5 Gutsy Steps to Remain a Relevant Web Developer

Got a Web developer gig and feeling cushy in the job? Ahem, better wake up before your pillow is pulled out from under you. Ask Jeremy Morgan, a lead Web developer for CDI IT Solutions and a former hiring manager at other companies, and Betsy Collard, a veteran Silicon Valley career coach.

Resisting Change Leads to Obsolescence or DeathLast year, when startup PHP Fog pivoted and transformed itself into AppFog, the issue of remaining relevant as a Web developer prompted discussion among Morgan and his older friends who weren’t feeling as relevant, says Morgan, who recently posted a blog on the issue and spoke with Dice. And while the topic of remaining relevant isn’t new, in this economy, where companies are mashing together for survival or changing business models on a dime, the issue has become a bigger deal.

Basically, a decade ago, Web developers could focus on a single platform, a single language, and forgo learning anything about UI and design, Morgan says. But now, that’s changed. Web developers are expected to be polyglots—knowing several languages or platforms.

Web developers who know the back-end are expected to know a little about the front-end, or vice versa. In addition, another shift that has emerged over the past couple of years is a move by small companies to mix technologies. For example, a small company may be seeking a Linux expert, but also wants that person to know a little about the Windows .Net stack, says Morgan. So here are the five steps.

Look to the Left, Right and Forward.

“One of the pitfalls is people get so busy at work that they forget to look ahead and see what’s coming down the path with trends,” Collard says. “They also need to look to their left and right and see what their competitors and customers are doing.”

Networking once a month with respected colleagues in the industry and scanning jobs boards to see what skills are being sought can provide a forward view. Cozying up to customers and yes, even competitors, once a month can assist in that side view, she noted.

Do Something About That Trend

Armed with this market intelligence, Web developers would be smart to adapt to this trend by reading books and taking online tutorials or classes.

“The cycle is shorter on what you can learn with the available information,” Morgan says. “There’s more information available online than there was 10 years ago. There’s more online training, more online tutorials with YouTube, and if there’s a new technology, there’s usually a book out on it two months later on Amazon.”

He noted you’re competing against recent college grads who’ve grown up in the Internet age and are used to using the Net to quickly secure relevant information that they’re interested in learning about. Older workers, however, may not be as adept in quickly locating the needed information and feel stuck in not knowing where to go, Morgan says.

However, Collard noted that gaining experience in a new programming language or platform is key and it trumps everything, including gaining a certification in that particular technology.

Busting Out of Your Comfort Zone and Tearing Down Fences

Although you may enjoy what you’re doing now, there is no guarantee it will be relevant a year or two from now. So, consider busting out of your comfort zone and learning a new technology like Ruby on Rails or Node.js, Morgan says.

Additionally, don’t be afraid to tear down fences that reside in your mind. Who says you can’t install PHP on Windows?

“If you’re writing the same kind of code you were six months ago, then you’re not moving fast enough,” advises Morgan.

Forget Programmer, Try Problem Solver

Here’s a brain twist. Why are you paid as a Web developer? To crunch code, or solve problems? Try the latter. As Morgan says, “half the people view themselves as being hired to write code.”

To remain relevant, Web developers need to see themselves as problem solvers. Rather than writing code with all the bells and whistles, do something that achieves the business goal like creating a faster-loading page.

Too Long in One Place

While some workers may long for the chance to stay in the same job at the same company for years, Collard notes that runs counter to the ability to remain relevant.

“One of the great dangers today is developers stay too long at the same company, in the same position,” she says. “They were able to do this because they were good workers, but they didn’t stay current. They need to remember that in one sense, we’re all self-employed.”

Image: Resisting Change Leads To Obsolescence Or Death [Bigstock]

19 Responses to “5 Gutsy Steps to Remain a Relevant Web Developer”

  1. Microsoft’s next server version is going to start depreciating support for (classic, VB6-based) ASP, right? (We’ll never know until then.) In any case, despite this talk already on the horizon prior to the current Server 2012 version, my previous employer recently decided to go with a new web based interface… using… (drama)… guess what language?

    ASP (yay!)

    (There may have been some business thoughts / decisions I was not aware of behind this; however, I still disagree — the above is meant cynically and sarcastically.)

