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Which way should I learn web development?
June 6, 2011 11:06 AM   Subscribe

I'm trying to sort out the tangle of web development education options.

I've pretty much decided that, to get out of the weird niche that I've worked myself into, I need to pick up some further skills (or at least flesh out a lot of the stuff that I've kind of half-learned on an ad-hoc basis when needed). So, good for me. Time to learn some web development.

But I'm suffering from a little bit of decision paralysis. From where I sit, my options appear to be:

1. Totally self-guided learning through books and/or websites. I actually went and picked up an O'Reilly guide to learning PHP and MySQL, and have started working my way through it. I don't love the approach, and it's kind of a chore having to detour out for logistical stuff (like getting a MySQL server set up to play with). A friend suggested the tutorials on Lynda.com, and maybe that'd help with the not-liking-the-approach part.

2. Taking for-credit classes at a local community college. Lots of advantages there in terms of structure and guidance, and if I stuck it through, I'd have some documentation; but expensive and slow.

3. Taking Continuing Education (so, not-for-credit) classes at the same CC. Cheaper, and I think it'd offer a similar amount of structure with more flexibility.... but I don't know if the lack of credit/documentation matters, or if the classes would actually have as much info as the for-credit versions.

I'm town between the 3. I don't think #1's a winner, really, because of the lack of structure and the fact that it's too easy for self-directed study to fall into the cracks when life gets busy. But I'm not quite ready to totally abandon it.

I guess I'd love to hear any thoughts/suggestions/experiences anyone has. Particularly if you're someone who'd be on the other side of the hiring process- what would you look for? If an applicant had just taken some Continuing Ed classes, or learned from a book, what proof would you need to see to confirm they knew what they were talking about?
posted by COBRA! to Work & Money (6 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
In this job market, speaking generally, you're best off with community college for-credit classes. It's hard to break in to the tech industry without experience (meaning you get an internship or do pro-bono work, which is hard to get without experience, but less difficult than an actual job) or a degree, although it is possible. You'd have neither with one, just what you've taught yourself and maybe a portfolio of practice projects you've done. You might even end up having to start with low-paying jobs or internships just to get your foot in the door with a degree, but it'll be that much easier than trying to get started with nothing.

If you can afford it, I recommend number 2. If you have the time and energy for it, summer classes are a good value and get you credits quickly, although the courses are accelerated and therefore harder. Or, study with number 1 between classes so that you can get the degree really easily.

Keep in mind this is based on what I've heard from peers and professors as a computer science major, so they have a bit of a pro-degree bias.

Good luck with whatever you choose!
posted by mccarty.tim at 11:28 AM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm a web development teacher, but I have a great deal of interaction with the industry. I'll approach your questions last-to-first:

what proof would you need to see to confirm they knew what they were talking about?

Unless you are going for a programming job, the proof lies largely in what you have made: a portfolio of work done for yourself or on a freelance basis.

By and large, good< classes accelerate learning (more on that in a moment), but no-one is going to pay much attention to the fact that you have or don't have a certificate. (It may be helpful, but not having one shouldn't stop a business from hiring a talented, self-taught developer). In terms of the body of work you should have before approaching a company for work, think of several small sites, ideally with some graphic/photography/design work thrown in.

As for the best route for your education, that depends on several factors. It sounds like you would do best from a blended approach: taking a course during the day or evening to provide structure and supplementing it with your own research and effort (books, online resources). If the instructors know what they are talking about, they can save you a great deal of time in avoiding missteps and blind alleys.

Unfortunately, in my experience, there are a lot of web development instructors who don't really know what they're doing. Lynda.com seems to be fairly up with the play, and the O'Reilly resources are really good; I'd also strongly recommend the Opera Web Standards Curriculum. (And perhaps, humbly, my blog). I have a few suggestions that may help you determine the quality and appropriateness of classes:
  • Do they emphasize valid code, or simply "what works"?
  • Do they mention accessibility standards?
  • Do they have a class or courses on mobile development?
  • Do they at least mention HTML5?
(Keep in mind that these may or may not appear on official course outlines - I know that what I teach, especially in night courses, is sometimes starkly different from what is officially published as the course outline, due to a combination of lack of time and rapid technology changes. You may want to take the opportunity to contact the instructors directly).

I hope this helps!
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 11:40 AM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think the most useful thing you can do is start building a portfolio featuring live websites you've built via self guided learning*. A friend's sister setting up a hair salon? Offer to build a 3 page site for $small or in exchange for hair treatments. Neighbour needs a WordPress site? Offer to build it in exchange for firewood or dog walking. Learn by building, add the built sites to your portfolio and start promoting yourself as a freelancer or in the job market.

Don't have the design skills/want to focus more on the dev side? Team up with someone skilled in graphic design wanting to move to web design.

* HTML, CSS, Javascript, a CMS (starting with WordPress) and its language (e.g. PHP) and so on. There are so many fantastic resources out there, all bang up to date (which bricks and mortar institutions often aren't). A subscription to Lynda.com costs $25/month and you'd be able to learn the basics and more very quickly. SitePoint has some great video courses too (the Russ Weakley ones especially).
posted by humph at 11:42 AM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thanks, everybody.

I think the most useful thing you can do is start building a portfolio featuring live websites you've built via self guided learning*. A friend's sister setting up a hair salon? Offer to build a 3 page site for $small or in exchange for hair treatments. Neighbour needs a WordPress site? Offer to build it in exchange for firewood or dog walking. Learn by building, add the built sites to your portfolio and start promoting yourself as a freelancer or in the job market.

One thing I'm trying to figure out-- and I guess hoping to maybe short-circuit this by taking classes-- is how qualified is qualified. Like, I've been putting up WordPress sites for years, but have never really had a handle on whether that meant anything as a qualification. Does being able to go in and do some futzing with HTML and CSS count for anything?
posted by COBRA! at 11:50 AM on June 6, 2011


I think the real question is what you want to do? When I started in this field, one guy really did do all the web stuff, but in many places it's become a very specialized field.

Are you looking into staying in our once shared field? Non-profits in general? There are certainly opportunities in the non-profit world to take "can tweak the heck out of wordpress" and turn it into a decent gig, or at least a very good way to build a portfolio.

In all the hiring I've been a part of, we care far more about what you've done, in portfolio and work experience, than where you studied. So consider your own learning style and try to figure out what you're trying to get out of it.

When you get into the more specialized end of the pool, it certainly helps to have some formal training. Not so much for the degree, but the theory of how it all breaks down. It's taken years of mistakes for me to learn what most CS majors covered in the first term.
posted by advicepig at 12:22 PM on June 6, 2011


I think the real question is what you want to do?...Are you looking into staying in our once shared field? Non-profits in general?

I'm actually still somewhat trying to figure that out, but I feel like I'm having a chicken-egg problem in not really knowing where all of the specializations branch off. I know that many of the postings I see that look interesting require front-end development skills, so I'm trying to kind of point myself in that direction. As for staying in museums/nonprofits, my biggest goal is to get out of the really specific database track I've backed myself into. So web-oriented museum/nonprofit jobs would be on the table, but I'm also at least open to the idea of heading back into the private sector.
posted by COBRA! at 12:33 PM on June 6, 2011


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