I can honestly say I know how the people hunting down Sasquatch, the Loch Ness Monster, and more recently the wooly mammoth, feel. For the better part of the last dozen years, I’ve been searching for the mythical beast called the “Web Developer” but is also known by several other names: User Interface Engineer, Front End Developer, Site Developer and I’m sure there are other names I have not heard before. Whatever you call them, I’m pretty sure that we can all agree on one thing call them: scarce.

Where are the 5-Tool Players?

We all know a CSS and markup stud. We know the design divas. We all know a JavaScript wizard. We know the integration gurus who can wire up markup, APIs and middle-tier server pages. But where are the ones who bring it all together? I remember back in 2000 and 2001 that you could find them. I’ve begun to lose hope and am beginning to think that they may be endangered or on the verge of extinction. When I’m in hiring mode (and I don’t know many shops that are not on the lookout for good web developer candidates), I keep coming across the same sorts of resumes:

  • Design-Minded -- These creatures are commonplace in the urban cityscapes and often come out of small or regional art schools. They often see things through the lens of visual design and fancy themselves as user experience professionals even though they don’t have significant formal training in human computer interaction or cognitive science. JavaScript is anathema to these creatures as they have tried to fake it and failed miserably on enterprise projects in the past, so they do just enough script coding to get by and the script code they do deliver is often directly copied from other web sites with similar or identical interactions.
  • Engineering Minded -- These bipeds are more rare than their design-oriented cousins and typically come out of software engineering development shops with a desire to do something closer to users. Anger and frustration is common in this species due to big company policies and old school development shops that put little to no focus on design and user experience considerations.
  • Poseurs -- These are the most plentiful variety with many similar species across the web discipline kingdom. These chameleons unknowingly masquerade as either of the previous species and are quickly flushed out once put into an enterprise or high profile agency role. They bounce from shop to shop and gain a reputation within the community that prevents them from advancing into senior roles. The poseurs survive by consuming the quick cash of small businesses and are responsible for a large chunk of unusable and low quality web sites out in the wild. A rare form of poseur will burrow into an intranet gig somewhere and parasitically feed off of an otherwise well-meaning company.

Evolution In Action

So, where did the web-world Yeti go? They haven’t disappeared. Like birds from dinosaurs before them, they have evolved into leaders and can be found in various shops across the ecosphere. I believe these high-quality Front-End Developers have “moved up” -- and are not being replaced. If you look at the schools producing the talent, it all becomes clear. Art schools teach design-minded thinking and don’t really know how to teach sophisticated engineering concepts like:

  • JavaScript is based in ECMA script and can do all sorts of funky stuff like delegation and callbacks
  • CSS namespace strategies for large websites, creating good file and class naming strategies for long term sustainability
  • JSON and DOM manipulation
  • Creating secure web applications.

Universities are Still Behind the Curve

Engineering programs at universities have professors who know how to teach object-oriented programming and e-commerce concepts, but don’t believe that design or user experience understanding is necessary to create employable talent.

The sad fact for engineering students is that there do not seem to be any major collegiate programs that believe front-end technology approaches are worth teaching. Despite massive advances in browser technology by companies such as Google and Mozilla, these organizations still believe that script-based and declarative languages are “not true code” and “aren’t made for real computing.” Markup languages, CSS and enterprise class JavaScript only seem to be taught by training companies, books, the community or the enterprises themselves through tribal learning.

I really shouldn’t be surprised at this. After all, when I went to Georgia Tech, they were still teaching FORTRAN and C, neither of which seemed to be of any value in rapidly building applications people could actually use. Newsflash, universities across the nation! Front End Development is a real discipline.

There are tons of job opportunities out there for good, bright kids with hybrid backgrounds in design, art, user-experience, business and technology. Start collaborating with the web industry, your colleagues and competitors that teach the other side of the equation to create balanced programs and five-tool graduates ready for a hungry job market. If we don’t act now, the web-world Yeti will soon be extinct.

On a final note, big props to @cyb3rllama and his mom for the inspiration behind this article!