Saturday, January 27, 2018

Book Review: How To Become A Web Developer: The Career Changer’s Guide

One of the most difficult to pin down topics and titles of the last couple of decades is to define oneself as a web developer. What exactly does that mean, and what skills does one need to know to become one in this day and age?

Julie Torres, one half of the "Code Crush" podcast, has done what I feel is a good job distilling that into an 86 page book titled, specifically enough, How to Become a Web Developer: The Career Changer’s Guide.

Starting with the Prologue, Julie describes the specific circumstances that started her on this journey. With a softening job market during what we now refer to as “The Great Recession,” Julie describes how she moved from being a bank teller to become a junior developer. Her point in sharing this story is to make clear that you don’t need an advanced degree in computer science or have lots of history as a programmer to make the shift into doing web development. This book pledges to help you make that transition. Does Julie deliver on that promise?

Chapter Zero: Prepare for the Journey 

Julie sets out some basic markers to help you make the most of this journey including the idea of starting your job hunt while you start your web development journey. Counterintuitive, but makes good sense. Looking at what is out there, what is required and what skills are consistently being asked for is a great way to tailor your learning path. Utilizing Meetup groups and other resources will also help. Determine how to measure your progress, whether that be a way to check in with an online community or work with a specific mentor or group of people. In this day and age, showing goes a long way and having resources you can demonstrate to show your skill can be a big boost in this process. Code repositories and websites in the cloud to show your work can help tremendously. Don’t be concerned with whether or not you “measure up” to others out there. At the start, you won’t but your journey is yours and that’s what matters.

Chapter One: First, Choose Your Goal

Front End, Back End, Full Stack, Mobile, and a reference to QA by way of automation. This particular part touches me because I am primarily a tester in my work role, but many web development skills are still part of my daily repertoire. I’m glad Julie include testing on the list because many developers do actually make a decision to look at testing as a primary responsibility. The point is, deciding where you want to place your efforts will make a big difference in what you study and in what order. Likewise, there’s no rule that says you have to be permanently committed to any one goal, right?

Chapter Two: Choosing Your First Programming Language

Languages have a lot to do with the applications or environments you want to work on. Java is now a perennial favorite of many organizations because it is ubiquitous. Large corporations use it, Android devices use it, and there’s a large ecosystem for the language. It’s a wordy language, true, but the benefit is that there’s a lot of examples out there to look at and review. JavaScript is a language that has spawned numerous libraries and smaller ecosystems of their own. When you see people asking about Angular, Bootstrap, jQuery, React, etc, those are all specialized JavaScript frameworks. PHP is a great language specific for a large number of existing sites. Python and Ruby are also popular languages that also run in web stacks (Django and Rails, respectively). What you use will depend a lot on what you ultimately want to work on. If your dream job is making iPhone apps, you may want to take a look at Swift. The key is start with where you want to go and then pick what you will work with.

Chapter Three: Paths to Learning

You may be thinking “I don’t have a Computer Science degree” and that’s totally fine. Many of the best developers I’ve know have degrees in completely different disciplines. Whether you choose to go to college, do a coding Bootcamp or use an online resource like freeCodeCamp, the point is you have to put in the time, get frustrated a little and work through the issues you will undoubtedly face.

Chapter Four: What Skills Do You Need?

The foundational skills necessary are surprisingly small. Yes, it helps a lot if you can touch type and do so at a decent speed. Knowing how to use a computer or mobile device well is important especially if you can understand how to open, edit, move and manipulate files and directories. Understanding fundamental math skills and having a good understanding of the scientific method is also very helpful (not mentioned in the chapter and were I to suggest any additional basic skills to include I’d strongly suggest that one ;) ). From there, you will need to learn about how to use the command line of your chosen operating system(s), understanding the basics of HTML and CSS, using a version control system to chart your progress and, on occasion, back up and go to an earlier time to do something different, and understanding of how the Internet works (TCP/IP and HTTP, for example). From there, databases, return codes, error handling, and flow control of programs will come into play. Sounds scary? In truth, it’s fairly straightforward but the devil is in the details. Again, the key here is to understand what you want to do and then plot the course to get there. It will require a fair amount of knowledge buildup and experimentation, as well as false starts and frustrations. Julie goes into some detail in this chapter about the various frameworks available, sample programs and applications you can develop and ways to display them so that people can notice your progress.