    “One of the great dangers today is developers stay too long at the same company, in the same position,”

    As one of my other co-workers regularly said (and I agree): “These people are living in a bubble.”

    This is SO TRUE! — And when you put someone who’s in a bubble like this (example provided) in a leadership role, it stagnates development, rather than empowering it.

    (I have given such feedback to my previous employer — what they do with it now, how they act and decide to go forward is up to them — I quit (risk) so that I could find a place to go forward rather than reinforcing irrelevant skills and be stuck in a mucky mess like this.)

  2. I find this article lists lots of generalities that do not hold up under closer scrutiny. Sure, one must keep up with new technologies. But it is rare, very rare, to see an opening advertised where they accept reading books and taking online courses/tutorials as an equivalent to the 1-5 years they REALLY ask for with that technology.

    And yes, there really are still recruiters and job ads out there asking for 5 years experience in a technology that has been around only for less time than that.

    • @MATT J. — Yeah, recruiters tend to be dmub like that. One once said I was under qualified because I didn’t have 10 years of .NET experience (this was 2 or 3 or 4 years ago). I pulled up the WikiPedia article on Microsoft’s .NET framework and showed the release date for 1.0 sometime in 2002. Silence. And never a call back. I was pleased with the result. (My personal policy is not to work with inept people that don’t know technology, no matter how “great” the opportunity sounds, it’s not that great if it’s not represented by competent people in the first place — a good tech recruiter asks basic tech questions before you get to the initial interview phase where you’re required to show skills.)

      • I find your “personal policy” temping myself, too. But I know that it I applied it too literally, I would be left with far too few recruiters to work with:( And I do remember some recruiters in the distant past who knew the limits of their technical knowledge, but worked hard at the “people skills” of the recruiting process. They did well as recruiters without much technical knowledge. But their number seems to be dwindling, The recruiters I liked best as recruiters have now ALL got out of the industry. One became a “life coach”, another went into real estate (bad timing on his part)…

  3. Clinton Staley

    Good advice, but common advice. Here are two other items I don’t hear as often, but which I’ve found useful:

    1. Everyone intends to learn new technologies, but most of us don’t, the same way most of us intend to lose weight but few of us really do. I find it helps to “set yourself up”, or “put a gun to your own head” as I tell my students. You have to put yourself in a position where you *must* learn the new technology, whether that’s offering to build something with it and committing to a deadline, or (as in my case) offering to teach a course on it without knowing it already. This way, you end up having no choice but to come up to speed fast. This short-circuits the “I’ll learn that when I have time” pattern that really translates into “I’ll never learn that.”

    2. The real challenge is *liking* the new approach, even more than learning it. We tend to become comfortable with what we know. I’ve met a lot of older developers (including former students) who are clearly able to understand the new technologies, but just don’t *like* them. I think some people fall out of date due to not liking the new technologies, rather than being too old to understand them.

    • The Heretic

      Clinton Staley, I do love the emphasis that employers put on prospects that “love to learn new technology.” To them it means that a prospect is willing spend thousands of hours staying on the cutting edge with the benefits of the knowledge gained going strait to their bottom line at no additional cost to them, but someone has to pay the costs.

      I advise all software developers to log the off the clock continuing education time in a pocket pad along with every hard cost (books, seminars, travel, etc). Once a year ad up all the hours and apply their hourly to the total.

      Now, when using their new talent, does it mean a salary increase that will compensate them for their time, effort, and expenses? The calculation is pretty simple; can the increase in salary cover the deprecation of the skill learned? I tell them if they cannot fully recover the costs of acquiring the skill in three years (technology life cycle time) they are not being properly incentivized to do so and alternative thought processes are necessary to get properly compensated like not using what they learn at work.

      Keeping current is something I encourage, but giving it away for free is a bad behavior that doesn’t manage employer expectations. If the employer wants the skill they should pay for them.

      Katona’s rule states that employers don’t appreciate what they are not paying for. One thousand hours of continuing education times $65 dollars an hour is $65,000 dollars a year in continuing education expense. Employers want it. Who wouldn’t want $65,000 at no additional expense? Why buy something if you can get it for free?

