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Jared White
Jared White

Posted on

Where Did All the Web Developers Go?

There's a dangerous problem in our industry right now, which is that we've job-title'd and buzzword'ed and abstracted our way out of recognizing the actual thing we're all doing if we participate in and care about the global open standard that is the World-Wide Web—which is, y'know, developing for the web. We used to call people who do that—crazy I know—a term you don't hear so much any more: web developer.

Now everyone is something else. A front-end developer. A React/TypeScript developer. A back-end developer. A Go developer. A front of the back, or back of the front, or side of the middle, or whatever-whatever-buzzword-buzzword developer. A Next/Nuxt/SvelteKit/Gatsby developer. A Jamstack/Netlify/Vercel/serverless/AWS developer. Or worst of all, a "web3" developer. (Sorry to disappoint y'all, but web3 doesn't exist. There's just the web. It's HTTP, HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. That's it. That's the web. Whatever else you're building, it's not the web.)

I find this situation deplorable. The web is one of the greatest inventions in the history of the human race. It's one of the most incredible examples of an open specification iterated upon and evolved by a consortium of governments, companies, and individuals spanning the globe. There's literally nothing else like it, not even close.

So why then are some people now so reluctant to identify as web developers? As in: "I develop for the web. I understand how to use HTTP, HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to build web experiences. I can explain to you in a straightforward manner how networked computers serve web files and generate web content which are then consumed by web browsers."

This stuff is hard, sure, but only in the thick of the details. The broad strokes are actually rather simple. HTML is not a difficult markup language to learn relative to any other format. CSS is actually easier than it has ever been at any time in the past! You can create awesome looking layouts in mere lines of code. JavaScript too has gotten remarkably better over the years (and therefore easier) when it comes to basic interactivity and DOM manipulation. We now have object-oriented "native web" components which work in all modern browsers everywhere without any additional frameworks or build steps of any kind. How freaking cool is that?!

I personally like identifying as a Rubyist, perhaps a Rails developer or something like that—but that's only in the sense of centering myself in a particular stream of programming, community, and ecosystem tools. At heart, above all else, I'm a web developer. And I will continue to use and celebrate that term as long as the web—as it's actually defined by the open specification itself—exists.

Will you join me? You can start by refraining from using the term front-end developer, or back-end developer, or full-stack developer, or whatever. Use the term "web developer". Do you develop for the web? Congratulations! You're a web developer.

Revel in it.

Discussion (22)

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ingosteinke profile image
Ingo Steinke • Edited on

I have been called a "web designer", "programmer", "engineer", "consultant", "software developer", and more recently, calling myself a "full-stack developer" until someone suggested that "branding yourself as a full-stack dev will only result in getting nothing but back-end tasks", so back to "front-end developer" , but that did not seem to fit either, so currently I'm a "creative web developer".

What I do: helping customers solve problems and make their ideas become reality using whatever tool seems appropriate (or the one chosen by someone else in a previous project, getting my hands dirty with WordPress and WebFlow again). Sometimes do the full-stack from front-end to back-end plus setting up a local dev-ops build stack. But it's the front stuff with beautiful colors, typogrpahy, and cross device usability that gives me the greatest job satisfaction.

There you are, I'm a fellow web developer at least!
Thanks for your post!

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44th_perspective profile image
dc

Hehehehehehe right!!!

I feel like those outside the space more or less misunderstand the titles and responsibilities, however perhaps that with every industry. I had started a promotional product and design company with some friends. An operations/sales, a Designer/artist and I the developer and marketer. In the beginning we used our industry words to talk about strategies soon realizing we are talking about the same same fundamentally. I can see how this happens on the client side. I've been called a developer, strategist, operations, s&p consultant.

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jaredcwhite profile image
Jared White Author

Thanks for sharing that Ingo! ✌️

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valeriavg profile image
Valeria • Edited on

What's wrong with the full-stack?
It says "I'm ready to be wherever I need to be".
Web frontend? I'd love to!
Mobile? Sign me in!
Backend? Sounds fun!
DevOps? But of course!
Internal CLI tool? AI? QA? Absolutely!

Why limit yourself to just web? 😉

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jaredcwhite profile image
Jared White Author

Hey if that's what you want to do, go for it! I just think the web as a cohesive system of client/server architecture + formats + browser APIs deserves a dedicated moniker.

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jonrandy profile image
Jon Randy

I've always considered myself just a 'developer'.

Sure, it's mainly web related these days, but I'm happy to have a go at anything. 26 years of doing this professionally have seen many interesting projects, and I prefer to keep it as diverse as possible.

Why pigeonhole yourself?

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collimarco profile image
Marco Colli

I've been developing for 10+ years (mainly with Rails) and I miss the simplicity of the "old" web... Everything is becoming too complex, without bringing anything (or not enough) to the table.

I miss finding all the snippets of code and libraries in plain JS (or jQuery), CSS, HTML. Everything worked and was interoperable.

Now you find only libraries that use a different stack / JS framework... and that you can't use in your project.

I miss Paperclip, compared to Active Storage.

I miss semantic HTML / CSS (with separation of concerns) compared to utility classes.

I miss a web that was more distributed, made more by individuals and small companies and less by large players and corporations.

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lassev profile image
lasse

this was cool

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njmsaikat profile image
Saikat Roy

Like the way of thinking. I think everybody already feels that way just present themselves in a specific pattern.

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superwibr profile image
superwibr • Edited on

I’ve always called myself a web developer. In the two years I’ve been doing this, I’ve always gravitated towards web. Sure, I learned python and a little slice of java, but the beauty of the web is it’s accessible. Any well-built device can access the web. Alright “java runs on everything” but with a webapp, you already have the mans of accessing it. No need to download an app, the app is already there; in the browser, bound to an address, ready to be used. With everything I’ve had an idea for, one of my first questions is can I make this work in a webpage? I stick to the vanilla html-css-js and I just make stuff.

