to 4.66 active users in January 2021, or 59.5% of the global population, according to Statista.
4. What does a web developer do?
The role of the web developer is to build and maintain websites. Web developers can work in-house or freelance, and the specific tasks and responsibilities involved will vary depending on what kind they’ll be.
If you want to learn how to become a web developer, you may have to decide whether you’d like to become a frontend, backend, or full-stack developer. Full-stack developers specialize in both the frontend and backend; we’ll go into more detail about what a full-stack developer does later on.
Web developers are responsible for building a product that meets both the client’s needs and those of the customer or end user. Web developers collaborate with stakeholders, clients and designers in order to understand the vision: how should the final website look and function?
A large part of web development also revolves around identifying and fixing bugs in order to constantly optimize and improve a website or system. Web developers are therefore keen problem solvers, regularly coming up with solutions and workarounds to keep things running smoothly.
Of course, all web developers are proficient in certain programming languages. However, different developers will work with different languages depending on their specific job title and area of expertise. Let’s take a look at the different layers of web development and the associated tasks in more detail.
What does a frontend developer do?
It is the frontend developer’s job to code the frontend of a website or application; that is, the part of the website that the user sees and interacts with.
Frontend developer tasks
The frontend developer implements the website’s layout, interactive and navigational elements such as buttons and scrollbars, images, content and internal links (links that navigate from one page to another within the same website).
Frontend developers are also responsible for ensuring optimal display across different browsers and devices. They will code the website in such a way that makes it responsive or adaptive to various screen sizes, so that the user gets the same experience whether they’re visiting the website on mobile, desktop or tablet.
Frontend developers will also carry out usability tests and fix any bugs that arise. At the same time, they will consider SEO best practices, maintain software workflow management, and develop tools that enhance how the user interacts with a website in any browser.
What does a backend developer do?
The backend is essentially the brains behind the face (the frontend). A backend developer is therefore responsible for building and maintaining the technology needed to power the frontend, consisting of three parts: a server, an application, and a database.
The code that backend developers create ensures that everything the frontend developer builds is fully functional, and it is the backend developer’s job to make sure that the server, application, and database all communicate with each other.
So how do they do this? First, they use server-side languages such as PHP, Ruby, Python, and Java to build the application. Then they use tools like MySQL, Oracle, and SQL Server to find, save or edit data and deliver it back to the user in frontend code.
Just like frontend developers, backend developers will liaise with the client or business owner in order to understand their needs and requirements. They will then deliver these in a number of ways depending on the specifics of the project.
Backend development tasks
Typical backend development tasks include:
- creating, integrating and managing the database
- building server-side software using backend frameworks
- developing and deploying content management systems (for a blog, for example)
- working with web server technologies, API integration and operating systems
Backend developers are also responsible for testing and debugging any backend elements of a system or application.
If you want to learn more about this role, what it involves, and how to become one, check out our full backend developer guide.
What does a full-stack developer do?
A full-stack developer is someone who understands, and can work across, the “full stack” of technology: i.e. both the frontend and the backend.
Full stack developers are experts in every stage of the web development process, meaning they are well-equipped to get hands on, but can also guide on strategy and best practices.
If you’d prefer my explanation of full-stack development in video form, I’ve run through the major points for you:
Most full-stack developers have gathered many years of experience in a variety of different roles, giving them a solid grounding across the entire web development spectrum.
Full-stack developers are proficient in both frontend and backend languages and frameworks, as well as in server, network and hosting environments. They are also well-versed in both business logic and user experience.
Web developers and software engineers may also specialize in mobile app development, either for iOS or Android.
iOS developers build apps that run with the iOS operating system—the one used by Apple devices. iOS developers tend to be fluent in Swift, the programming language that Apple created specifically for their apps.
Android developers build apps that are compatible with all Android devices, such as Samsung smartphones. Java was the official programming language for Android, but has since been replaced by Kotlin, which was the new kid on the block.
5. Programming languages, libraries, and frameworks
In order to build websites and apps, web developers work with languages, libraries, and frameworks.
Let’s take a look at each of these in detail, as well as some other tools that web developers use in their day-to-day work.
What are languages?
In the world of web development, languages are the building blocks that programmers use to create websites, apps and software. There are all different types of languages, including programming languages, markup languages, style sheet languages, and database languages.
A programming language is essentially a set of instructions and commands which tell the computer to produce a certain output.
Programmers use so-called “high-level” programming languages to write source code. High-level languages use logical words and symbols, making them easy for humans to read and understand. High-level languages can be classified as either compiled or interpreted languages.
