I got an email from someone just breaking into web development the other day asking for some advice about getting started. I get a fair amount of similar emails, and I’ve talked about this before on the How to Hold a Pencil podcast and on my Learn Web development resource page, but I thought these particular questions were kind of interesting because they seemed to be getting at priorities in addition to/ other than learning the actual coding and site building skills.
What do you think my main priority should be this next year as I have extra time being a student? Should it be building a portfolio and seeking out freelance projects locally? Is there a specific place online I should build presence for potential future employers to view?
I’ve broken down my thoughts into four main pieces of advice:
1. Build websites!
The ShopTalk podcast mantra, which is to “just build websites” is one of my favorite answers to questions about how to get started or build skill.
Building “Muscle Memory”
I wholeheartedly believe that a large part of web development is akin to muscle memory – you’ve got to be able to write website code quickly and accurately to be really profitable, and the way to get there is to practice. While practice exercises won’t hurt, the best practice is to build actual websites.
Building a Portfolio
In addition to the practice, building websites (lots of them) will help you build a targeted portfolio of sites that represent (visually and/or in terms of niche, functionality, CMS, etc.) the type of work you want to do ongoing.
These don’t all have to be “client” sites if you’re not quite experienced enough to pull those projects in, they can be your own projects, things you’ve done as a volunteer, and just plain fun sites. That said, it wouldn’t hurt to have at least one or two sites where you’ve worked from a brief and been subject to feedback/ constraints, to show that you can work that way (or where you’ve subcontracted or freelanced with an agency, if you can get those jobs).
2. Learn the Business Side
I’ve written about how important soft skills are for web developers, but beyond that there’s a whole set of things that are useful to know about as a freelancer or small business owner.
Accounting & Bookkeeping
One thing I always wish I was better at is accounting/ bookkeeping. I’ve read some books on the topic but I’ve also thought about taking a more formal class on small business accounting, even if it’s something I plan to eventually outsource. If you’ve got the time and access to a local college or organization that offers business classes, I would advise checking those out.
Similarly, there are sometimes small business organizations that provide workshops on local laws and regulations, which are good things to find out about early so that you can plan accordingly.
Workflows, Tools & Apps
It’s also a great time to check out various tools, apps, and workflows to start to get an idea of what’s out there for when you get to a place where you start to need those things.
3. Show Your Work
The question about building a presence is a great one, and I think there are two aspects to that. First is showing your work, meaning presenting what you can do and how you approach the type of work you want to be doing in a strictly professional way.
LinkedIn & Github
The main networks and avenues for this vary a bit depending on your focus (design vs. development, working in-house vs. freelancing), but it’s likely a good idea to have a presence on LinkedIn and GitHub, at minimum.
If you’re also a designer, you may want to check out Dribbble. I know nothing about Behance other than that it exists, but it may be another avenue to look into.
Your Own Blog
Beyond networks like those mentioned, it may also be a good idea to start a blog where you record your thinking and the way you approach problems. Blogging is definitely not for everyone, but it could be that it gives a potential employer a window into you and your work in a compelling way, so it’s worth considering.
Stack Overflow/ WordPress forums
Finally, answering questions on sites like Stack Overflow or the WordPress support forums can be a great way to show that you’re a team player and a good communicator. There are all kinds of questions in both places, from basic to advanced, so if you keep your eye out there’s sure to be something you can answer even when you’re just starting out.
4. Build a Network
While the suggestions in #3 are about building a strictly professional presence, there’s also a pretty big networking aspect to web work outside those more targeted “professional” avenues.
Twitter is pretty big among web developers (and designers), so it’s worth checking out even if you mostly just follow along with what others are posting to start out.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t be very careful about remaining professional across your online presence (you absolutely should), but that via Twitter you can build more casual connections with others in the field.
You may also want to check out local groups for learning and networking, such as Girl Develop It or groups organized via MeetUp.com.
I’m not that into the idea of setting out to “network” but I can absolutely say that the connections and relationships I’ve built through local groups and via Twitter have made a big difference in my business.
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