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Matt Wilcox

Web Development

Academia, Training, or Self Learning?

What are the options for learning this craft, and what are the pro's and con's of each?

If you’re starting out, you may be asking yourself whether you’d do best to go to college or university to learn, or to find a junior role at an agency or design studio, or do it entirely yourself. I have some thoughts on this topic (surprise!). Do try to get some perspectives other than mine though; these choices will impact your life and your finances in a large way. I won’t advise you on a course of action, I’ll just tell you what I did, what my experiences have been over the last decade, and my general thoughts as they might apply to me if I were in such a situation.

I went to University in 2001 and studied Multi Media Graphics; it was a broad course aimed at being applicable to all sorts of graphic design while allowing for a branching into web development, which is where I knew my interest lay. It was pretty much my only option for a web-development type course at the time. I got a BA(hons) in the subject. That time at university was very valuable, but the degree and the lessons it taught were far from it.

If I had to make that choice again, I would not go to University to learn web development.

It would be easy to think that the particular course or university was at fault; I don’t think it was. Yes, it was teaching outdated methods and thinking - but at the time all universities seemed to be. And I’d imagine even today you’ll get similar problems to one extent or another. The thing is; the world of web development and web design moves fast. Really fast. Most universities and degree courses need to be planned ahead, to know what will be taught and how it will be graded - that process in itself takes time, and it means that the chance of any course teaching bang-up-to-date stuff becomes slim. I’m sure that’s fixable or been overcome in some way in some universities, but even if it were I’m still not convinced Uni is likely to be a strong option for many people. There’s the added question of how potential employers view a particular universities qualification; not all employers will weigh a degree’s value the same depending on the university’s reputation in that field.

University fees are high today. I borrowed something like £14,000 to do a three year course, keeping costs down by living at home. Today you’d be looking more like £30,000 and up. For some courses, for some professions, that still works out ok - because for those courses you require a degree to get a job in the related field, or because the pay for the type of work you can get after graduating is substantial enough to quickly offset the cost of the course.

I’m not convinced either applies to web development.

In all three companies in which I’ve been employed as a web developer, little weight has been put on qualifications. From my experience in the field of web development employers don’t seem to be that bothered about them. Certainly there doesn’t seem to be any link between the quality of work a person creates and the type of education they went through, or grade of qualification they hold. I’ve known developers hired with nothing in terms of qualifications except compulsory high-school certificates, and they’ve been valuable and skilled employees. I’ve seen employees with BA’s and Master’s degrees where the opposite holds true too.

I would suggest researching that sort of thing yourself before making a decision - ask some agencies and employers what they think about university degrees, and figure out how valuable such a degree is likely to be for you given those answers. Most agencies will be happy to quickly discuss this sort of thing.

Nor will most web development jobs pay the large sums they once might. The market is much more saturated now, and it’s forced prices down and made things harder for web designers and developers. There’s still good money to be had, but you’ll need to work your way up the chain and toward bigger or more prestigious clients or employers to get there. The days of being able to ‘knock out a quick website’ for a bunch of local businesses, that all parties were happy with, are gone; the quality of a modern site demands considerably more time and skill than it used to, but small businesses are not often willing to pay more money for it - which means the profits are lower.

The bottom line is that you can learn all of the stuff you need without ever stepping foot in a formal institution of learning. Nor does it to me seem likely that you’ll be rewarded or punished by potential employers and clients for having or not having a formal qualification in the field. Qualifications can be a foot in the door for interviews, and I’m sure there are some employers, and maybe even clients, that might hold a different view - but that’s not been my experience.

The value I got from university was three years of mostly free time where I could teach myself what I needed to know. I had time to look at online resources, read books, find out what the current skills, techniques, and thinking were; and then to practice, experiment, and learn. It’s why I learned about Web Standards, Accessibility, and CSS - none of which were taught in the course. And its those skills, and my attitude, that landed me my first employment right out of University - not the degree.

If you decide a better idea would be to learn by diving in at the deep end by applying for a junior position at an agency I think you’d be making a wise choice, depending on the agency. You’ll be able to learn a lot of real world value there, including things that you don’t pick up in an academic course, or by studying on your own. The realities of work add certain complexities and considerations that stem from the business aspect of web development.

If you go the agency route, be sure that agency has your development and well being at heart. Some places will be happy to saddle juniors with support work and menial tasks for as long as they can. You don’t want that, it’s not a road to progress and it will become soul destroying. Be careful of where you chose to go; a good employer offers far more than a wage, and requires less than total dedication to work. Places that want you to work all hours of the day all days of the week, and dress this up as something honourable, or to be expected, are simply going to use you up. They will discard you when you break, and you'll have some expensive therapy sessions to go to after they do. Do not work for companies that exhibit this attitude; to them you are a resource to be consumed, and not a partner to help grow.

Additionally, you’re not likely to get a placement at an agency if you’re completely green. At least show that you know the basics, have actively attempted to learn for yourself, and achieved a few things of relevance. Attitude and general competence is a huge part of what an employer finds valuable in an employee. This is also one of the few times where it may be ok to show ‘sub standard’ work - if you can also show how you’ve progressed, in what sort of time frame, and you can identify and explain the places in your work where you’d wish to improve.

Another option is to learn all the technical stuff yourself in your spare time - this can work out pretty well if you’ve got a part-time job to keep you afloat and the discipline to self-learn. You may also find you’re able to go self-employed or freelance; though I would suggest trying to spend some time as an employee to learn the nuts and bolts of working in a team, and how an agency or business works.