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A Day in the Life of a Web Programmer

A Web programmer translates the requirements of end-users and internal clients into a functional product. In other words, a programmer knows how to make a computer do what people want it to do. Usually, that product is an application which allows an end-user to do something on the Web-order a pizza, make a stock trade, or buy an airline ticket, for example. The programmer assesses the technical parameters of a project, decides how to approach the work, and then carries it out. The terms for this job often vary from one Web company to the next as the Internet changes; sometimes this job will bear the title of software engineer, developer, or programmer. On a daily basis, a programmer will modify pre-existing code, design new products and applications, create and test those products, and discuss how a design is going to flow. “There is never only one way to get a project done; we are involved with a team of people who have different factions and can never agree on how to get something done,” notes one programmer. The number of applications that a programmer can develop is virtually endless; basically, anything that can be done in real life can be translated into an application for the Web. A programmer will often simultaneously work on two very diverse projects. Programming requires highly creative, perceptual thinking-an ability to see what people want and generate a conceptual solution without seeing the actual product. If a client says, “I want it to look like this and I want it to do that,” a programmer has to be able to imagine that without actually seeing it.

Paying Your Dues

The potential knowledge base of computer programmers is virtually unlimited. If it’s out there, someone is using it and you can learn it. Some programmers need to know Unix, which is an operating system and scripting language; others need to know SQL, which manages databases. Learning C, a general programming language, is the basis for finding a first job. “As long as you have some idea of how to program and understand how logic flows, you can apply and translate that knowledge,” says one programmer. “You can always pick up other languages, or even learn new languages that haven’t yet been invented.” However, “solid communication skills are the most important asset that will make you valuable,” notes one programmer. “Lack of communication is a big barrier and a serious problem. This leads to errors, confusion, and ultimately, missed deadlines. Know how to understand and interact with people.” The evolution of hiring has gone from needing all the requirements of the job, to needing less as employees learn more on the job. Three years ago, there was no one with Web programming experience; companies wanted two years of C programming experience and would teach HTML. Today, employees often come in with 50 percent of what the job requires, and the company will teach the other half. There are so many jobs and so few people to fill them, that employers are lowering their expectations.

Present and Future

In the preÐInternet era, programming had a very strict methodology-there was a lengthy manual that programmers had to follow, with detailed documentation for each application. Eight or ten years ago, everything had to be done by the book the first time-there was a heavy emphasis on testing and no room for error. But with the fast-paced progression of the Internet industry, Web companies are in a “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” mentality. Documentation has taken a back seat to speed in a highly competitive marketplace. Early on, most programmers were coding HTML and putting up plain brochureware on their sites. In 1995, the programs on Web sites were mostly CGI applications written in Perl. But during the past five years, the functions have become more sharply delineated, and the programs are much bigger and written with other technologies. Today, programmers are focused on “system integration”-getting different computers to talk to each other, exchange data, and operate in tandem. What does the future hold for programming? Regardless of the ways the Web changes, companies are constantly looking in new directions and developing new applications that require programmers. There will also be a need for maintenance-even when a company has an application in existence for several years, it needs fairly frequent attention. Currently, there are more jobs open than there were last year, and industry analysts expect this trend to continue for the next three to five years. “I think this will be a high-demand position for at least the next ten years,” says one programmer. “There is a wide-open horizon of jobs on the Web representing every industry. You’re in the driver’s seat; you have your choice of company and salary.”

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

While a large project can take anywhere from eight months to a year to complete, a junior programmer unused to managing time and juggling work will often be assigned smaller tasks. These can include fixing errors in a code, or changing the appearance of a client’s existing Web site-jobs that can take can take anywhere from one hour to one week.

FIVE YEARS OUT

As Web programmers become more proficient with various languages, their work will steer more toward designing applications, and away from the actual implementation. Senior programmers are more involved in meetings that discuss the technical aspects of projects, and will spend 25 percent or less of their day in front of computers.

TEN YEARS OUT

While Web programmers have not been around for ten years, there is a huge difference between a first-year programmer and someone who’s been in the field for ten or fifteen years. Your experience in programming, your facility with various programming languages, and the number of people that you manage all add up to a higher salary at this level. A senior programmer can earn about $150,000. At this stage, some programmers become independent contractors and charge their clients up to $150 per hour, bringing in as much as $250,000 per year.