Learn web development as an absolute beginner (2020)
Are you trying to learn web development as a beginner, but not sure where to start?
There are a ton of resources out there. But right now, all you need is the basics of web development– a general explanation with some direction on where to go next.
First, here are the steps that you’ll need to follow as a beginner web developer.
Steps to learn web development basics:
- Basics: How websites work, front-end vs back-end, using a code editor
- Tools: Package managers, build tools, version control
- Back-end basics: Servers and databases, programming language
I recommend doing Steps 1, 2, and 3 in order. Then, depending on whether you want to focus on more front-end or back-end, you can do steps 4a or 4b in any order.
I personally think it’s good idea for front-end web developers to know at least a bit of back-end, and vice versa. At the very least, learning the basics of both will help you figure out if you like front-end or back-end web development better 🙂
Roadmap to learn web development (infographic)
Here’s a helpful infographic showing you all the steps in the roadmap to learn web development as a beginner!
Now, let’s jump right into the first step!
1: What is web development?
Before we get into actual coding, let’s first take a look at some general information on what web development is: how websites work, the difference between front and back-end, and using a code editor.
How do websites work?
All websites, at their most basic, are just a bunch of files that are stored on a computer called a server. This server is connected to the internet. You can then load that website through a browser (like Chrome, Firefox, or Safari) on your computer or your phone. Your browser is also called the client in this situation.
So, every time that you’re on the internet, you (the client) are getting and loading data (like cat pics) from the server, as well as submitting data back to the server (load moar cat pics!) This back and forth between the client and the server is the basis of the internet.
Anything that you can access in your browser is something that a web developer built. Some examples are small business websites and blogs on the simpler side, all the way up to very complex web apps like AirBnb, Facebook and Twitter.
What’s the difference between front-end and back-end?
The terms “front end,” “back end,” and “full stack” web developer describe what part of the client/server relationship you’re working with.
“Front end” means that you’re dealing mainly with the client side. It’s called the “front end” because it’s what you can see in the browser. Conversely, the “back end” is the part of the website that you can’t really see, but it handles a lot of the logic and functionality that is necessary for everything to work.
One way you can think about this is that front-end web development is like the “front of house” part of a restaurant. It’s the section where customers come to see and experience the restaurant– the interior decor, seating, and of course, eating the food.
On the other hand, back-end web development is like the “back of house” part of the restaurant. It’s where deliveries and inventory are managed, and the process to create the food all happens. There’s a lot of things behind the scenes that the customers won’t see, but they will experience (and hopefully enjoy) the end product– a delicious meal!
Fun illustrations aside, both front and back end web development serve different but very important functions.
Using a code editor
When you build a website, the most essential tool that you will use is your code editor or IDE (Integrated Development Environment). This tool allows you to write the markup and code that will make up the website.
There are quite a few good options out there, but currently the most popular code editor is VS Code. VS Code is a more lightweight version of Visual Studio, Microsoft’s main IDE. It’s fast, free, easy to use, and you can customize it with themes and extensions.
If you’re just getting started, though, I’d recommend checking out VS Code, which you can download from their website.
Now that we’ve covered some of the broader concepts in what web development is, let’s get into more of the details– starting with the front end.
2: Basic front-end
Let’s take a closer look at each one of them.
HTML, or HyperText Markup Language, is the foundation of all websites. It’s the main file type that is loaded in your browser when you look at a website. The HTML file contains all the content on the page, and it uses tags to denote different types of content.
For example, you can use tags to create headline titles, paragraphs, bulleted lists, images, and so on. HTML tags by themselves do have some styles attached, but they are pretty basic, like what you would see in a Word document.
CSS, or Cascading Style Sheets, lets you style that HTML content so it looks nice and fancy. You can add colors, custom fonts, and layout the elements of your website however you want them to look. You can even create animations and shapes with CSS!
For example, you can build a “Back to Top” button that when the user clicks it, they’ll scroll back up to the top of the page. Or you can build a weather widget that will display today’s weather based on the user’s location in the world.
When people ask me where to learn web development, I will usually recommend they check out one of the following resources.
Note: Some of the links below (the ones to paid courses and books) are affiliate links, which means I’ll get a commission if you buy through them at no additional cost to yourself. It’s one way you can support me in creating helpful resources like this one!