      But, if you give it away don’t expect them to respect you for it in the morning. It becomes a perk of being them.

  4. I graduated 2 years ago from WKU with a degree in Computer Information Technology. However, because employers want at least 1 year in multiple programming languages, I have found that I do not qualify for any Web Desiger positions. I took various web languages such as PHP, Javascript, and ASP.NET, but each semester was something different, the only consistency was HTML. Thus, as I completed one course, and started another, I would forget the topic I learned the previous semester.

    Another jinx, is that, for example, an employer might ask for LAMP and SQL. I had used a combination of PHP, Database, and MySQL using XAMPP. This is close, but not what the employer is looking for.

    I found myself struggling between trying to balance learning Visual Basic (does anyone use that anymore?), Database; such as Oracle, and Web programming (CSS, HTML, ASP, PHP), not knowing if I should try to master it all, just concentrate in one or two, and totally getting confused and frustrated. Thus, 2 years later, I am working as a Data Entry Operator. At least I have the satisfaction of obtaining a 4-yr degree, even If I may never make full use of what I majored in.

    Now I am using a computer program (Finale 2012) to support my love of music and playing with others by transposing music scores so I can play a Bflat instrument with C instruments.

    • @STACEY — Your experience is not that uncommon. Everybody wants experience, few are able to or willing to give you a shot. When there’s talk about lack of experience, qualifications, or workforce capable and competent — this is a major contributor. There was a news program playing the background the other night, ended with SendGrid complaining about not being able to find people with experience (all the while hosting hack-a-thon type things, but most positions requiring 4-6 years of experience — it’s inverted and dmub). But before that final segment were manufacturing firms talking about lack of machinists — as if schools should pump them out, and they’ll refuse to pay for apprentice-journeyman programs.

      It’s hard. Throw up a few websites for kicks & giggles, figure out what works for you (which language you prefer), then adapt and modify and show-off skills using those websites (start a portfolio).

      It’s also not helpful that employers don’t appreciate enthusiasm as much as they used to, and people hid behind computers, not posting contact (can you blame a recruiter / HR pro getting hundreds of e-mails for the same job every day, and lots of outstanding jobs — it can be stressful). It’s hard to get noticed, especially with lack of experience.

      Here’s an example of how I deal with “lack of experience” from just today: I interviewed with a (kosher) national supermarket chain for a position, and, I was direct with them: I wanted to use MVC to develop an app at my current employer, BUT, servers weren’t running .NET 4.0, so I couldn’t utilize RAZOR easily (there are work arounds). Told them that I put off taking any more steps so as not to waste time and used ASP.NET Forms (bleh). They’re more than happy to teach considering I understand technical behind.

      Secondarily, some feedback: De-emphasize use of XAMPP. It doesn’t matter. Like *nix, you have Linux, and Unix… think of it like *AMP. Linux or Windows, Apache, MySql, PHP — thus LAMP or WAMP. XAMPP is meh/blah. So, exclude that detail. You want to emphasize the individual skill-sets, not the specific integration — that’s a deterrent. PHP is, for the most part, interchangeable between *nix and Windows (or other) platform. It’s platform agnostic. So, why mention the specific implementation you used? There are, however, differences, and displaying knowledge of those differences lets the employer know that you know how to adapt (and research to solve problems and issues).

      Visual Basic — yes & no. There’s actually a lot of work out there changing old VB6 code over to .NET (usually C#, sometimes VB.NET).

      (Professional) Recommendation: Focus / concentrate on one thing. You can expand your skills via self-study later, and all in good time, with hands-on experience, trial and error, seeing others (hopefully good) coding practices, etc… Don’t try to master it all (now, now, now is a BAD attitude that leads to messy, stuck-in-the-much code and IT infrastructures).

      Don’t even bother to approach employers who want it all — they usually have a lack of direction and focus. If you feel like you’re interviewing with what is potentially a messy or bad environment, unless you plan to keep looking and move on, just politely decline any further interest citing what you’re interested in. (I was speaking to another recruiter today who wanted things done in Visual Studio 2008 — I declined because I’m on Visual Studio 2010, and moving toward Sql Server 2012.)

