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Life as a Sole Web Developer

By Nick Coad

I work as the sole web developer in a company of software developers. The company I work for has undergone a lot of structural and managerial changes lately, and we’re gradually making the transition from a very small business into being a part of a major publicly traded corporation. With this change came a reiteration of our contracts as well as some proposed job descriptions. My job description was very revealing of how alone I am here as the only web developer. It showed a complete misunderstanding of what I do and how I do it. There was no mention of HTML, CSS, JavaScript or any web technology.

Then I looked at the position title and it all became clear. The title read: “Software Developer / Web Developer”. Slash web developer: The web part is just an afterthought. My employer still thinks of me as doing the same work as a software developer, but with some mysterious black-box web stuff thrown in from time to time. This is typical, and not at all something I’m bothered by or upset about – your employers don’t know everything you know about your position and they shouldn’t have to. That’s why they hired you, after all!

Being the only person focused on web in a company is not particularly uncommon, but it’s an existence that is rarely discussed. To help change that, I’m going to talk a little about my current role and I’ll try to offer some advice where I can for other web developers in a similar position.

Own your role

Being the sole web developer is challenging, that’s true, but it’s also a great chance to make your mark within the company. As the sole web developer, particularly if you’re the first web developer, you have a rather enviable opportunity to plan out the whole stack – from technology, to test environment configuration, to documentation. The flipside: you’re solely responsible for those decisions, and any negative repercussions.

Own that fact. Know you’re responsible for anything “web” and be prepared to explain yourself when something goes wrong, perhaps to a deeper extent than normal. You’ll usually be explaining yourself to someone who knows very little to nothing about web development. Don’t make up excuses and your employer will respect you for having the self-confidence and the honesty to own up to your mistakes.

You need to stand up for yourself. If you think there’s a better way to do something, or if you think a timeframe is unreasonable, say so. You’re the only one with the expertise to be making those calls, but your managers will be more than happy to make them for you if you don’t make your voice heard. It can be stressful when you have to correct a senior staff member, but remember they want the same thing as you do: a successful project.

In return for all that stress and responsibility, when the job is done and everything is running smoothly, you’ll be the guy who did it all and your management staff will know that and (hopefully!) recognise it.

Document, document, document

This is important regardless of your role or where you work, but as the sole web developer it’s much more than important: it’s critical. If you’re the only web developer it can be hard to be disciplined. You’ll have a lot of work to do and it’s very tempting to think you’re the only one who will read it, so what’s the point, right? But appropriately documenting your work serves many purposes; informing other people of what you have done is just one of them.

Appropriate documentation allows your employers to understand what it is you do. Remember that one project where your manager was riding you because they couldn’t understand how it was taking so long? Imagine if you had a project timeline and a tasklist you could show them that broke down exactly what was involved in that “little change” they requested.

It also provides a baseline for estimating timeframes on future work. You can look back at your documentation and see that developing a particular feature took a certain number of hours in the past, so you can expect it to take a similar amount of time – perhaps a little less – if you have to do it again. Remember, as the only web developer you’re responsible for project management as well. You might have to report to a higher-up, but they’re not going to have the knowledge required to plan projects to the same depth.

Learn the full stack

There are no excuses here – this is something that must be done. It doesn’t matter what your previous experience is or how much you love or hate the technologies involved, you must become intimately familiar with the whole stack and know every layer of it. Don’t try to learn as you go, get ahead of the game and start using some of your personal time to study up if there is anything you are fuzzy on.

When I started my role I had no knowledge of C#, IIS or .NET development, and my only previous backend experience was in PHP under Apache. You can bet that in those first few months I would go home and spend some time reading up on C# and IIS. I was sent to an ASP.NET MVC course, and given access to a library of online courses to assist me in picking up the new technology and running with it. Don’t be afraid to ask your employer for the same: any good employer should be happy to pay for the training their staff require.

Embrace the opportunity

This is so critically important that it would be impossible to overstate: you must understand and embrace the unique career opportunity you have been given as a sole full stack web developer. Just by completing your normal daily work you’ll constantly be learning something about everything “web”.

After only a year you’ll be completely comfortable talking about any given layer of a website, and any given stage of production – you’ll be across it all. You’re setting yourself up to eventually be capable of specialising in any web development area you prefer, whether you prefer backend or frontend work, project management or developing on the frontline.

Use the opportunity to learn and become damn good at what you do. Take the challenges head-on and relish the education you’re receiving.

