At the first meeting I attended for Girl Develop It, a national organization that empowers and teaches adult women about web and programming concepts, I learned how complex and distinctive many web developers’ backgrounds are. Prior to this meeting, I had assumed that everyone in web development had, or needed to have, some kind of computer science degree. I came from an English background with a minor in computer science. Despite having this minor and knowing others who had transitioned careers into web development, I still questioned my ability to obtain and hold a job in the field. Even after beginning to work in the web industry, I struggled intermittently with whether I had the qualifications and skills to be a useful web developer. However, after two years of working as a developer on several different teams, I have found that while coding abilities are significant, the background a developer brings from other academic, work, and life experiences can allow them to be just as valuable and thoughtful a team member.
Take Sparkbox, for example, which demonstrates how many web developers come from varied backgrounds. We have developers with computer science backgrounds, and we also have developers with experience in visual communication, art education, journalism, English, music education, and the culinary world! Our backgrounds are diverse and often not wholly, or even partially, inclusive of a more traditional coding experience.
Web developers who have these non-traditional backgrounds, in addition to a firm understanding of programming concepts, tend to have experiences that allow them to provide unique value to coding problems and to their teammates. This is not to say that developers with traditional backgrounds do not have, or cannot acquire this type of experience. However, people with non-traditional mindsets are often able to naturally contribute the following skills to a team:
They are able to communicate clearly with others—whether that be in person or through writing.
Their experience transitioning from a different field gives them the excitement, empathy, and willingness to teach others.
They are capable of taking on other roles in a team when needed because of their multidisciplinary background.
But, perhaps most importantly, they are able to think differently because of their varied backgrounds—allowing them to discover creative solutions to coding issues, and look at problems with an eye to really serve the humans using their code.
Strong communication skills are often listed as a requisite in job postings, and it is an especially crucial skill in the web industry where collaboration is key. Being able to work effectively with other team members, and speak up about things that might be blocking you can make or break a project in the web world.
For Sparkbox developers, communication is especially important as we are constantly working alongside our clients, and challenging ourselves to write good documentation, pull requests, and articles for The Foundry. Good communication skills also make pairing with other developers—or anyone on your team—a much easier and more fun experience.
Communication—whether it be through speaking or writing—further allows us to share our knowledge industry-wide. Being able to talk at a conference, or write a compelling article allows you to contribute to industry thinking and disseminate your knowledge to others.
Many people who have entered web development from an unrelated background have self-taught, attended a coding bootcamp, or found a mentor to learn coding. This experience of transitioning from one field to another often fosters empathy and a desire to give back to other web developers who find themselves in a similar situation. At Sparkbox, we are constantly teaching and learning from one another, and we also do more formal teaching through our apprenticeship program.The willingness and ability to teach is invaluable in the web development world where things are constantly changing and evolving, and where new people with varying skillsets are brought on to existing teams.
Taking on Other Roles
By their nature, web developers with varied backgrounds and experiences are often able to participate in all aspects of website creation, not just the development. These developers can use the experience they have gained in other parts of their life to help with non-code-related tasks or roles when necessary, such as UX, content strategy, and design. For smaller teams, especially, having developers that can take on multiple roles is extremely helpful. But even for larger teams, having developers who understand the importance of UX, content strategy, and design can provide more expertise and innovative collaboration throughout a project.
Often, in the process of balancing overwhelming amounts of information about data, our codebase, and testing, it’s easy for web developers to forget about the human on the other side of the screen who will be using our code. Being able to view coding through the lens of another background can give web developers the distance they need to shed light on a human-centered perspective of the issue, and potentially some interesting solutions. Not being a native to the coding world means these web developers have a perspective that can lend valuable and uncommon insight into problems or complexities that might arise on a project, as well as the users behind those issues. In many ways, it is how web developers think, and not the precise coding skills they have, that provides the most value to solving problems, and team collaboration.
The ability to communicate, teach, take on multiple project roles, and think differently are all skills that make web developers better at their jobs. And while web developers who come from atypical backgrounds are often able to possess some of the skills I’ve mentioned, these skills can also be acquired by anyone if given the right opportunities!
Nowadays, a really great website simply can’t be created by one person alone: it is a team effort that involves people from business development to design, and from project management to web development. Web developers who can see beyond their code to the humans they are solving problems for, who approach problems in a new way, and can communicate and teach others about their thinking will be increasingly valued web developers, and team members.