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How Web Developers Became Real Developers

Web development was once considered a second-rate job among tech professionals. Then everything changed.
Adobe Stock / studiostoks
Andrea Tallarita
Andrea Tallarita

This may come as news to the youngest web developers today, but there was a time when other professionals in the field generally considered them ‘lesser’ or ‘amateur’ developers.

By now this view has fallen by the wayside, and with good reason – but how did it come about in the first place, and when did it go the way of the Dodo?

Sit around the fire, younglings, and let me tell you the story of how web developers finally became real developers!

Firstly, where did the bad rap come from?

The answer to this question comes in two parts, and no doubt you have already guessed the first one – changing technology.

I mean, obviously. The answer to half of all questions about our field is ‘changing technology’. But what do I mean by this more precisely?

Here’s the thing: when the internet was still in its infancy, that of the software developer was already an established and respected job. Back then, something as trivial as a smartphone would only be seen in movies as one of James Bond’s gadgets, while the functionality of web pages in general was rudimentary at best. Web developers – or, as they were typically called at the time, web ‘designers’ – therefore had a much simpler and less conceptually demanding job to do than other developers.

Furthermore, software development was an elitist field with a great deal of gatekeeping – yes, even more so than it is today! It was therefore inevitable that a certain divide would develop between ‘real’ developers and those whose work appeared to be mainly cosmetic in nature. And to be fair, working on a webpage at the time (which was, and remains, not the only internet-related job a developer can take) was in most respects a lot easier than developing embedded systems.

The second reason why developers who worked on webpages got a bad rap is that they were working with JavaScript. Considering how ubiquitous this programming language has become, it feels almost surreal to think that it started out as essentially a toy language. In the late 90s, just about the only significant contribution JavaScript had given to the internet was making buttons glow when your mouse hovered over them.

There is a wonderful article by Matthew McDonald which chronicles how this changed, but the essential takeaway is that complex JavaScript applications are relatively new. It’s understandable that developers working with higher languages like C and C++, not to mention JavaScript’s similarly-named-yet-not-related partner in crime Java, would see newcomers working with this language as amateurish hacks.

Adobe Stock / puhhha

So how did things change?

Clearly, both JavaScript and the internet have come an extraordinarily long way in the last 20 years. JavaScript has by now broken free from the constraints of the browser, and its performance capabilities took several massive leaps forwards, particularly after the development of the V8 engine. While not the most intuitive by any means, it has earned its place among the most prominent and respected high-level programming languages.

But it’s been the explosion of the web that truly changed the job of the web developer, and consequently the perception of it. The web is now at the heart of the entire tech industry. As a platform, it can accommodate the development of almost any kind of product – administration, government services, banking, health, dating, gaming, you name it.

As a result, and by necessity, web developers have now become among the more versatile in the industry. They are expected to know at least a little bit about everything, from email templates to making hybrid mobile apps, from building search engines to setting up every part of analytics. Many are full-stack developers who can work in both frontend and backend. Whether web development is more or less complex than any other given job may be up for debate, but as a field it is certainly more expansive than almost anything else out there.

In any case, those web developers who do specialise will usually do so in areas or skills of considerable sophistication. Some of the most talented and elite developers in the world are known to work for web-based companies like Google or Facebook, and not by accident.

The explosion in skill and versatility of web developers over the past decades has not gone unnoticed, and as a result, the old prejudices about them being amateurs have passed like rainfall on a great city. The creativity, the elegance and the efficiency of their solutions are no longer denied by anyone. The true Pinocchios of their world, web developers have finally, unquestionably and irrevocably become real developers.

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