Don’t stay here forever

This is a sobering point, but I think it’s an important one: being a sole full stack developer will eventually make you a Jack of all trades and master of none. If you ever want to be an expert in a given area, this is not the job for you. That’s okay. It’s perfectly fine to look at the role as a step on the road to your ideal position. Very few people are happy doing everything, most of us appreciate solid job descriptions and clearly defined roles.

Even though this role offers a lot of opportunity for learning, you should also keep in mind that it’s not an ideal place to stay forever. It’s stressful, you’ll find yourself working after hours a lot, and even when you’re not on the clock your mind will still be at work.

Maybe your employer grows the web team and you can start specialising within the same company, or maybe you’ll have to make the difficult choice to leave and specialize elsewhere, but my advice here is to never stop moving forward. It’s nice to be learning so much, and to have so much trust in your decisions around technology and frameworks, but those benefits are heavily offset by the intense pressure and strain such a high-responsibility role will put on you.

Where to from here?

I hope I haven’t painted a bleak picture here. Like any job there are good parts and – let’s say “challenging” – parts. I love my work and I love the company I work for. My co-workers are all amazingly talented people and I’m lucky to know them and work alongside them. But there are stresses and anxieties that are unique to this kind of position and if you can handle that and enjoy the role despite it, then I say keep doing what you’re doing.

Either way, you may be interested in some advice from the many others that have walked your path before you. The SitePoint forums or the Workplace Stack Exchange are both excellent resources if you have a burning question. Or you can tweet me at the handle in my bio. I’m always happy to hear from other web developers and your questions, stories, advice are welcome.

Comments
HAWK

Woah, that's nuts. Were there other differences in your JD to the s/w devs, or was it just a title edit and nothing else?

mawburn

My title doesn't even include "Web Developer" or anything related. It's "Systems Analyst/Programmer" and everyone calls me and the other guy who works on the web "GUI Developers", because that's really all it is... a GUI to a much larger system. We are both full stack, the other developers work on a variety of other things that go into the larger overall system and the business applications of the system.

So I can relate. lol

RyanReese

Is that often? My boss has a lot of positions come across his desk for that title but I dismiss them since they don't have the word "web" in it. I check up on their contracts from time to time. My title (I'm a contractor for DoD) is technically "web developer". But I'm probably lucky since my boss used to be somewhat of a techie from my understanding.

HAWK

I was an Application Developer and Support Analyst when I was a dev. I don't think the title matters so much as what is in the JD.

RyanReese

Wow I would have never realized that. I've been ignoring those contract job posts for a few months now due to my ignorance. Thanks.

mawburn

Basically what @Hawk said. Titles are meaningless.

But my Job Description didn't include anything about web development either as even the other web developer didn't have a clear definition of "web development", although he does do a great job. They were just very oldschool.

cpradio

My title doesn't mention "web" anywhere in it either. but that may very well be intentional, as lately I've done very little "web" work. I've been building internal services instead, no GUI, no UI, pure behind the scenes processing applications that don't need anyone to monitor them, they simply grab their data and start crunching.

I was originally hired as a "Internet Programmer III", but quickly went to Programmer Analyst. At my prior job, I was an Internet Programmer, then Programmer Analyst, then finally a Senior Developer (funny how my job went from Internet to no longer working on Internet applications... in both positions...)

markbrown4

Hey Nick,

It sounds similar to a situation I was in, a team of maybe 15 software developers, 3 testers, 1 designer and 1 front-end guy(me). In my case it was clear that the company and leaders valued the software side of things far more than the design/ux side and it made it difficult for me to maintain things to a standard that I wanted.

The advice you've offered is good, I found it important to increase the knowledge of the rest of the team about front-end tech and to value design considerations more. It's a challenge but if you're working in the area you're passionate about with respect from the team it's not a bad place to be.

Cheers,

nick_coad

There were a couple of things, but I didn't see the pure Software Developer description so I can't be certain. There was a mention of programming in C#, which isn't web-specific but in my case does refer to me specifically as I'm the only one currently using C#.

The only other thing I can spot that hints at the web itself is a very brief mention of IIS and ASP.NET knowledge.

Good to hear from someone else in a similar position! I do enjoy my work and I love the company I work for, but it can become tiring explaining to people that the web is more than just a GUI, and it's not just drag and drop, for the 100th time! smile

I agree, in this case however the JD itself was way off, and I guess I highlighted the position title because I think it demonstrated the flawed thinking that led to the JD itself being so inaccurate.

