Web developer salaries: help me distinguish hyperbole from reality
June 12, 2014 5:51 PM   Subscribe

I'm considering a career change into web development and I'm hoping AskMe can help me sort through the abundance of relevant information and get a sense of what reasonable expectations might be. To put it succinctly, I'd like to make about $75-80k a year so that I can support my parents while still being able to save money for my own future. Is it probable for a self-taught developer to earn a salary in this range?

I've looked at many job ads in my Northeastern city, which has a growing tech scene and tried to get a sense of what web developers with varying levels of experience get paid. I've read and heard everything from $35-95k a year. There seems to be so much hyperbole around the earning potential and career prospects for developers right now, and I'd love some help trying to distinguish coding bootcamp advertising copy from reality.

Currently, I have a well-paying ($60k) higher education staff position that I like and that I could conceivably keep for years with consistent but small raises. It's a stable job in a desirable field, and I'm very grateful for the quality of life it allows me and my spouse. However, my parents are in their 60s, with no savings at all, heaps of debt including an upside-down mortgage, and basically only Social Security to live on once they stop working. They both still work, which is increasingly untenable as they get older and isn't earning them much anyway. I already provide a few hundred dollars a month in support, but it looks like that will only increase. I'm an only child, and there's no one else in my family with the means to support my parents. My spouse also works in the non-profit sector for a low salary, so we mostly live on mine.

Although it's a major motivating factor, money isn't the only reason I'm considering a shift into web development. I've played around with various tutorials online (thanks bentobox!) and done some really low-level volunteer website work for small non-profits, not stuff I'd put in a portfolio, e.g. simple custom CSS for a Wordpress-based site and updating an ancient, static website for another organization. Recognizing that learning web development for fun and doing it as a career are very different, I've enjoyed tinkering with Javascript and Python, and tend to get into somewhat of a "flow" state when I'm working on it. I really like the problem-solving aspect of coding. Although my current work isn't very technical, I've had colleagues comment on my problem-solving and analytical skills, as well as my ability to 'translate' between techies and non-techies. I'd have a lot to learn, but I have some reasons to believe I'd enjoy this kind of work specifically. The city where I live offers a lot of resources for learning to code, in addition to what's available online. And I'd definitely welcome a shift from the predictable and sort of dull work I'm doing now into something more challenging.

throwaway email: todevornot@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (9 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
According to this Life of a Front-End Developer infographic, the average salary is $66.5k and the top 10% earn $105.2k. Glassdoor.com says that the national median salary for UI developers is $78.5k.

I'm a self-taught developer with a non-tech degree who recently got my first job as a UI dev in a northeastern city and my experience is in line with those numbers. Feel free to memail me if you have any questions.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:12 PM on June 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Firstly: Yes absolutely you can make 75k a year as a web dev, even a self-taught web dev.

My first thought would be to look into more technical positions at your current institution. Can you volunteer for another department or professor there, or are there senior people who can vouch for your technical abilities? A business analyst type role might be a good intermediary step, or can make a great career on its own, with a good balance of technical and more people-facing work.
posted by sid at 6:13 PM on June 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

At the risk of sounding like a jerk, I make quite a bit more than that "top 10%" number, and there are people who make quite a bit more than me, especially in Silicon Valley.

A few caveats:

> I'm self-taught, but I have 15 years experience at this point.
> I live in Los Angeles, where cost of living and thus salaries are relatively high (though not NYC or SF high)

That infographic seems to be focused on a somewhat dated definition of "front-end developer," which focuses on HTML, CSS, and cutting up PSDs. Don't get me wrong, these are cool skills to have, but they're hardly ever going to pay "serious" software engineer salaries.

In the last few years, as more and more is done on the client side, and in Javascript, frontend developers are being seen as equal to, and paid almost equally to backend developers. The key is focusing on Javascript. That's what I do almost all day, every day. HTML and CSS are part of my job, but they're largely an afterthought at this point. People might look at me funny if I didn't know them at all, but they're not what I'm paid for.

Also just one more caveat, which is that salaries can vary incredibly wildly between companies just because that's what they pay. In general smaller, tech-focused companies pay more than bigger, generally-focused companies, but not always. I still see ads for jobs wanting someone of my skill level but offering a salary literally 50% of what I get paid.

