Web Developer. Webmaster. Web Designer. What do these terms mean? Which one are you? In fact, these terms have been used and misused so much that they are in danger of losing any distinct meaning. This article attempts to define and defend these labels and their meanings.

"Webmaster" in particular has been diluted to the point where it hardly means anything at all. In the proverbial "early days" of the web, it meant a person who had both the hardware and software knowledge to

- setup and configure a web server
- register a domain
- find a good ISP, and get IP addresses
- put up a web page

Today, a "webmaster" is more often than not the person in your office who "updates" your website. They may not do any of the above, or know HTML. I don't think it's possible to rescue any technical prestige for the "Webmaster" designation. Let's admit it, it was just too cute from the beginning, and if Howard in Accounting wants to call himself your company Webmaster, just let him.

That leaves us with "Web Designer" and "Web Developer". It's my position that these two terms still mean something, and that those of us who truly are one or the other, should protect these labels from misuse, and from the unworthy.

Before we differentiate them, let's define what they have in common:

- thorough knowledge of HTML
- thorough knowledge of CSS
- working knowledge of JavaScript
- understanding of the request-response nature of the web
- knows the difference between "client" and "server"

Right out of the gate, we can disqualify most novice ASP.NET developers. Sorry, I had to throw that in here. If you'd had to answer a thousand variations of "how do I make my ASP.NET method wait until the user clicks 'OK'", you'd have an attitude, too.

I'm a Web Developer. I know how to design a database to support the business requirements of an application. I can create that database: the tables, the relationships, the keys, the queries, and can write the necessary stored procedures. I also know when I'm in over my head, and should call in a DBA. I know a few different server-side languages (PHP, ASP, ASP.NET). I have an excellent knowledge of JavaScript, CSS, and HTML. I know what a DOCTYPE is, and which one I should use. I know what XML is good for, and when to use it. I've dabbled in XSLT. I can write a complete application, with all the necessary user and administrative tools. For that matter, I can write mainframe and PC applications, too. I use a structured application development methodology. I can comprehend, and design an application around, a business process.

A "Web Developer", then, in my book, is a "real" programmer. If you've "dabbled" on the web, managed to get a site up, maybe even installed a working blog or forum package, then that's great. More power to you! But don't insult me by calling yourself a "Web Developer".

And you're not a "Web Designer", either. A professional Web Designer is an artist. They understand color and its effects and associations. They know all about fonts, and when to use which. They understand coders like me, and when I say, "the user has to make these 16 decisions", they can break it down to a friendly, efficient user interface. Most Web Designers come from a graphic arts background, and have worked as page layout artists and print designers. These are the folks who know which graphic format to use, and what resolution it should be. They can add flash animations to the site, wizards, and layout templates.

Web Designers envy the programming talents of Web Developers. Hey, it's true. Admit it. Ironically, lots of Web Developers delude themselves into thinking they are Web Designers. I've fallen into that trap a few times. In fact, any full-scale web application will need to have both professional Web Developers, and Web Designers.

Web Developers are the programmers who make web-based applications functional. Web Designers are the artists who make web-based applications usable.

Are you a Web Developer? I'd love to hear your background, and why you call yourself a Web Developer. Are you a Web Designer? Do you agree or disagree with my assessment of what it is you do? I invite your comments. Are you a Webmaster? Well, how nice

11 Years
Discussion Span
Last Post by hollystyles

I agree with most everything you said. Webmaster used to be a coveted position when the Internet was young. The skill set was quite different. The primary ability of webmasters when I started my career was the ability to “code HTML. There was no design to “web pages because HTML was very limited in what it could do.

I am a web designer. I have spent over 9 years being paid to create designs for the web. As you stated, I started out in print, then went to TV, then the web. I have studied how “surfers use web sites and used that information to create designs and improved navigation for design. I understand color theory, composition, balance, etc., and how these things influence the user.

I agree that we both have to protect our titles and what they mean, but I think this is double for designers. Too many people get a copy of FrontPage or Dreamweaver and automatically they consider themselves designers.

I don’t agree that designers “envy developer’s skills. Personally, I admire them as I would like to add more dev skills to my resume’. I think most designers don’t like the thought of being a developer because the lack of visual creativity and stimulation.


Perhaps the "envy" was just wishful thinking on my part, as it's certainly true that I envy people with strong artistic skills.


I think you have described a new category of Web Wizard - I aspire to this level of expertise!