Chapter Five: Things to Ignore (at Least For Now)

Depending on what it is you wish to work on, there may be many skills that will be important later on, but that you do not need to worry yourself with at the start or even in the first few years of your progress. You may never have to get familiar with topics like binary, specifics of computer hardware, or the underlying computer networking infrastructure and communicating with the lower layers. There is a list where there are things that will be helpful to understand later on and while I agree with much of the list, I have to take issue with testing being considered not so important. Personal opinion time, I wish more developers would put testing and a testing mindset at the forefront of their learning. It will help encourage more developers to see what they are developing, to begin their work with questions of quality and experimentation in mind and to ultimately help deliver a better product to their users.

Chapter Six: Learning Resources

This chapter includes a list of resources to help fill in key concepts and skills you may need. Many of them are completely free, while some have a small cost associated with them (small is relative, of course). Julie also includes a variety of blogs and websites that can also be helpful (I too am a fan of the Tuts sites and encourage people to check it out).

Chapter Seven: Staying On Track

The chapter starts out with this quote:

"Learning to code is more of a motivational challenge than a technical one." -- Quincy Larson, Founder of freeCodeCamp

On the whole, I agree with that. How we keep ourselves motivated is important, and finding our true motive is also critical. Do we want to make more money? A good place to start but may not sustain us in the long run. Chose methods that will help you stay committed to your goals, such as participating in meetups, hackathons, or other projects you can do with other people to get feedback and feel connected to what you are doing.

Chapter Eight: Career Goals

Just as important as what you want to do is where do you want to do it? Do you want to work for large companies or would you be interested in working for smaller organizations? Understanding the tradeoffs for each is important. Large companies can have great infrastructure but very defined ways of doing things. Smaller companies may be more chaotic and struggle with getting to profitability but the sky's the limit with where you can potentially get involved. You can also work with various employment agencies on a contract basis to rotate jobs and gain experience. Once you have a good enough foundation, you could perhaps hang up your own shingle, so to speak, and freelance. Don't be surprised if you find yourself doing a little of all of that, especially in the first few years.

Chapter Nine: The Job Hunt

Remember that advice in Chapter Zero? Here's where doing all of that this whole time should start helping. If you have been communicating with a variety of people along your journey, they may take an interest in what you have put together and speak with those in their organizations that have a hand in hiring. Resumes still matter at a lot of places, but they are taking a backseat to demonstrable ways that you can show your skills. In this day and age, tools like LinkedIn, GitHub, SlideShare, and a blogging platform can do a lot to boost your visibility as well as have lots of examples of demonstrable skills. Additionally, connect with people and communicate with them. The key here is to start this process well before you need to look for a job so that when you are ready, you have already identified people who you can communicate with. Another bonus is that, if you do this regularly, they will likewise know you are ready and can help you find your next gig.

Chapter Ten: Interviewing

Whether it be initial phone screens, in-person general interviews or technical interviews, you will be judged based on how you respond. Having a good handle on a variety of skills and being able to explain them will go a long way in helping you with these interviews. You may be given a coding challenge to complete, either on-premises or as a take-home assignment. Practice a few of these so that you can feel confident that you can do them if given the opportunity or request. This chapter has a lot of practical advice for specific technical interview questions as well as how to negotiate for salary.

Chapter Eleven: Building a Successful Career

Once you get that first job, realize that it's the bottom rung of a new ladder. There's still much to learn and many areas that you can get involved if you choose to. Pay attention to sticking points in the organization and see if you would like to tackle those challenges. See where the rest of the market is going and if you feel that you are ready to pivot if market forces change. Most importantly, never stop learning.

Along with all of these chapters, Julie shares many personal anecdotes of her own journey that has brought her to where she is today. These vignettes help the reader see what choices she made, both for good or ill, that have helped inform the rest of the text.


For those who are looking for an in-depth guide to learning how to become a web developer, this book doesn't cover those except for skimming the resources needed to accomplish those goals. This is much more of a field guide to allow you to safely manage the trek and it is filled with a variety of markers that you may find interesting along your journey. As the title says, this is a Career Change guide, and those focusing on the "How To Become a Web Developer" are missing the key in the subtitle. This is a guide to navigating a career change. To that end, it meets its goal admirably.

No comments: