How to Teach Yourself Web Development

Originally published at:

At the age of twelve, after discovering the “Save as Web Page” option in Microsoft Word, I started to teach myself web development. I learned HTML first, of course, and then CSS and JavaScript, and then bits and pieces of PHP and Rails. (These days, I’m quite fond of Meteor.)

Over the years that followed, I considered getting a formal education, and I could see the value in doing so, but in the end:

  1. It was too expensive.
  2. I struggled with learning in a classroom setting.
  3. I was already making comfortably progress.

But it’s not like this was always an effortless process. I wasn’t just learning how to write code for the web, after all. I was also learning how to learn, and that’s what we’re about to discuss.

Here are five steps for teaching yourself web development.

1. Pick an area of web development that excites you.

You can’t just “become a web developer” by reading a certain book or watching a certain number of videos. Web development is a big field and trying to be a jack-of-all-trades will likely leave you exhausted, frustrated, and only a little further ahead than when you first started.

Being a web developer is like being a scientists. There are foundational ideas that apply across disciplines but, ultimately, you need to specialize. You have to commit to something forever though — it’s easier to move to another area once you’ve mastered one — nor will you be limited by your choice. Someone who is intricately familiar with PHP can do a lot more than someone with a basic grasp of ten cutting-edge web technologies.

But at this point, there’s no right answer. As long as you have a grasp of HTML and CSS, you simply need to pick whatever seems interesting. Perhaps discover what your favorite websites are built with. You’ll find that Rails is all over the place but JavaScript frameworks are on the rise. I’m working with Meteor because I like its real-time features. Your reasons, however, don’t precisely matter. Just try to follow your own interests, since that’s the only way you’ll be able to maintain your motivation.

Continue reading this article on SitePoint
1 Like

Thanks for this. As one who is struggling to make much headway with learning JS, it’s always good to have some pointers. My weakness is that I’m not good at “getting my hands dirty”, so to speak—which seems to be essential for learning to program. But I’ve had to accept that reading the books and getting the theory is simply not enough.

There are some older JS books I like, but I know there are more modern ways to code JS. One exercise I’ve been finding useful is to see if I can adapt those older scripts to newer conventions, as well as stripping out deviant code for older versions of IE, stripping out dependency on jQuery etc. It’s very satisfying to adapt code like that.

Good tips, but I strongly disagree with your second point. Yes, there are crusty old devs who refuse to learn new technologies and techniques, but one of the best ways to learn is to find a mentor. Learning web dev is very hard because you have to really learn at least three technologies at once to make anything useful (HTML, CSS and JS, plus something server-side or graphic design).

As someone who frequently helps people learn web development, countless times I’ve seen people fail at the getting started phase and they need someone to ask for help. StackOverflow and forums are great if you know enough about what you’re doing to phrase the question. Sometimes all you know is “it’s broken.” Having someone you can sit with and say, “what’s wrong here?” is extremely valuable.

1 Like

Whether or not you start learning PHP or Rails or JavaScript, or
whatever else, is irrelevant. Why? Because making the switch from one
language to another is incredibly insignificant compared to making the leap from not being a web developer to then being a web developer.

That issue comes up when you ask for help and someone chimes in with the belief that in order to receive the correct kind of help, a certain approximation needs to be established that determines the mediums used to fulfill requirements, hence the constant topics of languages, etc. That always comes up when someone coming into the field(s) inquires about what they need to learn: the common response I always see others reply with is, “Well, what do you want to do?” (Which incites the language dialogue because most enterprise shops have traditionally used a specific set of technologies whereby those not considered enterprise would use others – as an example, I mean.)

I think I get what you’re trying to explain there and it makes sense… It’s just that the initial baby steps someone takes when trying to become whatever a “web developer” is anymore is monumentally defined by what exactly said steps consist of and due to how these fields are, everything boils down to specifics.

(And don’t take that in any specific way – it was just something that came to my mind when I read that part of the article, which was great, btw. :smile: )

I’ve been a “designer” for o ver ten years, and a dev for 8 or 9. If you really want to be a dev, read a lot of books on dev. The worst mistake i think a dev student can make is believing that all the info is on the net, so therefore there’s no reason to buy books. Books are so much more comprehensive. They take you to the next level, whatever that happens to be for you at the time.


Could you give an example of something where the book is more comprehensive than reading it on the web? I find your claim to be actually opposite of my own findings.

Individual topics may not be more comprehensive, but the advantage of a book is that it puts all the pieces together systematically. I see a lot of people who’ve learned web design piecemeal on the web, and who thus have bigs gaps in their knowledge, because their learning on the web was about grabbing random bits of info here and there.

I’m sure everything could be found on the web, but usually the learner doesn’t know what to search for to make sure all the gaps are filled in. That’s why I recommend starting with a book, then moving on from there.

1 Like

It’s been a long time since my major learning phase, but one book that comes to mind was called “Advanced PHP5” by Larry Ullman. I had read a lot of PHP books, but this one really helped me with OOP concepts, among other things. I find some online resources of great value, such as the PHP docs, but it doesn’t tell a story the way “Advanced PHP5” did. Theres a lot of info in a book like this, info that is consolidated. I could find all of that info browsing the internet and looking at multiple websites, but this book packages it up nicely. It pieces the info together in a way that could be puzzling if broken into parts and spread across the web.

1 Like

Nicely put, @Oscar_Blank. :thumbsup:

Spot on.

Ah yes that does make sense. Thanks for the clarification Ralph!

1 Like

Agree with pick, give, commit and engage but I can’t go with ignore. While it’s true I am ancient, what this advice assumes is that older web devs stop learning. Any developer who does that will soon be an ex-developer, young or old. What you get from experienced devs is (or should) is not how to implement specific technology but how to approach it, how to think about it and how to come up with your own answers. As newz2000 says, that kind of mentoring is invaluable.

Yeah, publishers still have to pay people to be editors and writers.

With books/magazines/journals/etc you are reading something from someone who is almost always being paid, and companies that want to stay in business do not pay people who are idiots.

By contrast, any fool can publish stuff on the Internet - and they do!!! :wink:

There is lots of great free content on the Internet, but it often lacks the rigor and editing for which published materials are known.

P.S. There is this publisher called SitePoint that puts out some pretty nice books - which I have bought - that can compete with anything on the Internet. (I enjoyed some of the SP CSS books…) :smile:

1 Like

Agreed. The author’s reasoning behind his option may on the surface seem sound, but in reality it’s smoke and mirrors. Asking ANY developer what language someone else should work in is like asking them what automobile is the best to be chosen. The answer that will be given will be based on experience and comfort levels.

A mentor is crucial to developing the RIGHT approaches and methodologies. How to approach a problem, the pitfalls to avoid, etc. I have always said that a number of our problems with the current state of web development came because people decided that it was cheaper and easier just to add more hardware to a problem rather than learning to develop properly. Memory management, efficient code structure are two areas which “seasoned” developers, especially those that started outside of the web realm, are hands down better at. Database structures are another area which the tools available today can almost cause more problems than they can correct.

There are things that can be learned from us dinosaurs that used to have to learn to work within the boundaries of the machines we worked on. Battery life on mobile devices would be astonishing if the developers of today’s mobile operating systems took some of the concepts that us old mainframers employed.

Awesome article and learned a few things. Perhaps, I should hold my opinion on “How to do it right”… this is one of those things developers needs to make the mistakes to understand the concept.

This topic was automatically closed 91 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.