Technical and Cultural Basics for a Career in Web Development

By Kathleen Taylor, Bud E. Smith

You might wonder why you might need to know technical basics of the Internet and the web to do a web development job. After all, some of the things that web developers worry about today, such as how to make their pages work well on a wide range of mobile devices, are pretty different from what people worried about in the early days, right?

However, you’ll find that both technical and cultural basics matter — and that they’re strongly interrelated.

Why technical basics matter

It’s important to understand technical basics about the web for several reasons, all of which matter:

  • To do your job better when technical issues affect decisions you’re making

  • To participate intelligently in tactical and strategic discussions with other people in your workgroup or on your project

  • To communicate an air of competence and professionalism as you work and socialize with others

This is a case where cultural factors affect technical issues as well. Web development people are proud of the technical competence they develop in their work, and status and pay increase the more technical a job role is considered to be, as well as how technically skilled you’re perceived as being within a given job description.

Technical basics also matter, of course, in getting the job done. If you accidentally put a photograph with a large file size onto a web page, the page will load slowly. If, on the other hand, you compress the same photograph so it will load faster, but overdo it, the image quality will be poor, and the look and feel of the page will be compromised.

So understanding technical information related to web development as a discipline, as well as issues relating to your specific job, is crucial.

Wikipedia gets a lot of criticism, but it’s an accessible source of information for almost any Internet, web, or web development topic.

Why cultural basics matter

There’s a unique culture that developed around web development in its early years that continues to this day. Not everyone who does web development is the same, of course, but there is a central tendency around the way people in these roles think and act.

Most people in web development have a few things in common:

  • Technically minded: There’s a technical core to web development, and technical understanding and achievement are universally respected within the field. You can rarely go wrong in this arena by becoming more technically skilled.

  • Open-minded: People who took web development jobs early on were people who were ready and willing to try new things — either in their off hours, or during work time when they were really supposed to be doing something else.

  • Disrespect for authority: Early web developers created something outside the bounds of conventional authority. There was, though it may seem hard to believe today, little or no money involved, except for time and resources “borrowed” from government, universities, the military, and — gradually — business.

  • Disrespect for employers: There are certainly lousy jobs in web development, with little freedom and low pay. But most web development jobs are relatively well-paid, and people who achieve distinction in a role are usually pretty able to move up or move over to a better job, either within the same organization or (more often) in a different one.

  • Opinionated: People who think fast and work hard tend to have a high regard for their own opinion and to be challenging to talk to and work with. In web development, technical skills come first, but if you can mix good technical skills with a reasonable degree of social skills, you can go far.

  • Snarky: Snark is a common feature of web developers’ reactions to all kinds of problems and challenges. At its best, it’s hilarious, but it can get a bit wearing. Wear your snark lightly away from your web developers.

  • Devoted to lifelong learning: Web developers are constantly exposed to new technologies and new versions of protocols, software, and platforms. They tackle new learning with an inquisitiveness and doggedness that the average person does not have. They are also willing to share their learning freely among their peers.

A great way to absorb web development culture is to hang out on technically oriented websites that encourage lots of comment, such as reddit. Reddit is so famous for its online exchanges that celebrities and politicians now visit to exchange views and try to influence the very influential reddit audience.

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Cultural “fit” might seem unimportant, compared to objective qualifications, but many companies turn down potential employees — often in the later rounds of interviews — because they think there won’t be a cultural fit with a potential employee.

How can you make sure not to get frozen out of promising job opportunities because of cultural fit? The answer isn’t changing your core beliefs or personal practices to fit what you think a company wants.

Instead, do four things:

  • Research the company before you apply. Resources like LinkedIn, Glassdoor, and the company’s website can tell you a lot about a company, including what its culture is like. Look at the company’s mission statement, vision, and values, or other cultural touchstones — and then see if you can find evidence as to whether they’re actually used.

  • Make sure your grasp of technical basics is solid, plus additional information about the areas that you see as being strongest for you.

  • Learn to talk and interact on a friendly basis with everyone. Web designer cultural traits such as snarkiness, disrespect of authority, and expressing opinions strongly can seem disrespectful or even hostile to people who don’t embody these traits themselves.

  • Maintain your core beliefs and point of view, and defend them with reason and wit. If you stick to your own point of view and approach, and don’t let yourself be baited into arguments over small matters, you’ll be respected, even by those who disagree with you.