      A good employer understands that a highly experienced employee may be able to flip-flop between PHP and .NET development and design principles. No descent employer expects someone just out of college to have it all figured out. Any descent employer also tends to provide entry-level and mentoring type positions; thus investing in their employees, the employees skills. And, as in the original vein of Dawn’s article… the employer has to stay relevant in this fashion, else developers move-on to stay relevant.

    • The Heretic

      My first advice to you, Stacy, is don’t take any of this personal. You did everything right. It is the system that is dysfunctional. There is a labor impaction preventing new entrants from rising up thru the ranks. Management incompetence created the impaction, but maintaining it for decades was done on purpose by Management by Budget and Peter Principle managers colluding to suppress wages. Now, the shortages they created with their bad behavior are killing them; short term gains with long term consequences.

      My second bit of advice is to accept the fact that until the impaction is broken up only a very minute population of connected will rise up. The odds are terrible so stop wasting resources trying to get thru. The STEM disciplines will be locked up until they are not.

      A clerk at the DMV is making more money then most software engineers adjusted for the learning curve costs. There are a half dozen software engineers in the high desert driving cement trucks and arrow space engineers doing road construction. And then there are all the guard cards. They are the lucky ones because they moved on. Job search is expensive and in three or four more years they will start calling this a depression (demand side problem) instead of erroneously calling it a recession (a supply side problem).

      You are working. That is great. It is easier to find better positions when you are employed, but change your horizon for the environment you were born into. None of this is your fault just find a way to get thru this period and jump back in when labor conditions improve.

      I have mixed feelings about Frank’s web site suggestion. I know a brilliant ASP.net programmer with a guard card working in a pick your part. It is a sign of the times. Think about it before you spend a couple hundred grand in time learning and setting up a website from scratch. Right now the likelihood of recovering your investment is just not there. Because of the propaganda people with skills are cutting each others throats to stay busy, wages are capped below the cost of supply, and the employers are doing without. How dysfunctional is that? The world is crazy you are OK!

      • @Teh Heretic — I’m sure you’re conflicted over a number of my assertions. One clarification: It doesn’t take a couple hundred grand, or dollars (or whatever your monetary unit) to setup a website. Let’s say 100 max for a descent host and a domain name, reasonably priced, and maybe $150 to $200 over the course of a year. The only other addition would be the individual time put into it (as another comment noted — keep a notepad or e-mail folder to keep track of time spent learning, expenses, tack it onto salary expectations). You absolutely have to put that time in to show you’re capable / competent. No one wants anyone without a portfolio to show in the design world, or at least able to pass coding tests during an interview… and you can’t do that unless you know it to begin with (practice, study, etc… it’s not an instant “here’s a piece of paper, go out into the world and you’ll be good” — that the false assumption that’s NOT told to HS students entering college; a hard lesson once you face life).

      • The Heretic

        Hi Frank, you are correct in your assertion that it is almost impossible to get hired without a pedigree. A web site portfolio is simply the physical presentation of a pedigree. Without a pedigree college new hires are in limbo. A pedigree is what puts a pedigree above the main labor impaction. People like Stacy are locked in below the main labor impaction.

        While you are correct about the out of pocket costs of creating a simple website, time is money even at the bottom. You are also correct that the labor costs per hour of the learning curve are much lower for a new hire then that of a pedigree. It is still not free and scarcity of resources at the bottom can make even the out of pocket expenses cost prohibitive.

        IMHO, you have to differentiate between which side of the main impaction someone is before giving advice and tailor the advice appropriately. A pedigree giving advice from the top has a completely different perspective then someone under the impaction. Resources are not as scarce above as they are below. $180 per year for a hosting service can feel like a million and they react emotionally to your advice from their perspective.

        College new hires have an added disadvantage of a negative net worth (student loans) that forces them to look up the pay scale and ignore anything else. Once you account for the failure rate of job search, the risk reward of going into IT is simply not there. The costs are too high. To make things worse the propaganda is constantly telling them how much work is available.

        Propaganda is not what you hear but what you are not hearing. You are not hearing there is a labor impaction. You are not hearing that the jobs are only available to pedigrees. You only hear that there is a shortage of pedigrees in the IT sector. This infers, falsely, that there is opportunity worthy of investing four years of your life. College new hires learn differently as soon as they graduate. Splat!!! In to the impaction.

