Getting an Education for Web Development - Getting Your Education - Getting a Web Development Job For Dummies (2015)

Getting a Web Development Job For Dummies (2015)

Part III. Getting Your Education


webextras.eps Check out for details on the move from tables to CSS in web development.

In this part …

· Find out what your educational options are

· Learn what’s “required” for a web development job

· Check out value-added educational options

Chapter 12. Getting an Education for Web Development

In This Chapter

arrow Finding the value of a degree

arrow Getting a two-year degree first

arrow Going for a four-year degree with experience

arrow Getting a four-year degree without experience

This chapter describes some of the higher education programs that you can pursue if you want a career in web development, either before you get started or after your career is underway. One key lesson: Don’t stop learning just because you’ve started working.

A successful career in web development is all about what art critic Robert Hughes called, in his book of the same name, “the shock of the new.” Web development careers exist because new advances are being made. The people who work at the cutting edge of these changes need to be learning continually in order to stay at the forefront of their professions.

Learning takes many different forms, but formal education is usually a vital part of the mix. If you think of your educational advancement being divided into study on your own, on-the-job training, and formal education, only the last one is easily measured and substantiated.

So don’t ever stop learning, any and every way you can. But include as much formal education as you reasonably can in your mix. A bachelor’s degree is becoming an entry-level qualification for most people in most web development jobs. Courses completed, certification programs completed, and advanced degrees are valuable ornaments on the tree of knowledge that you build as you pursue your career.

Understanding the Value of Undergraduate Degrees

Most web design jobs require some combination of education and experience. This is tough! The traditional route for good-paying jobs in the U.S., and many other countries, is to finish high school; get a four-year degree at a college university; and then get hired into an entry-level job in your chosen field, a job that requires (or just about requires) a college degree.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, also known as the BLS, uses this approach to web design as a career, as shown in Figure 12-1. Its Occupational Outlook Handbook summarizes pay and typical education for a graphic designer, which is an expert — but non-technical — role when found on a web development team. The BLS considers a bachelor’s degree as entry-level education for graphic designers and also for more technical roles.


Figure 12-1: The Bureau of Labor Statistics treats a four-year degree as a prerequisite for graphic design.

Balancing real-world experience and education

The world of web development is full of stories of people who have totally inappropriate educations for web development roles, often including little or no higher education at all.

One of the authors (Smith) is an example of this trend. He first started working in technology as a data-entry clerk for a cable television company. He did not have a college degree at the time, only about two years’ worth of classes completed at the University of California, San Diego, a legendarily tough computer science school.

After the data entry job, he became a database programmer, computer book author, and technical publications manager. His skills grew, but his formal education didn’t. Finally, he rose to the level of competitive analyst and marketing manager at Apple Computer, all without a degree.

However, he sensed that his luck was about to run out. He went to an extension program at the University of San Francisco while still working for Apple. He was able to complete his Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree in information systems management in about two additional years, going to school and studying at night.

And it was just in time. The dot-com boom was starting, and these new companies were mostly hiring younger people — almost all with freshly minted college degrees. Smith would have been frozen out if he didn’t have his BA.

He then moved to the U.K. for several years; he got a work visa through the United Kingdom’s Highly Skilled Migrant program, which awarded him points for, among other things, his BA. Also, the British job market is much more oriented to degrees, formal certification programs, and years of experience than the much more meritocratic Silicon Valley environment. That BA degree was absolutely indispensable, both to get him into the country, and to get him employed once he was there.

In fact, the BA didn’t feel like enough. Now in his forties, Smith entered a graduate program at the London School of Economics. He finished with a Master of Sciences (MSc) in Information Systems two years later. And the new degree proved a huge help in subsequent roles with HSBC in London, and then with Kyocera, Visa, and others after his return to Silicon Valley.

This is just one person’s story, but many others in web development can tell similar tales. The ratcheting back and forth between jobs and degrees is common among many people in web development and related fields.

In web design, however, treating a four-year degree as a first step can have a big drawback. To a greater degree than in other kinds of jobs, hiring managers want experience even from new graduates. Having a four-year degree but no actual work experience can put you in a very challenging situation as far as getting that first job.

You may want to consider going to a two-year college, getting a two-year degree, and then getting some work experience. (It may not pay much, but it will help a lot in getting a solid initial career-track position.) Then get a four-year degree that leverages both your two-year degree as well as what you’ve learned while working.

Is it who you know?

There’s an old saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” This saying has a lot of truth, and it applies in every field, not just web design.

Most people in web design know people who don’t have college degrees and have moved from job to job on the strength of their work experience, personal recommendations, and their portfolio. However, for most of us, the majority of our colleagues do have a bachelor’s degree (also called a four-year degree).

