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Web Development – A Useful Skill

Why I started web development

I’m a person that loves coming up with new ideas. My friends and family know this all too well. From drive-through grocery shops to fully automated peer-to-peer community courier services. Doesn’t matter how absurd, I just like new ideas.

The problem is implementing these ideas. They usually cost a lot of money and take a lot of time to build. That means you probably have to stop what you are doing and try to realise your idea. You will probably require some funding from investors. Unfortanately, the odds of your idea taking off is very small. If it fails, a lot of time and money will have been wasted.

Thats why I started web development. If you have some idea for a cool website or service, development of a basic protoype can be done relatively quickly and inexpensively. You can build a word game, a braai app or even a new social media app. Whatever you can think of.

You can test the viability of your idea and if it fails, you won’t owe anyone a lot of money and you can try again on a new idea. You are also not limited to focussing on one idea at a time. You can try many ideas in parallel, especially since you can reuse a lot that you learn in one idea in another.

Starting with web development

Starting with web development can be a daunting task. The biggest issue I faced is “where do I begin?”. There are so many tools available. HTML, CSS, JavaScript, PHP, Python, Ruby and MySQL are just some of the phrases you will come upon. But which of these do you need?

The first thing I started to learn was basic HTML. It is easy enough to use, but you soon find that your site looks like it was made in 1991 by a 10 year old. Thats when I started learning CSS. Suddenly, the website looked a lot prettier. After everything looked pretty, I realised my website doesn’t do anything. It’s called a static website. Its usually used to give information and is not used for interacting with users.

I realised I needed a backend scripting language in my arsenal. I decided to learn PHP, probably because Facebook uses it. Along with PHP, I learned to use MySQL databases. As soon as I got the hang of HTML, CSS, PHP and MySQL, I was at a point where I could start building primitive sites.
The biggest problem I ran into is that all of these tools are used together, so you need a basic knowledge of all of them to actually start using them.

Humble beginnings

My first real site was www.helpacar.com, a service where you alert people anonymously that their car’s lights are left on. The site doesn’t look great, but it works.

For a long time, I continued developing sites like these. They were all functional, but didn’t feel like the other sites on the Internet. Something was still missing.

The missing link

Not having to reload your entire page when you click on a button. That is what was missing. AJAX is what I had to learn next, which meant I had to learn JavaScript first. After getting AJAX requests working in pure JavaScript, I learned of a library called jQuery that made everything a lot easier. jQuery lets you accomplish a lot more in less code. Thats where I learned a valuable lesson: Don’t do everything from scratch. It is a lesson that I am still learning to this day. I am still doing many of my development in pure php, even though there are good frameworks available. Getting to learn a framework takes more time in the beginning, but it definately pays of in the long run.

Another nice framework that I learned to use is Twitter’s Bootstrap, an amazing and free frontend CSS framework that is used by countless websites.

Tools you will need

Firstly, you will need a place to host your website. To get started, you can host your site on your own computer. You will need to install webserver software. I would recommend installing XAMPP. XAMPP stands for cross-platform Apache MySQL PHP Perl. It can be installed on Windows, Mac and Linux. After you have made your site, you can move it to a hosting provider and host it online.

There are many, many tutorials available on the Internet to teach you web development. It’s the Internet teaching the Internet how do program for the Internet. Guides and tutorials are great. However, I feel the best way to learn is to get a small project and try to make it work. By struggling and figuring it out, you learn a lot more than from a tutorial.

One of the most useful sites that I use on a daily basis is w3schools.com. It has references and guides for almost everything you will need.

The last tool you will need is your imagination. Be creative.

Try new things and make the Internet a better place.

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