        The industry provides free hosting, free code camps, and free software to help with the out of pocket expenses, but they are no substitute for living expenses. There are a lot of false assumptions floating around. One of which is that time is not money at the bottom of the unemployment pile. Time is always money. Trained employees are never free even in an extreme externality environment like the one we have now.

        College and high school consolers should be warning student considering IT careers that they may have to spend two years in India to get thru the two year minim work experience requirement of the labor impaction they are going to hit after graduation.

      • Clinton Staley

        The advice to build a portfolio is excellent. The field has little regard for credentials; proven ability counts for everything. And I am sure that some college grads may have trouble finding software work even with a CS degree. Even at a good engineering school, there are CS grads who can barely code, so it makes sense they might work in other non-dev areas.

        But I must take issue with the suggestion that all recent college grads are suffering. I know, from direct discussion with students, that strong coders coming out of CS programs (and sometimes even being lured away pre-graduation) are getting offers in the $125K range, plus bonuses and stock options. That’s a lot more than *I* make as their professor! So, the outcome varies widely per student, and the IT labor market is more complex than this discussion strand might suggest.

        I’ve been teaching for 25 years, and I’ve never seen a better market for strong CS graduates. These aren’t people with a lot of experience (usually a summer internship), they aren’t being hired at India wages, and I know from later followup that while they work serious hours, it’s on the order of 50-60/week, not the 70/week a young lawyer or doctor would have to put in.

      • The Heretic

        Clinton Staley, while I agree with you that the IT labor market dynamics are more complicated then can be easily stated in a couple hundred word posts, we’ve been discussing IT in a more macro sense. There are micro environments out there that I would describe as the exception not the rule. There are factors like regional differences that must be accounted for.

        I have sampled hundreds of pedigrees with five to ten years of experience who would kill for $125k salary where they live. These are top of the field coders and the average salary is somewhere between $80k and $100k. This range quite frankly sucks, considering the cost of living, cost of the learning curve, the bouts of unemployment, and the constant reeducation costs to keep up. The cost of staying in this business usually means failed marriages and children that resent you for not being there for them because the demands of the industry would not allow it.

        I would also like to point out that an $80k salary in Silicon Valley is not the same as $80k elsewhere in the country. $80k in Silicon Valley is barely a living wages due to the cost of living (housing in particular), while $80k in other areas is an excellent wage. In some areas $60k can provide an applicant with a 2000 square foot house that they somewhat own while $125k means living in an apartment. In Silicon Valley and the Los Angeles basin it takes two $125k incomes to own and they are going to have to sacrifice retirement saving to accomplish that.

        What I’ve been finding in my sampling is that employers are pretty affective at capturing the benefits of regional differences adjusting wages accordingly so as not to be truly competitive and competition is what makes labor markets function. They are affectively maintaining prices in the margins across geographic boundaries externalizing the costs of education and causing perpetual shortages. There are micro exceptions (outliners), but in general almost all the labor markets are not healthy at this time.

        I truly understand the educator’s perspective, but you are sampling the outliners in your geographic location. This labor market is not healthy. Perpetual shortages like you are observing are at the price being offered. Your students should be making $250k after a couple years time. If you ask the right questions you will quickly find wage stagnation.

        • Since you agree that the real situation is too complicated to summarize in a post limited to a couple hundred words, how about doing a more complete treatment of it somewhere else, such as your own blog and posting the link to it here?

          Even your shorter post on it shows enough insight and credible claims that I would like to see more.

          That said, I have to comment: it would help your case if you wrote ‘outlier’ where you wrote ‘outliner’; I am pretty sure that is what you really meant.

          Finally, that you use statistical language correctly to describe the situation is the main reason I believe your analysis rather than that of the HR people, recruiters and college professors. Despite your little typo;)

      • Clinton Staley


        I did not mean to imply that everyone was doing well, only that the field was complex, and that strong college grads are doing very well. I would not characterize the group I’m describing as a small niche, though. These are devs working for Amazon, Google, MS, Salesforce, and dozens of other firms — 100,000’s of engineers collectively. And the six figure starting salary is not the end of the story. I know a number of young engineers I taught and originally hired into one firm who are now pulling down $250K-ish total comp. This does require advancing into team lead and project management positions; not too many individual contributors making that kind of comp.