When you don’t have a degree of some kind, you’re more dependent on connections and recent experience with specific technologies. And you could get frozen out when close connections move to a new gig and can’t bring you along because of degree requirements at their new employer.

Connections are great, but they’re only so powerful. We recommend that you start out your career with a bachelor’s degree if possible. During your degree program, build up your portfolio, and try to find a way to get work experience. If not, at least get an Associate of Arts (A.A.) or Associate of Sciences (A.S.) degree (also called a two-year degree), start getting some work experience, and find a way to move up to a four-year degree as soon as you can.

This is a complicated and somewhat non-traditional path, but it allows you to interleave paying for college and making some money, and is probably a surer path to a good job than just going through a four-year program without working. Consider all your options as you make your educational decisions.

Getting a Two-Year Degree First

As mentioned earlier, experience is just as important as education in getting a web development job.

So, to a greater degree than in many fields, web developers sometimes get a two-year degree — an A.A. (Associate of Arts) or A.S. (Associate of Science) degree. This can be from a community college or a technical school. Then they go to work.

tip.eps An A.A. is more often awarded for an arts-centered or design-centered course of study. Using Photoshop, for instance, can be very technical, but it’s used for art and design, so you’ll see more Photoshop in a program that offers an A.A. degree. If your program teaches JavaScript, intermixed with some more traditional programming languages — even on top of design work — it’s more likely to award an A.S. degree.

Associate degrees are usually only awarded at community colleges and technical schools. (Some smart four-year schools are starting to offer them too, giving their students a lot more options.)

These colleges are usually far less expensive in terms of tuition, fees, and even book costs than four-year schools. Many community college students continue to live with their parents while working at least part-time outside of school, further stretching their education dollar.

For those reasons, going to a two-year college (without incurring much debt), getting some work experience, and then finishing at a four-year school as a transfer student from the community college has a lot of advantages.

In a two-year degree program, you’ll learn how to use software such as Photoshop (for graphics) and Dreamweaver (for web page and website design), plus take additional classes in topics such as typography, color, layout, and design.

If you have work experience, you might find this boring. However, as each of the authors experienced, there’s value in hearing something that you mostly already know being taught in a structured, organized way. If you can keep paying attention through the boring bits, you’ll learn new things about what you’re doing — and about how people react to the information that you already know. These insights can be valuable, although they’re sure to feel hard-won after sitting in a class that only has tidbits of new information for you.

tip.eps Avoid interrupting or correcting the teacher, for the most part, even if you disagree or know more than the teacher does. She has an approach or technique that has worked for previous students. Interrupting her is likely to throw the teacher off her game and confuse your fellow students.

Seattle Central College has a strong two-year web design program, shown in Figure 12-2. The program includes a lot of programming and technical aspects and awards an A.S. (Associate of Science) degree, more highly prized than an A.A. (Associate of Arts). You can see the description for yourself at


Figure 12-2: Seattle Central College has a strong, technically focused web design program.

The technical pay gap

More technically oriented jobs in web development tend to pay more. They also tend to demand more education. Or, put another way, the less education you have, the harder it is to get higher-paying, more technically oriented jobs.

Say your education is in a non-technical area, such as graphic design. We would argue that such an education still helps in getting more technically oriented jobs. You’re given more credit for your expertise in the area your degree is in (ka-ching!), and you’re assumed to be more credible by adding technical depth due to additional study and work experience (ka-ching! again).

There’s a good brief summary of web design jobs on the website. To see it, visit

This summary says that web designers tend to earn about $50,000 a year and web developers about $70,000. These salaries are much higher in highly competitive job markets, such as Silicon Valley, and a bit lower in some quieter spots, but the differential still feels about right to us for many mainstream positions. For highly skilled web developers in competitive job markets, though, salaries can go through the roof — much more so than for web designers.

So yes, you can get a web development job without a four-year degree, and yes, you can get a web development job without being technical. But either of these additional qualifications, let alone both, will add to your employability and your earning power. So try to build yourself up to be a powerhouse — in education, experience, and technical depth.

Getting a Four-Year Degree

There are two different paths to a four-year degree. One is with previous experience, and the other is without experience.

In brief, it’s tough to manage your life while you get some schooling (but not a four-year degree), get some work experience, and then get your degree — but it’s a less expensive path, and you’re learning while you earn (and vice versa). If you go straight for the four-year degree, you need to either get work experience through internships, develop a killer portfolio, or be stellar, either in your prestigious degree program or in your accomplishments within the program.

Getting a four-year degree with experience

If you already have experience in web design, getting a four-year degree is usually a great idea. Why?

You won’t waste your time and money in school. Because you have some work experience, you know what you want to study. You know that you’re interested in the degree program, you’re good at the type of work involved, and that there are career opportunities for you post-graduation. Also, with experience and a four-year degree, it’s very easy to get — or keep — a job.