It took me making money a priority in my search before I got paid anything approaching what most sources say "market" is. I had to teach myself to not feel guilty- clearly those companies can afford it. And I had to learn to pass on jobs that seemed great in other ways if they just didn't pay enough. This may not apply to you if you're just starting, but if you get good or, frankly, if you get halfway decent enough that your code doesn't set the building on fire, it will apply in a few years. I worked with someone who billed $200/hr to Silicon Valley companies, or so he said. He could barely write one line of Javascript, and he came close to challenging co-workers to fights on more than one occasion. Demand still exceeds supply by a large margin.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:29 PM on June 12, 2014 [9 favorites]

I've read and heard everything from $35-95k a year

And that eyeballs to me as a pretty reasonable range for front-end developer salaries. Just like any job, it pays more if you have more experience and can do more stuff. It also depends heavily on your market; in Philly, for example, developers make a fair bit less than they would in other East Coast cities, but we also have much lower cost of living

drjimmy11 has excellent advice all around, especially about "Focus on javascript" - HTML/CSS are real but that's not where the action is and definitely not where the salaries are. Lots of content-creator job descriptions (social-media folks, copywriters, etc) at this point have a basic toolkit for those, so the value has been cut way down.

From the things you've said - enjoying the problem-solving, entering flow-state, etc - yes, it sounds like you're a pretty good candidate for building a development skillset and turning that into a new career. Will you make $80K at your first job? Frankly, probably not. There's a good chance you'll take a salary hit, in fact, because it will in fact be a whole new career path and you'll most likely start nearer the bottom than you'd like. But: Yes, if you work hard, dive into the resources available (Frankly I don't even have to know which East Coast city you're in, because all the major ones definitely have a ton of great resources for newbie developers), leverage that into a job, and then learn as much as you possibly can at all times, making $80K within a few years is entirely doable.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:58 PM on June 12, 2014

I know a fairly experienced web dude who makes about 90k in Minneapolis, so probably 120 adjusted for East Coast salaries. I think that's about as much as you can make without really being a small business owner rather than just a developer.

I would consider internal web development jobs with large companies. They might pay a bit less, but they'd be more stable, more tolerant of your learning curve, and they'd have opportunities for nontechnical stuff like project management later on.
posted by miyabo at 9:03 PM on June 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

It may depend on whether you are a man or a woman. I read this on geek feminism recently: It's hard for women to be taken seriously if they choose to be self-taught instead of obtaining a degree in a STEM field. By contrast, male autodidacts can often achieve professional success (at least in software). It doesn't cite sources, but when I read that suddenly lots of things made sense and fell into place for me. I can imagine it does depend a lot on where you live, but it's something worth keeping in mind if you're a woman.
posted by blub at 3:50 AM on June 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

From the OP:
Thanks for all of the great answers so far. Blub raises a point I've thought a lot about in terms of considering a career change. I went back and forth about explicitly identifying my gender in the original post. If anyone has more to add about the particular realities of being a self-taught developer who's also a (queer) woman, I'd love to hear it.
posted by mathowie at 7:14 AM on June 13, 2014

Given what you've written here, I wouldn't hire you right now at any salary point to do front-end work.

There are definitely salaries in the range you're looking for, and they're reasonably common, but they tend to not go to self-taught folks with zero practical experience and no portfolio. (and I would worry a whole lot about the quality of a company that would hire someone like that and pay them nearly a six-figure salary)

If this is a thing you want to do, you desperately need to get portfolio-quality experience. This isn't because portfolios are the be-all and end-all (far from it) but because right now your description of what you know sounds a whole lot like you don't know much of anything with any level of proficiency, but sometimes you tinker around with stuff.

That may not be the reality, of course, but you've got to both have the ability and be able to convey to others that you have it.

I mostly agree with Tomorrowful, but I think you can probably get 70k or 80k as a starting salary, but only if you've been incredibly active (and doing good, complicated work) in the open source community. So if you can't afford to give up your current salary to go work somewhere for $40-50k as a very junior developer, what you CAN do is start looking for opportunities to develop a skillset (whether that's back-end, front-end, whatever) to a proven level of proficiency that will make people forget about the fact that you have zero professional experience or relevant formal education.
posted by toomuchpete at 9:25 AM on June 13, 2014 [6 favorites]

Agree with toomuchpete and I'd also like to add that a more and more places no longer have "web developers", they have "developers" who are expected to know a slice of skills from SQL to JavaScript and all the bits in between.
posted by anaelith at 7:02 PM on June 15, 2014

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