        I have also worked as a software dev recruiter for a major software firm, and I know we passed over a great many people who had a number of years experience and could code, but not at the level of the existing engineers in the company. I was sorry to see so many people obviously having trouble finding work. It may not be obvious, but one reason for this is that the *engineers*, not the HR folks or business “suits”, control the hiring process, at least to the level of having a firm veto power over any hire that is not highly talented. And they can be pretty hardcore about it.

      • The Heretic

        Matt J, it is said that you cannot make an omelet without first breaking a few eggs. Typos are a necessary part of the creative writing process I suppose. Of course a spell checker with fast fingers can be more dangerous to ones reputation then infidelity. I’m finding that putting ideas in writing is not as easy as it once was especially when I’m rushing to get on the road or otherwise don’t have time to reread my work after getting away from it for a while. Thank you for the constructive criticism. I’d already corrected it in the original document, but appreciate the thought behind your effort.

        I’m flattered that anyone would even be interested in my work.

        As for a blog, do you know what the difference is between genius and lunacy?

        It is timing and books are more lucrative. 😉

        I find it interesting that you lump HR people, recruiters, and college professors together. When investigating an “outlier” I usually find it is caused by a stronger then usual relationship between a professor/school and the rest of the supply chain. Very few are observant enough to spot the relationship. I am impressed.

      • The Heretic

        Clinton Staley, I do understand your perspective. You are in the business of creating pedigrees and apparently from what you are saying you are quite good at it. You are way above the average almost to the point of not being believable.

        You seem to be able to acknowledge that there is a labor impaction. Because of your relationship with the industry or I should say your department’s relationship, your students are being groomed to specification and fast tracked past the impaction. This is the reason why your example is an outlier in the data and not the rule.

        Unfortunately, in a market of extreme specialization and extreme externality, the experiences of all the other students produced each year are not the same. In fact your student’s experiences would be quite different if you threw them out into the market with the same education but without your particular pedigree and fast track support. The cost of their educations would be externalized back at them instead of rewarded like the bulk of the students produced and they too would take a place under the impaction with the rest.

        I have a very good rapport with a renowned group of technology professors and they were the ones that brought this situation to my attention way back in 1998. They were looking for an economic solution to and economic problem. I’m going to give you the same advice I gave them. A shortage can only occur at a given price! The way to break the impaction is by forcing mangers to compete on price. The pedigrees must demand a salary high enough to force the rest of the managers to seek alternative solutions to the cherry picking behavior you describe. The alternative solutions will entail reaching down through the impaction out of necessity, pulling people up, paying for the training, and thus incentivize new entrants into the market place once again.

        It sounds like your students are doing that and we may have mutual friends. I also pointed out that their students at the time were receiving inadequate training in what I call defenses from the black arts. Topics like “The evils of salary averaging”, “Surviving and thriving through extended periods of wage stagnation in the face of moderate inflation”, “Externality, a weapon of mass destruction”, “Covens multiply power”, and most importantly “Managing your manager’s expectations”. Just to name a few.

        The fact is that the people under the impaction are helpless to do anything about it. Only the pedigrees have the market clout to force the changes necessary to break the impaction. They do so by forming covens and acting in collusion the way the managers are when they are suppressing wages on the other side of the equation. Simple rules like never work overtime unless you are compensated for it and by teaching them that it is ok to fail.

        Failure is a necessary part of engineering. Managers need to fail too for the same reasons engineers need to fail; you learn more from failure then your successes. If an individual is carrying management with overtime and absorbing their externality, management learns nothing and Katona’s rule kicks in. Unchecked externality causes management to view their mistakes as successes because there were inadequate costs associated with said mistakes. Thus, “Managers don’t appreciate what they are not paying for.” Your students have to make them pay with failures not overtime and not excepting the externalizing of costs on them. Exacerbating the shortages and driving their own salaries into the $250k range thus breaking the impaction for everyone else.

        Who is John Galt?