Advice for young web developers

Nettuts posted a interesting interview today.  The interview featured James Padolsey, an eighteen year old from Hampton, UK who, at such a young age, is well on his way in web development.

It’s amazing how much I related to his story.  I learned how to hand-code HTML when I was 16 and taught myself Perl and PHP over the next couple of years.  I really related to the challenges James faced in his first IT job.  It got me thinking of my first IT job.  I started my first IT job when I was 19.  Much like James, I was overwhelmed with things I didn’t know when I started working for SmartForce, the largest e-learning company in the world at the time.  I had to quickly learn ASP (Classic) which was god awful compared to PHP, but easy to pick up.  I also had to learn Oracle and the complex data schema that the learning management system used.  For someone who had recently adopted MySQL over flat file databases, it was challenging to say the least.  Then there was SOAP, Visual SourceSafe, Visual Studio, bug tracking software, dealing with a quality assurance team, and the list goes on.  Every day was an intense learning experience and I loved every minute of it.  It also didn’t hurt that this was during the “.com boom” and there were Playstation 2’s, big screen TVs, pool tables, and free vending machines.  I remember feeling completely exhilerated when I used my building security card for the first time.  So high-tech, so cool.

There were other co-op students working at SmartForce at this time.  They were on their 5th or 6th co-op work term and approaching graduation.  They told me I was very lucky to get this as my first co-op job.  They said usually you end up with help desk jobs for the first few co-op work terms.  I knew it wasn’t just luck; that the work I had done in high school impressed my interviewers, but I still felt very fortunate that they had noticed and felt I was qualified.

As much as I loved the work, I am very glad I stuck with school and earned my University degree.  There were easy courses, hard courses, useless courses, and eye-opening, amazing courses.  There were ups and downs.  Sometimes I felt like quitting, other times I couldn’t imagine quitting.  Lifelong friendships were made (including my business partner Pierre), parties were rocked, and of course there were the ladies.  I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.  So James, if you’re reading this, go to school.  Clients come and go, web development will go on, but you’re only 19 once.  What do you think will be more memorable, some web site you built for a client when you were 19, or the new friends you made at Uni?  Besides, you can still keep up with web development during University.  Heck, I built a web hosting company in my second year.

I feel that there is a lot more support and general buzz in the web development community than when I started University.  Back then there weren’t many people (maybe Zeldman?) blogging about their web development as there is today.  I remember Web Monkey and WDVL, that’s about it.  So, with the web today and the amount of freelance work out there, I can understand how it can be even more attractive now than ever to jump into a web development career right out of high school.  But I think it’s important to remember, Napster and Facebook were both started by University students.  Sure, they dropped out after hitting it big, but would they ever have developed their masterpieces if they hadn’t gone to University?  Probably not.