Web developer for life.

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lundeee profile image
Lundeee

I call myself what i what i want to work with. If i want to work with web3 i will call myself "web3 developer". I love working with nodejs lately, so I'm "full stack nodejs developer". Im not gonna call myself "web developer", because then i will get jobs or tasks that i will not enjoy (like maintaining some huge ancient site written in php ).

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jaredcwhite profile image
Jared White Author

I think perhaps you're conflating specialties with industries. It's perfectly fine to have specialties and seek out work which will utilize those specialties.

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lundeee profile image
Lundeee

Aren't all those names you mention in your article just specialities?

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mwdd profile image
Mark Wilson

Deplorable? Might be pushing it a bit.

I see what you're getting at but equally if you were to tell someone - in our industry - that you are a web developer they'd probably respond 'Oh ok, what do you specialise in?'. Because there is such a breadth to the web now that a simple title doesn't really help when you're applying for jobs and such. And the sort of terms you are referring to are only used by people in the industry who know the difference. Like any industry really.

When I speak to people outside of the industry and they ask me what I do I always say 'I put stuff on the internet' as that explains it as much as I need to - and as much as I want to talk about it outside of work :)

But yeah, a lot of us are web developers - but choosing to highlight your particular skillset within that amorphous concept that is web development....what's the harm in that?

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jaredcwhite profile image
Jared White Author

I've seen lots of harm. People come to think their specialties are the industry. For example: "I'm a React/Tailwind developer" = they only know how to program front-end UIs using React & Tailwind. If you ask them to build a web app using only vanilla web specs, they'd be lost. Similarly, I've known back-end API developers who don't actually understand much at all about HTML and browser behavior because they're just generating data structures which eventually end up as JSON via some framework layer. I realize some career bifurcation is natural, especially in larger orgs, but we've lost sight of the fundamentals, and that's harmful IMO.

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peerreynders profile image
peerreynders

we've lost sight of the fundamentals, and that's harmful IMO.

That perspective could drive towards the conclusion that "tooling specialists" without "the fundamentals" are not web developers.

That entire trend hasn't been a recent observation—back in 2017:

To me, a web developer is a programmer who is not only able to write HTML, CSS, and JavaScript by hand, but also has a deep understanding of what browsers can do to that code.

Back then it ruffled some feathers.

The gist I'm sensing from your article is that specialization should come after acquiring a general foundation that delivers a good understanding of the web's operating principles and values and the constraints that it has to operate under. Some people will push back that it's simply irrelevant knowledge that their tool of choice abstracts over, so they don't have to think about it, so that they can be productive ASAP.

Perhaps another way of approaching it is to point out that the value of tool knowledge is ephemeral, while fundamental knowledge makes it easier to move from the current generation of tools to the next.

One thing I've noticed is that author's of the next generation tooling are increasingly asked to explain their approach in terms of React (rather than how challenges are approached in terms of the web).

Example

I think something that might be useful for the listeners or viewers; talking about how that would actually work in React itself

React isn't the web—it's just one (popular) tool among many that is used to solve some problems encountered on the web. The next generation of tools will likely solve web-based problems with approaches that are not related to React.

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jaredcwhite profile image
Jared White Author

Thanks for providing some additional context, and yes I agree this is an issue that has been around quite a while and isn't strictly-speaking new. Part of me is optimistic and thinks maybe things are starting to trend in the right direction. But OTOH it's frustrating that even as core web APIs are improving dramantically, many newcomers to the industry are skipping over much of it and just being immediately told to learn one particular framework or set of build tooling because that's what employers are looking for. Sigh…

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mwdd profile image
Mark Wilson

Hey Jared,

I can assure you I'm not necessarily disagreeing with you here - I more commented as your initial argument seemed more concerned with the semantics of job titles than the underlying issue you are really getting at.

But equally the idea of losing sight of the fundamentals is not a modern malaise, I remember back in the day where Flash developers were convinced that was how websites were going to be made - HTML was just a shell for embedding ActionScript into and see how that worked out for those guys... Or to veer off on a random tangent, it's like people getting into art and going straight to making abstract painting without learning how to draw or how colour theory works. Or people running before they can... you see where I'm going here.

But the effect of React especially on new developers is palpable, I recently did some work for an agency on a Shopify store and a snippet had been made by another dev and it was laid out like a React component. The CSS, HTML and JS was all in one file and all of the CSS was applied to IDs that were applied to all elements, no classes whatsoever and was an utterly inappropriate response to the job in hand. It made me sad to be honest.

Back to your original point, I agree with you that all devs should have a reasonable knowledge of the fundamentals from the outset, and also revisit them regularly. But equally I think the array of job titles we have now is not necessarily a bad thing - oddly I think the one you mentioned "I'm a React/Tailwind developer" would actually be a warning flag to an employer of any worth as they are essentially saying - "I use these two things and I will do everything I can to use them, regardless of whether I need to or not".

Anyways, thanks for the post - was an interesting angle on it.

Have a good weekend!

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jkhaui profile image
Jordy Lee

No offence bro but you’re way too opinionated/idealistic

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jaredcwhite profile image
Jared White Author

Thank you!

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ratrateroo profile image
ratrateroo

I think it is part of having a lot of technology advancement to have different titles like in engineering, now they have civil, geodetic, chemical and more. But if I get the chance to live in the future where we live in space, building starships, warp drives, fusion reactor and space colonies, I just want to be expert in everything and just called/titled as worker.

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andrewbaisden profile image
Andrew Baisden

It's most likely because these days a "web developer" is not enough. There are too many technical stacks and we have to take into account mobile and desktop applications too.