When I meet people for the first time, they often ask what I do. When I say I’m a web developer, they nod knowingly, but actually I’m sure that many of them have no idea what I’m on about, except that they really, really, don’t want me to explain it to them then and there.
But if instead I said, “I’m a web developer – if you’re not sure what that is there’s a really good explanation on my website”, wouldn’t that be peachy? That’s why I wrote this article, to explain in as simple a way as possible what web development is all about.
To understand web development, you first need to have an appreciation of how the web works. Let’s take this web page as an example. What you see in front of you is the result of many bits of technology working together. To try to keep things simple, I’ll take the most important ones and outline what they do.
The language of the web, HTML, is the code that your browser is sent when it asks for a web page, for example when you type in a web address or click on a link.
You can see the HTML for a page, as your browser will generally have an option on its menu called something like “View Source” or “Page Source” for this purpose.
Here for example is the HTML for the home page of this site:
It looks like gobbledygook, but behind it there’s quite a simple concept. HTML is what’s called a markup language, something that evolved in the early days of word processing and computer printing. Primitive word processors weren’t like they are today. You couldn’t select a word and click a button and have it appear as bold text in front of you, for instance. Users needed an easy way to indicate how documents were to be printed, so some bright spark invented the concept of inline markup.
The way it works is that certain uncommon sequences of punctuation are reserved for markup purposes. In the case of HTML it’s those pointy brackets you see everywhere. So to get bold text in HTML you type something like <b>sometext</b>. <b> marks the start of bold text and </b> the end of it.
One of the skills of web developers, then, is writing HTML. But that’s not the end of it.
HTML on its own is not very flexible when it comes to laying out pages and making them attractive to the eye. For that purpose these days we turn to CSS, which stands for Cascading Style Sheets. CSS enables developers and designers to give specific visual properties to the various items that make up a web page. So through CSS you can say what fonts are to be used for text and headings, give your navigation menus a distinctive colour, and so on.
Here’s the CSS used on this site:
Again, it looks pretty weird, but the basic idea of CSS is that you code things called selectors to locate particular items on the page, such as headings, and then set what are called properties for those items that match. A combination of selectors and properties is called a rule. So for example you might code a single rule to make all heading text on a page big and blue.
That’s another thing that web developers do, then, code CSS. But that’s not all, either.
In the very early days of the web, when you typed in a URL the page you got back had nearly always been written in its entirety by a human hand. Creating a whole web site, with many different pages, and keeping everything consistent across it was very hard work. Pages tended to look like this, very often.
It wasn’t long before people started automating the process. Nowadays, most of the websites you visit are generated not from fixed HTML files like my example, but by software programs. Some websites, like Facebook and Google have their own special secret code, others rely on ready-made website building programs called things like WordPress, Drupal, DotNetNuke or Plone.
These programs, termed web applications, build web pages dynamically. This means they can change from day to day or minute by minute; they can recognise different users and personalise content for them; they can keep a history of searches or purchases and suggest new things users might like. Every day someone invents a new trick for the web and web applications are constantly advancing and evolving.
These programs are written in all sorts of different programming languages including PHP, Perl, Ruby, ASP.NET and Java. They frequently work with databases such as MySQL, PostgreSQL, SQL Server or Oracle.
Hence web developers build, customise and extend web applications using programming languages, databases and some other things even geekier.
So now you know
That’s the end of this article, as I’ve given you – more or less – a complete list of what web developers do. Of course, many of us don’t do the lot but instead specialise in one or more of these skills, and some of us do other things besides, but next time a friend points to someone in the street and says “that’s a web developer”, you’ll know what they mean: a multi-talented technical wizard who can make your website jump through hoops. Trust me, I’m one myself.
Figure W develop Drupal and WordPress websites for all sorts of people. Call us on 07783 386951 or use our contact form to find out more.