How in the world do websites get made?
The copywriter, web designer and web developer all work in tandem to create the most intuitive, persuasive, and knockout experience for your audience. Before beginning the process of creating a professional website, understanding how websites get made, even on a rudimentary level, can be incredibly orienting and clarifying for an otherwise overwhelming process.
Over the next few months, I’ll be interviewing different professionals related to my own work, starting with today’s discussion with Michelle Navarro, a full stack developer (a techy word for a web developer who works on both the back end and front end of a website). I learned a lot from Michelle, and she even busted many of the myths I had indiscriminately believed about web development.
But before digging into our conversation, here’s a quick rundown of how websites are created through the work of three very different professionals:
1. The copywriter devises the messaging and the information architecture for the website. Usually, I not only write the content, but I also organize the information so that it draws the reader deeper and deeper into the site. I don’t just present clients with a paragraph of words and leave it to them to spread throughout the website, I give clients the copy already organized into a layout as it would look on a website, designating page tab titles, page flow, where links to other pages or calls to action buttons should go, and etc.
2. The web designer takes the copywriter’s words and layout suggestions and uses their artistic eye to make them really pop. They will be able to transform the copywriter’s layout into an aesthetically pleasing and impactful design. They’ll choose the fonts, color scheme, photographs, and graphics for the site.
3. The web developer takes the copy and the design and actually brings them to life! The web developer is skilled at programming and coding, and essentially builds the site that the copywriter and designer had envisioned, making sure it functions optimally.
Michelle works in-house here in Los Angeles for Taboola, a company that helps online content publishers drive more traffic to their websites. (One of the most visible things the company does is provide the “Around the web” boxes for further reading at the bottom of plenty of media websites’ articles.)
It’s like an architect giving me their plans for a building, and I go out and build it.
“It’s like an architect giving me their plans for a building, and I go out and build it,” she says, when I asked her to explain what she does for *someone* who only barely understands the technical side of websites. Since she works inhouse for an established company, she doesn’t build entirely new websites every day, but she does build mini-versions, like new sections or functions on the existing site or application.
When she’s not coding something new, she runs tests to make sure every aspect of the company’s website, data storage, and the software used by their clients, are running at their highest performance, and then she fixes any bugs that crop up.
To me, her work sounded very different from what I do—so granular and technical that it made my head hurt. But, it turns out, that’s a common misconception for people outside the field, that we don’t get how simple and even how fun this stuff is. “Computers are really stupid,” she says, laughing. “All you have to do is think logically and tell them step-by-step how to do something.” By that, she means that her work is, at its core, logical problem solving, rather than some uber-technical craft.
But still, I ask her, “Don’t you have to… you know… still be really good at math?”
Nope. You definitely have to understand some higher levels of math, but you don’t have to be some kind of natural numbers whiz. Michelle even says, unabashedly, “I’m actually really bad at math! I got my worst grades in college in my math classes!”
In fact, the more we talk, the more I realize that Michelle is kind of the opposite of what I pictured a web developer would be like. Yes, she’s wickedly smart (no surprise there), but she’s also the first to admit that she didn’t grow up taking apart computers for fun, and she was never drawn mysteriously to mathematics. Instead, she grew up in love with dance and music—and still does these things outside of her 9–5. It wasn’t until she took a class in computer science in high school that she discovered how much she enjoyed the critical thinking and problem solving nature of the field.
“The job is really social, and I think that’s something that surprises people,” she says. “A lot of people think it’s individuals working alone at a desk coding, but really, it’s all about collaboration.” Since coding is so much about problem solving, it’s immensely beneficial to have another person or two around to tackle a problem together.
What’s more, the two skills she thinks are most important for web developers really surprised me: communication skills and creativity. (Wait a minute, these are the two things that are most important in my work too!) “Coding is really abstract,” Michelle says. You have to be able to understand the nuances of the problem and easily explain it to your partner or coworker in order to start working toward a solution. Then, it’s all about looking at the problem creatively, from different angles, until the right answer reveals itself.
The two skills that are most important for web developers really surprised me: communication and creativity.
However, there is one stereotype that seems to be, at least for now, very true: according to one study, less than 0.4% of students entering college planning to study computer science are women. That statistic doesn’t improve when you get into the workforce. Michelle works in a team of 20 coders, and she’s the only woman. “No one looks down on me, but it’s hard to feel like you fit in,” she says. She thinks that the reason the percentage of women in the field is so low is that those “myths”—like that web developers must have a natural love for technology, that it’s a really hard job unless you’re a math genius, or that you’ll be looked down on as a woman—are still pervasive. Plus, young girls might feel like it’s not for them because there are so few women in the field currently to serve as role models, something Michelle hopes is changing.
By the end of the interview, one thing’s clear: Michelle is just as excited about her work as I am about mine. I asked her why she believes her job is important, and she smiled softly as she responded, “What I do matters so much because I can vastly improve any company, any field, that I go into.”
Moreover, she says, she wishes the majority of people knew way more about technology and coding than we currently do. “Tech is not a side thing anymore. It’s everything,” she says. She’s right. We use technology nearly constantly, yet many of us (ahem, myself included) have shameful little understanding of how that technology works. “Computer science shouldn’t just be its own major, it should also be included in core classes, like english or math,” she says firmly. If computer science had been part of my liberal arts core back when I was in school, I think I would have cried. But now, I have to say I agree with her. There’s no scenario in our future when technology becomes less vital to our way of life. It’s, admittedly, disconcerting to think about how fast the gap between our daily reliance on tech and our fundamental understanding of it is growing.
What I do matters so much because I can vastly improve any company, any field, that I go into.
Check it out! The two pieces of advice Michelle has for those looking to hire a web developer:
1. Make sure they care about the user experience more than making things pretty or to their personal taste.
2. Try to find someone who is both a web developer and web designer. That way, you can be sure the design you fall in love with is 100% able to be implemented practically, and, when you have only one point of contact, it’s easier for you to request changes later.