Worth improving my web skills to get a job?
October 3, 2009 8:05 AM   Subscribe

At 35, if I made the effort to acquire the skills, could I get a web developer job?

I learnt HTML and CSS about six years ago. I used to work for an online news service (I wasn't a web developer). For the past few years, I've been teaching English as a foreign language in different countries. Now back in the UK, I'm thinking about spending my free (unemployed) time learning XML, PHP, MySql and other web development stuff (any suggestions?). But would it all actually be worth the effort? If all I end up having to show potential employers is a portfolio of personal websites, what are the chances of somebody of my age (without relevant professional experience) getting a decent web developer job?
posted by wyn to Work & Money (10 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
The age is less of an issue than is the book of business. If you can get some professional sites under your belt it will be the key - ways you can do this are to volunteer to build sites for a community group, charity, church, or political groups.

Most web gigs that I've gotten have been networking and word of mouth; if you have friends who do this (or similar work) already, talk to them after you have a little bit of a portfolio, and try to find out.

Also, see if there's a professional meetup in your area, and start going- meeting the local geeks is a great way to get yourself jumpstarted.

Good luck!
posted by jenkinsEar at 8:30 AM on October 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

The answer is "yes" as long as you actually wind up being good at it. There are a lot of Web developers out there who aren't that good and still have jobs. You could overcome any disadvantages you might have by simply being good - but you aren't really going to know your aptitude level unless you do it ;-)

You also need to consider whether you'd find it acceptable to be self employed and do freelance jobs. This can be a good way to get some experience under your belt and resolve your portfolio problem. Provide a great service for under-market rates "on the side" while holding down another job, and you could have a solid portfolio within several months. The tax issues are not too difficult to deal with - you can even get the taxes added into your PAYE tax code for the next year if you do under about £4-5k in extra work.

Also consider using your skills to launch your own Web sites. I wouldn't necessarily call them "personal websites" though, if they're tools and things that other people find useful (I mean, would you consider MetaFilter to be a "personal site" of Matt Haughey?). If you're just putting up blogs of your cats or your own portfolio site, sure, that doesn't look so good :)

Further, consider joining in with local meetups/BarCamps and stuff like that to meet people in your field. You can learn a lot this way and build up contacts from whom to get business/jobs. Like other industries, people like to deal with people they know in the Web dev game - so if you get to know people who run agencies, etc, you could have a much easier time. (Besides, events like that are a lot of fun.)
posted by wackybrit at 8:54 AM on October 3, 2009

I just hired a web developer around your age who up until last year was a lawyer. So yes. Once you have the skills, the issue is finding business. I don't know how things are in the UK, but in the US there are web developer jobs available from web/ad/pr agencies that make websites on behalf of clients, IT-type firms that develop more technical backend solutions for big companies, contracting shops, startups, web departments of large non-web businesses, and directly to your own clients, through networking. You get access to each of these types of companies differently, but I'd second the recommendation to attend meetups that touch on each of these areas: web developer events about particular languages, advertising industry meetups. entrepreneur meetups, etc. You need to explore all these areas to see which fits best for you and which has the most opportunities. I would also recommend not starting with PHP as your first language, there is a glut of cheap overseas programmers in that area, and you will be hard to distinguish from thousands of people on eLance, scriptlance, and other outsourcing sites. Become a master of Ruby, Python, advanced Javascript, or other more niche, but more valued and harder-to-acquire skills. For your personal projects, create something that is either shows off exceptional graphic design or UI skills, or something that is an impressive web application that fulfills some useful purpose. Whatever project you choose should be in some area that is important and motivating to you, because the level of enthusiasm you bring to the project will affect its quality. I generally ignore the people who show off a bunch of uninspired brochure sites for obscure small businesses, but the guy who creates his own Javascript library, develops a web app to track his exercise, or creates something cool that hooks into a social network, etc. gets more attention because people who are enthusiastic and interested in what they're working on, and not just doing it for a buck, turn out to be better at the job.
posted by lsemel at 9:01 AM on October 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

There are a lot of developers proficient with XML/PHP/MYSQL, I would suggest learning a python or ruby based development framework.
posted by zentrification at 9:43 AM on October 3, 2009

I will share with you the most important thing I know about working in any sort of web development/interactive gig:

If you are able to put out decent work while meeting every deadline, people will be fighting over you. Clients care about work being on time a lot more than about its quality, even if they don't admit it.

Some things to think about: do you want to work as part of a larger interactive design/web development company, as a web developer in a larger non-web company or offer your freelance services to small end clients? Each of these require a slightly different approach:
* Agencies look for specialized employees - a backend coder won't be writing HTML.
* Being "the web guy" in a law office, for example, will require you to know both those things and possibly some graphic design skills, or at least the ability to work closely with an outsourced designer.
* Offering web services to end client will require for you to be a jack of all trades, pretty much offering every web-related service under the sun. The client wants flash video on their site? You got to figure it out.

The only other piece of general advice I would give you is that if you go either of the last two routes, stress people skills over your technical abilities. You will get an upper hand over every geek who wrote a couple of email forms by being able to talk to clients in a way that they understand, they'll love you for it.
posted by jedrek at 10:14 AM on October 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I got a BA in theater, worked dead-end office jobs until I was about 28, went back to school to get an Associate's Degree in Graphic Design, and got a web design job at 31. Now approaching 33, I am the senior designer at my small firm. I was basically self-taught before entering school, and all I had in my portfolio when I interviewed for the job were my various school projects. So yes, I think you can do it if you can prove you've got the chops.

My advice after working in the industry for 2 1/2 years? Learn jQuery and Flex. I use jQuery on pretty much every project I work on now, and I just started working with Flex a few weeks ago, and god I wish I had learned about it sooner. It's just fantastic.
posted by starvingartist at 10:52 AM on October 3, 2009

One thing I've found an issue with is getting the actual content. You can use Lorum Ipsum during design, but then you have to pressure the client for wording, and they don't deliver because they're too busy.

Then there's hosting, e-mail, etc. For example, if they already have e-mail accounts, but no website (in my dad's case), things get more complicated, especially since they have no idea what they're doing, including giving you access.

I'd avoid XML like the plague. PHP/MySQL/HTML/CSS/'Design skills' should be all you need. There's ASP as well, but I personally prefer to minimize my reliance on Microsoft.

Is it worth it? A kid in high school can put together a basic site for small businesses for $100. Larger businesses are likely going to want things like shopping carts, CMS integration, flash animation, https, logins, ...

Depends how much time and effort you're willing to put into it.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 11:21 AM on October 3, 2009

Chiming in with a resounding "yes," as others have, it's less about age and more about experience and verifiable skills. The key there is "verifiable," which means you're in a jam if you can't find some work before looking for the serious jobs. If you're going for employment (i.e, not contract work), don't expect a senior position right at the start but you've little to worry about if you wind up good at what you do.
posted by neewom at 11:21 AM on October 3, 2009

You could be very proficient with Django (a python web framework) in 6-9 months (even without any python or even programming experience).
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 11:42 AM on October 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'll add another vote for YES, but with a huge caveat. The field is over-saturated and always will be.

That being said... if you're detail oriented and have talent (and Have Talent), then sure... it's never too late to start.

Personally, I'd start by learning some basic whizbangwow type stuff so you'll be able to build a portfolio worth looking at. You'll have to have something to show potential clients, after all.

I learned Movable Type and I know enough jQuery to make some slick yet minimalist stuff (as is my style). That gets me clients.

Find a style that is your own and the skills to make it happen. Build from there.
posted by 2oh1 at 12:04 PM on October 3, 2009

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