Figure 12-3 shows the BLS page describing education for a graphic designer. It emphasizes four-year programs, but is a good starting point for all graphic designers doing web work.

remember.eps There is one problem with getting a four-year degree with experience. Having this degree (no pun intended) of education, plus experience, should be enough to get you a hefty salary. However, you might be held back by your old salary.

If you’re continuing with the same employer, this can be a big problem. Your current employer will want to pay you your former salary, plus some kind of bump — say, 10%, or $5,000 or so. This is nice, but may not be appropriate compared to new hires who have the education and experience that you now have as well. The usual cure for being underpaid at one employer is to move to a new employer. But even that might not immediately solve the problem.

Moving up educationally can still create a problem with a new employer. They will already have a salary range for the position. But if your former salary (fitting for someone with a two-year degree, or no degree) was lower, they’ll want to discount from the salary range, or stay at the low end of it, with the idea that you’re still getting a pretty good raise.


Figure 12-3: BLS gives you a good brief guide to graphic design certification.

The only cure for this is for you to figure out an appropriate salary figure, ask for that salary, and then stick to your guns. Be willing to walk away rather than come in with a salary that isn’t worthy of you. Usually, given the demand for highly educated and experienced web designers, the employer will test you a bit, and then cave. If not, look for a different employer that will treat you appropriately.

The U.S. Department of State’s human resources people have some good advice for any professional negotiating a salary, shown in Figure 12-4. To check it out in depth, visit

In the big picture, salary problems are, in a way, nice problems to have. As an experienced web designer with a new four-year degree, you’re likely to be a hot property. Work it.

Getting a four-year degree with no experience

The most common route into web development work is to get a four-year degree, and then get a job. If you don’t manage to get some experience on the way to your degree, however, this can be risky.


Figure 12-4: The State Department tells you how to get more money.

If you don’t yet have web design experience, and you get a four-year degree, you may have trouble finding a job. You can find yourself over-educated for entry-level positions and too inexperienced for higher-level positions. You might be willing to work around these barriers, say by taking a lower salary temporarily, but employers might not be.

There are only a few situations where we can recommend going straight for a four-year degree in web development, without getting solid experience along the way:

· Your program is technical, full stop. If you’re studying to become a web software developer, or a software developer with a web bent, you’ll be fine. Software developers are expected to have four-year degrees and can find appropriate entry-level positions straight out of school.

· Your graphically oriented program has a big technical component. If you can find a four-year program that includes solid web design work, plus technical depth in CSS and HTML, plus JavaScript, plus Python, plus database access, you’re likely to be evaluated more as a technical pro than “just” a designer — and to find an employer who will give you a start.

· Your program is really, really prestigious. The very best programs are strong enough that many employers will take on their graduates without experience because they assume that these graduates will learn quickly.

· You are really, really prestigious. What we mean here is that even if your program is good rather than great, employers always want the best. If you can find ways to stand out in your program, you should be fully employable, even if some of your colleagues in your program aren’t.

· You find ways to get experience. Paid or unpaid summer internships, side jobs, and volunteer design work all make a big difference. It’s hard to find the time while studying, but worthwhile. Get solid experience on the side, and get it into your portfolio (see Chapter 16).

· Your program has an excellent success record for jobs. Along with all the preceding factors, you’re going to do well if your program has a strong record of getting its graduates into jobs. Ask about this and make sure you like the answer before you enroll in a four-year program.

The Sullivan Curve

One of the most famous theories in technology and education goes by the name the Sullivan Curve. The Sullivan Curve is named for Kevin Sullivan, an early head of HR at Apple.

The Sullivan Curve holds that newly graduated technical people are very valuable. They add to their value as they get a few years of work experience. However, their salaries also increase steadily.

According to Sullivan, after a few years, the employee’s value levels off. There are new developments in the field that these employees aren’t thoroughly grounded in; their on-the-job training and self-education are likely to be hit and miss. New university graduates will have learned these new developments thoroughly — and, remember, they get paid less.

The problem for the longer-term employees is that they’re moving up in their careers and expecting more money, just when their education is losing some of its relevance. According to Sullivan, experience doesn’t fully make up for this. For most technical people, Sullivan favored getting rid of them after ten years or so.

Harsh, isn’t it? Don’t let this story discourage you; plenty of experienced web development people do very well indeed. But do let this story remind you to keep your education up-to-date and your skills sharp.

If you want to avoid being Sullivaned, as we might call it, stay current. Professional associations, Meetup groups, developer conferences, tech blogs, and other ways of visibly interacting keep your skills sharp and your profile high. This kind of interaction also makes you more ready to do well if and when you do take the time for more formal education.