C++ and Java, for instance, are compiled high-level languages. They are first saved in a text-based format that is comprehensible for human programmers but not for computers. In order for the computer to run the source code, it needs to be converted to a low-level language; i.e. machine code. Compiled languages tend to be used to create software applications.
Interpreted languages like Perl and PHP do not need to be compiled. Instead, source code written in these languages can be run through an interpreter—a program that reads and executes code. Interpreted languages are generally used for running scripts, such as those used to generate content for dynamic websites.
Low-level languages are those that can be directly recognized by and executed on the computer hardware; they don’t need to be interpreted or translated. Machine language and assembly language are some common examples of low-level languages.
Markup languages are used to specify the formatting of a text file.
In other words, a markup language tells the software that displays the text how the text should be formatted. Markup languages are completely legible to the human eye—they contain standard words—but the markup tags are not visible in the final output.
The two most popular markup languages are HTML and XML.
HTML stands for HyperText Markup Language and is used for the creation of websites. When added to a plain text document, HTML tags describe how this document should be displayed by a web browser. To understand how HTML works, let’s take the example of bold tags. The HTML version would be written as follows:
<b>Make this sentence bold!</b>
When the browser reads this, it knows to display that sentence in bold. This is what the user sees:
Make this sentence bold!
XML stands for eXtensible Markup Language. It’s a markup language very similar to HTML.
However, while HTML was designed to display data with a focus on how it looks, XML was designed purely to store and transport data. Unlike HTML, XML tags are not predefined; rather, they are created by the author of the document.
The point of XML is to simplify data sharing and transport, platform changes and data availability, as it provides a software and hardware-independent means of storing, transporting and sharing data. You can learn more about XML and how it works in W3schools’ guide.
Style sheet languages
A style sheet is basically a set of stylistic rules. Style sheet languages are used, quite literally, to style documents that are written in markup languages.
Consider a document written in HTML and styled using CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), a style sheet language. The HTML is responsible for the content and structure of the web page, while CSS determines how this content should be presented visually.
CSS can be used to add colours, change fonts, insert backgrounds and borders, as well as to style forms. CSS is also used to optimize web pages for responsive design, ensuring they adapt their layout to whatever device the user is on.
Languages are not only used for building websites, software and apps; they are also used to create and manage databases.
Databases are used to store huge volumes of data. The Spotify music app, for example, uses databases to store music files, as well as data about the user’s listening preferences. Likewise, social media apps like Instagram use databases to store user profile information; every time a user updates their profile in some way, the app’s database will also update.
Databases are not designed to understand the same languages that apps are programmed in, so it’s essential to have a language that they do understand—like SQL, the standard language for accessing and manipulating relational databases.
As we’ explain in our beginner’s guide to SQL, the name stands for Structured Query Language. It has its own markup, and basically enables programmers to work with the data held in a database system. We’ve created a cheatsheet to get you started.
What are libraries and frameworks?
Web developers also work with libraries and frameworks. Despite much confusion, they are not the same thing—although they are both there to make the developer’s job easier.
Libraries and frameworks are essentially sets of prewritten code, but libraries are smaller and tend to be used for more specific use-cases. A library contains a collection of useful code, grouped together to be reused later. The purpose of a library is to enable developers to reach the same end goal while writing less code to get there.
A framework contains ready-made components and tools that enable the developer to write code faster, and many frameworks also contain libraries.
It gives the developer a structure to work from, and the framework you choose to work with will largely dictate the way you build your website or app, so choosing a framework is a big decision. Some popular frameworks include Bootstrap, Rails, and Angular.
The easiest way to understand libraries and frameworks is to imagine you are building a house. The framework provides the foundation and the structure, as well as instructions or guidelines for completing certain tasks.
Say you want to install an oven in your new home: you could buy the separate components and build the oven from scratch, or you could pick a ready-made oven from the store. Just like building a website, you can write the code from scratch or you can take pre-written code from a library and simply insert it.
Other web development tools
Web developers will also use a text editor, such as Atom, Sublime or Visual Studio Code, to write their code; a web browser, such as Chrome or Firefox; and an extremely crucial tool: Git!
Git is a version control system where developers can store and manage their code. As a web developer, it’s inevitable that you’ll make constant changes to your code, so a tool like Git that enables you to track these changes and reverse them if necessary is extremely valuable.
Git also makes it easier to work with other teams and to manage multiple projects at once. Git has become such a staple in the world of web development that it’s now considered really bad practice not to use it.
Another extremely popular tool is GitHub, a cloud interface for Git. While we explain more about what it is and how to use it in our GitHub guide, essentially this tool offers all the version control functionality of Git, but also comes with its own features such as bug tracking, task management and project wikis.
You can read our guide if you’re interested in learning more about the differences between Git and GitHub.