Ultimately you're absolutely right though, the JD itself is far more important.

Thanks! And I completely agree, it's the kind of position that really needs the right person. Some people will hate having to be across so many different skillsets (preferring instead to specialise) while others will love it. Passion is definitely crucial!

WolfShade

Titles don't really mean much, IMHO. Although I, and everyone on my team, are "web developers", we all have (basically) the same official "title" of "Software Engineer (followed by a roman numeral I through IV)".

I've had one opportunity in my entire career to be the one to call all the shots. I didn't get to choose the hosting company, but I was in charge of pretty much everything else. It was pretty scary, for me. But I grew into it, and came to enjoy not only the work that I was doing, but also the trust (and, by default, vote of confidence) that the client put on me.

V/r,

^_^

jeffreylees

I created my own title when hired (new position), so I just made it "Web Developer" - but I have the opposite problem now. I have the proper title, but they're pulling my job more into software and some IT roles... lol

TheDarklit

Dude, yes. Thanks fo writing this. I was starting to feel like the only joker out there that is not just a web dev but is the web DEPARTMENT at an agency.

And also kudos for having such a cool name. Nick Coad ... and you "coad" for a living smile Awesome.

If anyone's interested, I'm expanding my education away from traditional server tech to Angular, Node and other JS powered solutions, I kind of feel like that's the future.

Hope to read more from you here Nick, thanks again.

nick_coad

Yeah, I think this is where I'm at right now. Scared, but excited! Good to hear from other's who have walked this path before!

Haha yes! That will definitely happen too. Hopefully you are still enjoying the work though :smile:

Thanks so much for the kind words - one of the motivations behind writing this was the strong feeling of loneliness in the position and the thought that there must be others out there feeling the same. There tends to be a lot out there for freelancers, or for members of larger teams, but not a lot for the solo web developers.

I'm glad you could relate and hopefully you found something to take away from the article. Think of it this way, you're actually part of a much larger distributed team of solo web developers, you just haven't met them all yet!

(Also: I'm getting right into AngularJS at the moment, I agree it's the way of the future :wink:)

TheDarklit

Sweet! So I'll be looking for a post now along the lines of "how an overworked solo web dev can make the time to learn AngularJS to step up their game for the good of the universe" ... no pressure ...

OsakaWebbie

Title? How's this: My official title is missionary! But most people doing Christian ministry tend to be "people persons", not techies, so my day-to-day work is helping a variety of ministries by doing website design/development, online database development, video editing, desktop publishing, basic tech support for how to do stuff on their computers, etc. (My favorite is back-end web dev and databases in PHP/MySQL.) I'm definitely a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none, although my friends seem to think I'm a master of all. open_mouth Yes, it's frustrating to feel like I never get really good at anything - a new technology seems to come out every week, and I'm years behind and shallow in my knowledge. But there is never a shortage of work to do or of people who appreciate me! smile

RDGrp1

Great Post Nick!

Wish this was around a few years ago, but things happen for a reason. This article helped me rehash some of the mistakes i have made as a SharePoint developer (front end) I will definitely keep this as a reference/litmus test going forward. Thanks!

nick_coad

It's really good to hear that your workplace appreciates your efforts, and I'm happy to say my workplace does as well! It makes the hard work feel a lot more manageable when you know your hard work is recognised by others.

I'm glad people have found this article useful, that's the main reason I wrote it at all, so thank you very much for saying so! smile

tringwebdesign

My title is IT Manager and you're right I have become "jack of all, master of none" as the ONLY IT role in a small firm of 11 employees.

So what have I done about it? Formed my own company and am now working for myself, strictly doing web development work for my own private clients. It has been quite a leap but I have been building up to it for the last 5 years.

It's great because other than being my own boss (aside from the cat) I have other skills and knowledge from the "jack of all" job that allow me to suggest/sell other products in the general IT context to my clients.

Goog article which resonates well with me.

Lukasz_Wierzgon

"being a sole full stack developer will eventually make you a Jack of all trades and master of none"

Yeah that is pain, it is not practically to embrace .......

Skweekah

"Being a sole full stack developer will eventually make you a Jack of all trades and master of none" -- so true but there's nothing wrong with that either. You've just got to continually challenge yourself and try different things. Take on new projects, be inspired through other people's work, read up and stay informed. Life as a sole developer is a life commonly lived by many sole operators and free-lancers, and, if you can stay focused and network occasionally with peers, it can be a great way to work.

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