Life as a Sole Web Developer

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.