Updated: Sep 22, 2019
It’s not hard to find people asking whether web development is dying. A quick search throws up questions on Quora, Reddit, and other forums. “Is web development a dying profession or does it just smell funny?” asks one Reddit user. The usual suspects in the world of content (Forbes et al) have responded with their own takes and think pieces on whether web development is dead. And why wouldn’t they? I, for one, would never miss out on an opportunity to write something with an outlandish and provocative headline for clicks. So, is web development dying or simply very unwell?
Why do people think web development is dying?
The question might seem a bit overwrought, but there are good reasons for people to ask the question. One reason is that getting a website has never been easier or cheaper. Think about it: if you want to create a content site, it doesn’t take much to set one up with WordPress. You barely need to be technically literate, let alone a developer. Similarly, if you want an eCommerce store there are plenty of off-the-shelf solutions that allow people to start running an online business with very little work at all.
Even if you do want a custom solution, you can now do that pretty cheaply. On the Treehouse forums, one user comments that thanks to sites like SquareSpace, businesses can now purchase a website for less than £100 (about $135). The commenter remarks that whereas he’d typically charge around £3000 for a complete website build, potential clients are coming back puzzled as to why he would think they’d spend so much when they could get the same result for a fraction of the price.
From a professional perspective, this sort of anecdotal evidence indicates that it’s becoming more and more difficult to be successful in web development. For all the talk around ‘learning to code’ and the digital economy, maybe building websites isn’t the best area to get into.
Web development is getting easier
When people say web development is dying, they might actually be saying that there isn’t as much money in it any more. If freelancers are struggling to charge the rates that they used to, that’s because there is someone out there who is going to do it for a lot less money.
The reason for this isn’t that there’s a new generation of web developers able to subsist on a paltry sum of money. It’s actually getting a lot easier. Aside from solutions like WordPress and Shopify, the task of building websites from scratch (sort of scratch) is now easier than it has ever been.
Are templates killing web development?
Templates make everything easy for web developers and designers. Why would you want to do much more than drag and drop templates if you could? If the result looks good and does the job, then why spend time doing more? The more you do yourself, the more you’re likely to break things. And the more you break things the more you’ve got to fix.
Of course, templates are lowering the barrier to entry into web development and design. And while we shouldn’t be precious about new web developers entering the industry, it is understandable that many experienced web developers are anxious about what the future might hold.
From this perspective, templates aren’t killing web development, but they are changing what the profession looks like. And without wishing to sound euphemistic, this is both a challenge and an opportunity for everyone in web development. Whether you’re experienced or new to the industry, these changes mean people are going to have to adapt.
Web development isn’t dying, it’s fragmenting
The way web developers are going to have to adapt is by choosing what path they want to take in their career. Web development as we’ve always known it is, perhaps well and truly dead. Instead, it’s fragmenting into specialized areas; design on the one hand, and full-stack on the other.
This means your skill set needs to be unique. In a world where building websites takes very little skill or technical knowledge, specific expertise is vital. This is something journalist Andrew Pierno noted in a blog post on Medium. Pierno writes:
…we are in a scenario where the web developer no longer has the skill set to build that interesting differentiator anymore, particularly if the main value prop is around A.I, computer vision, machine learning, AR, VR, blockchain, etc.
Building websites is no longer remarkable – as we’ve seen, people that can do it are ubiquitous. But building a native application; that’s not quite so easy. Building a mobile app that uses computer vision to compare you to Renaissance paintings – that’s even harder to do. These are the sorts of things that are going to be valuable – and these are the sorts of things that web developers are going to need to learn how to do.
Full-stack development and the expansion of the developer skill set
In his piece, Pierno argues that the scope of the web developers role is shrinking. However, I don’t think that’s quite right. Yes, it might be fragmenting, but the scope of, say, full-stack development, is huge. In fact, full-stack developers need to know a huge range of technologies and tools. If they’re to differentiate themselves in the job market, as Pierno suggests they should, they need to know machine learning, they need to know mobile, databases, and maybe even Blockchain.
From this perspective, it’s not hard to see how the ‘web’ part of web development might be dying. To some extent, as the web becomes more ubiquitous and less of a rarefied ‘space’ in people’s lives, the more we have to get into the detail of how we utilize the technologies around it.
Web development’s decline is design’s gain
If web development as a discipline is dying, that’s only going to make design more important. If, as we saw earlier, building websites is going to become a free for all for just about anyone with an internet connection and enough confidence, standards and quality might start to slip. That means the value of someone who understands good design will be higher than ever. As a web developer you might disappear into the ether of everyone else out there. But if you market yourself as a designer, someone who understands the intricacies of UI and UX implicitly, you immediately start to look a little different.
Think of it like a sandwich shop – anyone can start making sandwiches. But to make a great sandwich shop, the type that wins awards and the type that people want to Instagram, requires extra attention to detail. It demands more skill and more culinary awareness.
Maybe web development is dying, but maybe it just needs to change
Clearly, what we call web development is very different in 2018 than what it was 5 years ago. There are a huge number of reasons for this, but perhaps the most important is that it doesn’t really make sense to talk about ‘the web’ any more.
Because ‘the web’ is now an outdated concept, perhaps web development needs to die. Maybe we’re holding on to something which is only going to play into the hands of poor design and poor quality software. It’s might even damage the careers of talented engineers and designers.
You could make a pretty good comparison between ‘the web’ and ‘big data’. Even reading those words feels oddly outdated today, but they’re still at the center of the tech landscape. Big data, for example, is everywhere – it’s hard to imagine our lives outside of it, but it doesn’t make sense to talk about it in the abstract. Instead, what’s interesting is how it’s applied, how engineers make data accessible, usable and secure.
The same is true of the web. It’s not dead, but it has certainly assumed a slightly different form. And web development might well be dying, but the world will always need developers and designers. It’s simply time to adapt.