One of my favorite places to recommend is freeCodeCamp. It’s an online coding bootcamp that is non-profit and completely free! I love this option because if you’re a beginner and not completely sure if coding is for you, it’s a low pressure, risk-free way to see if you like it.
One downside to freeCodeCamp is that while they do have an incredible curriculum with a built-in coding environment, they don’t have structured videos as part of it.
So if you really like learning from videos, here are a few other options:
Team Treehouse is a premium online learning platform that is video based and has multiple tracks that you can follow. They even have an online Tech Degree program which is like an online bootcamp that you can complete in 4-5 months.
Unfortunately, Treehouse isn’t free, but they do have different monthly or yearly plans depending on your budget. They have a free 7-day trial so you can see if you like it, and I can also give you a deal where you can get $100 off of 1 year of their Basic Plan. If you’re fairly certain you want to get into web development, Team Treehouse is a great place to learn.
If you’re more of a fan of one-off video courses, there are some free and paid options:
Udemy is an online learning platform with a lot of great courses as well. One in particular that you might like is The Advanced CSS and Sass course by Jonas Schmedtmann– this paid course covers CSS grid, flexbox, responsive design, and other CSS topics!
There are also a ton of free video resources on YouTube:
DesignCourse, a channel focused on web design and front-end, has an HTML & CSS tutorial for beginners as well.
Books and articles on web development
If you’re more of a reading person, I would highly recommend the following:
And last but not least, some websites that have great articles and other resources are:
Package managers are online collections of software, much of it open source. Each piece of software, called a package, is available for you to install and use in your own projects.
You can think about them like plugins– instead of writing everything from scratch, you can use helpful utilities that other people have written already.
The most popular package manager is called npm, or Node Package Manager, but you can also use another manager called Yarn. Both are good options to know and use, although it’s probably best to start out with npm.
If you’re curious to learn more, you can read this article on the basics of using npm.
Module bundlers and build tools like Webpack, Gulp, or Parcel, are another essential part of the front-end workflow.
Gulp, technically a task runner, has a suite of npm packages that you can use to compile and process your files.
Parcel is a newer bundler like Webpack, but it comes pre-configured out of the box, so you can literally get it going in just a few minutes. And you won’t have to worry as much about configuring everything.
If you’re interested in Gulp or Parcel, I have tutorials for both of those:
I also have a premium course on Gulp for Beginners, if you’re looking for a more in-depth tutorial on how to use Gulp to make your front-end workflow more efficient!
If you want to learn more about Webpack check out the following YouTube videos:
Version control (also called source control) is a system that keeps track of every code change that you make in your project files. You can even revert to a previous change if you make a mistake. It’s almost like having infinite save points for your project, and let me tell you, it can be a huge lifesaver.
The most popular version control system is an open source system called Git. Using Git, you can store all your files and their change history in collections called repositories.
You may have also heard of GitHub, which is an online hosting company owned by Microsoft where you can store all your Git repositories.
4a: Additional front-end
Sass is an extension of CSS that makes writing styles more intuitive and modular. It’s a really powerful tool. With Sass, you can split up your styles into multiple files for better organization, create variables to store colors and fonts, and use mixins and placeholders to easily reuse styles.
Even if you just utilize some of the basic features, like nesting, you will be able to write your styles more quickly and with less headache.
Responsive design ensures that your styles will look good on all devices– desktops, tablets, and mobile phones. The core practices of responsive design include using flexible sizing for elements, as well as utilizing media queries to target styles for specific devices and widths.
For example, instead of setting your content to be a static 400px wide, you can use a media query and set the content to be 50% width on desktop and 100% on mobile.
Building your websites with responsive CSS is a must these days, as mobile traffic is outpacing desktop traffic in many cases.
For more information on responsive design and making your websites responsive, check out this article. I also do live coding streams on my YouTube channel where I build a responsive website from scratch.
These frameworks come with pre-built structures and components that allow you to build apps more quickly than if you started from scratch.
Currently, you have three main choices: React, Angular, and Vue.
React (technically a library), was created by Facebook and is the most popular framework right now. You can get started learning by going to the React.js website. If you’re interested in a premium React course, both Tyler McGinnins and Wes Bos have great courses for beginners.