GitHub not only hosts repositories; it also provides developers with a comprehensive toolset, making it easier to follow best practices for coding. It is considered the place to be for open-source projects, and also provides a platform for web developers to showcase their skills.
6. How to become a web developer
So, now that you’ve gotten a good idea what’s in store for you in this exciting field, how do you get started?
Because of their popularity, the good news is there are more and more pathways in than ever before. However, to make the most of your career change to web development, some strategic planning is necessary.
Let’s briefly go through what you should do to become a web developer:
Step One: Get coding
First things first, you’ll need to get your hands dirty.
Why start a life in programming if you don’t know if you even like it?
Thankfully, there are so many ways to get stuck into coding for free, with no commitment necessary—the internet is full of free coding classes for you to try out. CareerFoundry’s free 5-day coding short course is a perfect example of this. In it, you’ll learn how to build, design, and style your first website.
These classes and tutorials are also great for working out which learning style suits you. But more on that later!
Step Two: Start choosing your coding career path
A career in web development is challenging, financially rewarding, and has a lot to offer in terms of job security, as we discussed earlier.
What’s useful is working out roughly where you might want to go with your web development career—this affects your next steps.
The first big step to a career in web development is to learn the necessary languages, libraries, and frameworks for that area. Getting familiar with these as well as other tools and common terminology will make the next step—education—much easier.
For a beginner-friendly introduction to programming terminology, start with these 50 web development buzzwords that all budding coders should know.
Once you start deciding which type of programmer you want to become, it can help to research what the average salaries for these are.
Step Three: Decide your learning pathway
Now that you’ve been coding away by yourself, as well as getting familiar with the area you want to focus on, it’s time for the biggest step in how to become a web developer—education.
As we said earlier, nowadays you’re faced with a world of choice. While it may seem dizzying, help is at hand.
Take time out to assess the different features you need from a learning pathway. Look at where you are, the resources you have at present, and where you want to go.
Some of these factors affecting your choice of pathway include:
- Web technologies taught—frontend vs backend, or do you require a full-stack education?
- Cost—how good value for money is it? What’s the RoI (return on investment)? Do they have payment plans or a job guarantee?
- Time—how long does the education pathway take? Is it full-time, part-time, or flexible?
- Format—is in-person attendance required, is it hybrid, or a fully-online coding program?
- Teaching format—when you were playing about with coding earlier, did you find you benefitted more for video tutorials, self-directed learning, or would live classes suit?
- Learning support—do you feel like you’ll benefit from having a tutor and/or web development mentor as you learn, or have you already a support network?
- Certification—are you looking for a certified web development program so that you’ll have a recognized qualification at the end, or do you just need your code to speak for itself?
- Career support—how much support for the job market are you looking for? Will you be able to prepare for the developer job market by yourself, or will you benefit from a career coach, job market insights, and interview prep?
If you’re thinking of taking the popular bootcamp route, we’ve got a useful web development bootcamp guide with more advice on how to choose one that best suits your needs.
Once you’ve narrowed down your path to a couple of options, our last piece of advice is: reach out!
If they have program advisors, contact them with any and all questions you might have. If you can find any past pupils or graduates who have taken the course on LinkedIn for example, get in touch with them and ask them how they found it. Look up as many testimonials and reviews as you can find online.
It sounds obvious, but the more information you have, the more you’ll be able to make an informed decision.
Step Four: Prepare your portfolio
As you’re going through your learning, it’s vital that you also have projects to show for all of your coding.
With these projects you can start to create your web developer portfolio—a great way of attracting attention among potential employers and future clients. If you’re focussing more on frontend development, then being able to show off your skills is even more important.
This is also why web development programs and courses with a project-based emphasis are an excellent choice if you’re switching careers.
Not quite sure what we mean? Check out our full web developer portfolio guide for advice and examples of how it’s done.
Step Five: Get practicing for the job market
Now you’re in the final stretch to becoming a web developer—congratulations!
It’s time to focus on an important customer journey—that of the organization that will be hiring you. So how does that work?
Your portfolio should be not just filled with relevant projects that show off your coding skills, but it should also be polished and optimized for potential employers to view it. Ditto your resume, LinkedIn, and GitHub profile, too.
On top of that, you’ll have a methodical plan for job applications, and will be practicing for negotiating the recruiter phone screen.
That shouldn’t be all that you’re practicing, though.
Next up will be preparing to nail the extra rounds of interviews. This involves being able to handle common web developer interview questions as well as technical ones. On top of that will be practicing coding tests, as well as preparing your own questions for your potential employer.
Once you’ve got all of this under your belt, then you’ll be ready to dive into your exciting new career as a web developer. Congratulations.