"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet"

A person can get paid for what they can do, regardless what they know or don't know. I know of people who know very little HTML, but they rake in fair amounts of money building websites for clients using those cheesy, template-driven design programs that require no HTML knowledge (I thought about doing this myself!) Of course, they could probably earn a lot more money if they actually knew more, but apparently, all their clients care about is getting a website online; they don't much care how it was built. Yeah, these people do like calling themselves developers, designers and masters, but what's in the name?

Strip them of their titles if it preserves the "purity" of your vocation, but their money spends exactly the same as any one else's.

Now me personally, trying to learn programming, I intentionally (at this point) stay away from tools that would keep me from having to learn the actual language and all its underpinnings because I want to understand the fullness of what I'm doing, so if one day I run into something a quick tool just can't do, I won't have to compromise my idea. At that point, you can call me a Programmer, an Application Developer, a Hacker or a Straw Hat for all I care; I just want to be able to provide solutions that earn me a living. That being said, once I am proficient in the language, I will certainly avail myself of every possible tool to eliminate as much detailed drudgery as possible, and if someone can put together a program that does what I need it to do, even if they produced it with some $69 tool that required little or no knowledge of programming concepts, I'll buy it. At the end of the day, the question is, "does it work?"

Aside from all that, the only two beings in the universe whose title for me really matters are God and my wife.


Noble sentiments. While I recognize that my original post has an elitist tone, I hope you recognize that it was to some extent tongue-in-cheek.

The primary motivation for the article was the perception I often encounter among potential employers and clients that a "web developer" is the same thing as a "web designer", and that neither is as good as a "real" programmer. In fact, they often lump us into the same category as those cheesy template pushers you describe. If that's the business I wanted to be in, I wouldn't have become a programmer.

A web developer is every bit a programmer, and in fact is often a programmer who has also mastered additional skills.

As for those who throw together "sites" for a quick buck here and there, well… I was coding before they were on the scene, and I'm willing to bet I'll be here when they're off pursuing the next hot thing.


...and since I'm a literary nut, I have to say that people so often misunderstand that Shakespearean line you quoted. In fact, the point was that a name DOES matter. Juliet was displaying irony, as she had just fallen in love with Romeo, a member of her family's archenemy. That fact, that his name was "Montague", made all the tragic difference.


...But I wasn't quoting Shakespeare, who used the statement in spite of the truth. In his poem, he meant the opposite, so the name mattered only in the context of his story, but in fact, a thing is what it is, regardless what it may be called.


Well said Thomas. The deluge of people calling themselves "web designers" and "web developers" after having read "build your own website in 24 hours" has destroyed what value the name had.
At the moment it's precisely that sort of person who's expected to turn up at a job interview, while at the same time the talents of the REAL professionals get ignored.
Many companies expect people to know it all, do it all, but don't appreciate it when they actually can deliver.
We're sending people without any experience in user interface design on a 1 week HTML/Javascript course and expect them to be top web designers after that week. At the same time professional programmers are pushed into creating their own user interface designs because the people who are supposed to do it are incapable (being the before-mentioned group).
That's the state of the industry today, because the image of our profession has been so diluted over the years by the flood of wannabees who call themselves web designers after creating a personal homepage at AOL or Geocities awash with scrolling text, impossible to read because of the terrible use of colours and background graphics (dark blue text on a purple and light blue textured background anyone? I've seen it), and with half the links dead.


Part of the problem is these software packages that promise to "make you a professional web developer with no HTML knowledge!" or to make you "Build web sites like a professional with no coding in 45 minutes!" or something similar. People who buy into these packages are naturally quite amazed with what these programs produce, because in many cases the templates and the pre-built designs are designed by professionals. This may give a person a false sense of what he actually is.

Another factor is the changing of things. I can remember when a 1GB hard drive cost nearly a thousand dollars, a 1MB memory chip cost three or four hundred dollars and a web developer charged over three hundred bucks PER PAGE to build a web site, and a "page" was counted as only as much as could be printed on an 8.5" x 11" sheet of paper. I thought that was ludicrous, but apparently many got paid like that.

Those days are gone, mainly due to competition and market saturation (not to mention improved production techniques). Web developers who might have spent thousands of dollars learning to be "real" web developers found it increasingly difficult to convince clients to pay that kind of money, and (I believe) many of them simply sold their talent (and their designs) to companies that build these template-driven programs that do allow almost anyone to do a large percentage of the work of building a full-functioning site in a very short time without an extensive knowledge of the underlying code. I now see developers building entire sites for as little as several hundred dollars, which is just a reflection of the times. If a company is going to be perfectly happy with a site built with FrontPage, and they can get Betty down in HR to do it, why should they consider it a practical business decision to outsource that task? From a purely business percpective, the talent of the real professionals is just not as cost effective as it might have once appeared to be.