Angular was the first big framework, and it was created by Google. It’s still very popular, even though it has been surpassed by React recently. You can start learning Angular on their website. Gary from DesignCourse also has an Angular crash course on YouTube.
Vue is a newer framework created by Evan You, a former Angular developer. While it is smaller in use than React and Angular, it is growing quickly and is also considered easy and fun to use. You can get up and running with it on the Vue website.
Which framework should you learn?
You might be wondering now, “Ok, well, which framework is the best?”
The truth is, they are all good. In web development, there’s almost never a single choice that is 100% the best choice for every person and every situation.
Your choice will most likely be determined by your job, or simply by which one you enjoy using the most. If your end goal is to land a job, try researching which framework seems to be the most common in potential job listings.
Don’t worry too much about which framework to choose. It’s more important that you learn and understand the concepts behind them. Also, once you learn one framework it will be easier to learn other ones (similar to programming languages).
Let’s move on now to our last section: back-end web development!
4b: Basic back-end
The back-end, or server-side of web development, is made up of three main components: the server, a server-side programming language, and the database.
As we mentioned at the very beginning, the server is the computer where all the website files, the database, and other components are stored.
Traditional servers run on operating systems such as Linux or Windows. They’re considered “centralized” because everything– the website files, back-end code, and data are stored together on the server.
Nowadays there are also serverless architectures, which is a more decentralized type of setup. This type of application splits up those components and leverages third party vendors to handle each of them.
Serverless setups are popular because they are fast, cheap, and you don’t need to worry about server maintenance. They’re great for simple static websites that don’t require a traditional server-side language. However, for very complex applications the traditional server setup might be a better option.
To learn more about serverless setups, Netlify has an informative blog post that takes you through all the steps to setup a static website with deployment.
On the server, you need to use a programming language to write the functions and logic for your application. The server then compiles your code and conveys the result back to the client.
Let’s check out a list of the most commonly used programming languages for web development:
C# was developed as Microsoft’s competitor to Java. It’s used to make web apps with the .NET framework, game development, and can even be used to create mobile apps.
Java is one of the most popular programming languages, and is used in web apps as well as to build Android apps.
PHP is the language that powers WordPress, so this might be a good choice if you think you will be working with small business websites, as many of them use WordPress. You can also build web apps with the Laravel framework.
Python is growing in popularity, especially as it is used in data science and machine learning. It’s also considered to be good for beginners, as its syntax is simpler than some other languages. If you want to build web apps, you can use the Django or Flask frameworks.
Places to learn Python:
The Modern Python 3 Bootcamp by Colt Steele on Udemy
Ruby is another language that has a syntax considered to be beginner-friendly as well as fun to learn. You can build web apps with the framework Ruby on Rails.
Databases, as the name implies, are where you store information for your website. Most databases use a language called SQL (pronounced “sequel”) which stands for “Structured Query Language.”
In the database, data is stored in tables, with rows sort of like complex Excel documents. Then you can write queries in SQL in order to create, read, update, and delete data.
There are also NoSQL databases, which store the data in JSON files as opposed to the traditional tables. One type of NoSQL database is MongoDB, which is often used with React, Angular, and Vue applications.
Some examples of how data is utilized on websites are:
If you have a contact form on your website, you could build the form so that every time someone submits the form, their data is saved onto your database.
You can also user logins on the database, and write logic in the server-side language to handle checking and authenticating the logins.
Some resources to learn the basics of SQL are:
Some tips to leave you with…
Thanks for reading! I sincerely hope that this guide helps you get started learning web development.
A few tips that I have if you are going the self-taught route:
- Don’t try to learn everything at once. Pick one skill to learn at a time.
- Don’t jump around from tutorial to tutorial. As you’re learning, it’s ok to check out different resources to see which one you like best. But again, pick one and try to go all the way through it.
- Know that learning web development is a long-term journey. Despite the stories you may have read of people going from zero to landing a web dev job in 3 months, I would aim more at 1 to 2 years to become job ready, if you’re starting from the beginning.
- Just watching a video course or reading a book won’t automatically make you an expert. Learning the material is just the first step. Building actual websites and projects (even just demo ones for yourself) will help you to really cement your learning.
Best of luck as you start learning web development!
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