This isn't too much different from an experience I had with a computer store, that used to be staffed by people with a fair amount of technical knowledge who could actually help with a buying decision. The store was bought up by a large chain and perhaps 90% of those knowledgeable staff were replaced by pimply-faced, high school-aged, computer tech wannabes whose main qualifications were that they had been playing video games for a couple years and were willing to work for six bucks an hour. One kid argued me down saying I had to buy pairs of memory modules for my laptop, another told me the printer I was about to buy wouldn't work at all without an IEEE 1284 parallel cable (which the store would happily sell me for thirty bucks), and I overheard another giving an elderly lady all the details about how many picoliters of ink a printer cartridge held, for a printer they didn't even have in stock! Could I have workd for that store? Well, I'm sure I could have helped, but with my education and experience there's no way I could have accepted a job at six or eight bucks an hour. Still the store is meeting its sales goals and still thriving, so from a bottom-line, business perspective, why should they care if many of their employees hardly know a clock chip from a potato chip?


I too had the "computer store" experience. Programming is my second career. I sold customized accounting software that ran on PCs and "Baby 36" systems (IBM mid-range systems). Fortunately, I could see the writing on the wall and got out before PCs became a commodity.

Another thing I want to clarify: when I speak of web applications, I'm not talking about your typical "site". For example, I developed the first complete eCommerce application for the commercial printing industry, with real-time proofing (dynamic PDF production). Later, with a staff of developers and designers, and two years of work, we turned it into a full-scale application.

It took orders, dynamically generated press-ready artwork, properly calculated interstate taxes, imposed the artwork, had a very robust pricing model (if you've ever had a print job estimated, you have some inkling of what that would involve), and maintained complete order history.

When I say "took orders", we're talking about customizable print pieces. The form module alone, which allowed a dynamic data-entry form for each and every piece, was probably thousands of lines of code.

We supported various online payment methods. It had a complete administrative interface. It supported multi-tiered buying (you can place an order, but need so-and-so's approval). Spending limits.

It supported co-branding, so that based on your login, it picked the correct color scheme and logos, plus populated your inventory.

The list of features goes on and on, and this system by now (it's still in use) has generated millions of print orders, for hundreds of companies.

Now that's an application, and it took professional Web Developers and Web Designers to create.


yup, that's of similar scope to what I'm working on (though for a completely different industry).
Of course many such applications are never seen by most people as they're used mainly internally with customers (or at most a small piece is the public interface that's accessible by the outside world through the net).

Such applications require far more skills than your average "webmaster" brings.
Java (or Perl, CGI, etc.), XML, HTML, Javascript, CSS, user interface theory, etc. etc.


whooohooo. i have been a freelance asp developer for the past 4 years. i recently went to an interview for a job (need to gain a bit of "employment" experiance) the first question the interviewer asked was "straight after a recordset if this statement = true what does it meen? recordset = eof", i was totaly taken aback. he later explained that he has interviewed alot of people that couldnt even answer that question, and to think they were appling for a asp developers role (before you wonder, i do know the answer)

since i was a freelance developer i had to do the design part aswell, and i trully admire the designers. its not an easy job.


Hi William. Thanks for your reply. That actually sounds like a good interviewer. I'm curious, what was the term used to advertise the position? Programmer? Web Developer? ASP Developer?

I have to give you a bit of light-hearted harassment, though... you might like my blog entry on "l33tsp33k".


I agree I have always felt the term web developer is under valued, I refuse to accept it as a title even though it is what I currently do. I describe myself as a software developer. Because there is so much more to my experience than HTML, ASP, PHP blah de blah...

I am effective as a web developer because it is a part of a larger arsenal, the internet and it's associated technologies all sit upon a distinguished history of computer software engineering and design, and you need to know and have experienced at least some of that lower level stuff to be truely a master of the craft.

There are 'Web Developers' out there who couldn't coherently describe what a reference to an object means, where stuff really is in ram, or name the three principles that a language must satisfy to consider it object oriented.

The trouble is when you come in from nothing to these powerful technologies like ASP.NET for example it is inevitable you will abuse it shamefully. In fact I'll go out on a limb and say of the forums here on DaniWeb the only one with any elegance in the code snippets posted is the C and C++ forum, the web technology forums are quite frankly hideous! I sware they make my eyes water sometimes.

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