How to Make More Money as a Web Developer | Digital Masters

Episode #42

How to Make More Money as a Web Developer

web developer and digital marketing expert Marisa VanSkiver

I’m going to be totally honest with you. I had another topic planned for this week, but a recent discussion in one of my Women in Web Development groups got me thinking.

This episode is definitely geared more for the web developers, but it’s certainly applicable to anyone who’s building websites.

There’s a trend in our job market right now to stick to what’s on our “responsibilities” list. With web developers, that means we think we code and we only code.

We get told to specialize and not learn too much because we can’t be a jack of all trades or we’ll be a master of none.

You know what, that’s kind of bullshit.

There’s a lot to be said for specializing and this all depends on the career path you really want for yourself. However, in today’s episode, I’m going to get a bit personal and talk about my own dev journey and how my non-conventional approach has not only positively impacted my career and earning potential, but how it’s made me a better web developer.

We’re about to get a little personal and I’ve got some tangents to follow but I swear it’s worth it. You ready?

My Coding Journey – in a Nutshell

If you follow me on social media or have listened to every episode of this podcast, you may already know that I was 13 when I started coding. Picture it – it was 2000, Geocities was sweeping the nerd world with free, “easy to build” websites, and I was in eighth grade. Thanks to my software programmer older brother, my family had long had the internet and decent home computers.

It was actually watching my older brother work as a teenage coder that got me interested in coding to begin with. He was working a full-time job with real adults right out of high school (and getting paid well). He was able to work from home and seemed to love what he did.

So as any other normal eighth grader might do, I assigned myself homework and began learning.

The actual details of how I got started are a little fuzzy (I mean, it was a few years ago…), but I remember building practice websites on Geocities with their archaic drag and drop builder. The cool thing about their builder was that, much like Classic WordPress, you could toggle between the visual drag and drop side and see the code side. I was basically able to reverse engineer what I was doing.

I spent months absorbing myself in articles about CSS, HTML, and learning how to code in tables to get the right layouts (if you’ve been coding longer than 5 years, well, you might just remember coding in tables.)

Getting Paid to Code

Even though I’ve always been an A student, I am definitely guilty of picking a couple classes throughout my high school career that would be considered, um, easy A’s. I did just that by taking the only coding classes that my high school had on offer in 2004. The problem? It was all basic HTML and CSS and I already knew that. I did two quarters worth of work in the first 3 weeks and then basically did my own thing or acted as a Teacher’s Aid.

It was that teacher who recommended me to my first real freelance client. A couple of local women were helping other women-owned businesses find Government grants. Do I remember much about that project? Not really. But I built them a simple website for I want to say $500. For a senior in high school in 2005, that was great money!

In that same timeframe, I built my high school marching band’s first website and the first website for my district’s education foundation (one of those was voluntary, the other I got paid for).

The same teacher that put me up for the freelance gig also recommended me to my first full-time job. A local computer repair company was looking for a full time webmaster (this was 2005; everyone needed someone who could actually code because WordPress and SquareSpace weren’t really options yet).

I had just graduated high school, I was getting ready to go out of state to college, but this local company took a shot on an 18 year old female coder. At 18, it was my dream job. I shared an office with the accountant, I got to make website updates all day and spend my time helping to build up the website, and it was an actual adult job.

I went off to school the following fall. Even though I was 1,000 miles away, my boss allowed me to work part-time remotely (a huge deal back then). I was able to get the tasks done that they needed, work from my apartment whenever I felt like it, and earn money for school.

The First Time I Was Asked to Do Marketing

Let’s talk about the first time I was asked to do a marketing-related task. It was the winter break and the summer after my first semester though that my boss started to lean on me to help with marketing tasks.

You see, he didn’t just want me to make the website updates they were requesting. He wanted me to suggest changes to the website, build new components, and even help out with the marketing.

I could have easily told my boss that I was an 18 year-old college Freshman (studying English of all things) and that he should probably not ask me to do that.

But I’ve never looked at challenges that way. I’ve always loved learning and I’ve also always hated admitting that I didn’t know something. Let’s be real – it’s my desire to be a know it all that really started me on my marketing journey.

Instead of telling him no or telling him that “wasn’t my job,” I dove right in.

And I discovered something I loved more than I would even understand.

My Educational Background

My educational background for what I do as a full-time web developer is, well, weird. Long before I got my first coding job, I loved reading. I was constantly somewhere in my parents’ house with my nose in a book. At 10, I was reading adult-level books because kids’ books were, and I quote myself, “boring.”

When deciding on my five year plan in high school and what I wanted to major in, English seemed like the best solution. I think my original intention was always to be a writer, but an English degree was pretty versatile and would allow me to either continue on to be a teacher or just get to be a better writer.

While I was working on my Bachelor’s degree, I went on a study abroad to Scotland. It was on this sort of spontaneous study abroad that I fell in love with Scottish Literature. After my study abroad, I spent the last two years of my Bachelor’s degree focusing in on Scottish Lit and planning to attend grad school in Scotland.

Which I totally did. I ended up getting my Master’s in Modern Scottish Writing from the University of Stirling in Scotland. I loved living in Stirling, I loved learning about story from a totally different perspective, and I got to delve deep into something I loved.

Working as a Female Dev as an English Major

After my freshman year, I switched from the local computer company to working on campus. When I interviewed, I had PHP experience at this point, but I’d only worked with Visual Basic, not the .Net C# they were requiring. My boss though loved my experience and the fact I was self-taught and figured I could learn on the job.

I started in my sophomore year and worked up until I graduated. The thing was, I was working in an office full of male computer science majors. Did they look at this female coder who was an English major a little weirdly? Sure, at first. But thankfully I was quickly accepted and it was never an issue.

My roommates always thought it was weird that I spent my study time examining the written word and my work time writing code, but it made complete sense to me.

Want to know the cool thing? I was the only coder in the room who had full website building experience, could write English well, and had any design experience. When custom projects came up for full websites, I was the one tasked with it.

Stage one of my unique experience helping me to differentiate myself and get unique projects.

My Non-Code Career

Still with me? You can probably guess that as someone who puts a lot of time and money into two Literature degrees and had spent 5 or 6 years coding – both as an employee and as a freelancer – that I was a bit burned out on coding. I wanted to use my degrees to some extent, but after I graduated from my Master’s program, my only work experience was in Marketing related jobs.

So I went to work for a local business as their in-house Reputation Manager. It was 2011, online reviews and SEO were all the rage, and this was an eCommerce company. I spent my days writing website copy, responding to and encouraging reviews, writing SEO copy and blog posts, doing PR related writing, and of course, managing our social media. Facebook Business Pages were still relatively new and Pinterest had just launched their beta services.

I tried not to tell my boss I ever coded, but of course it was all over my resume so I’m not sure why I thought that would be a secret. Our site was built in Magento, so I did some minor updates, but mostly I just managed our outsourced web developers to get the changes we wanted.

More Content Writing

In 2012, I moved back to Scotland. I now had about a year of writing and digital marketing experience on my resume, so I started looking for more of the same. I worked as a freelance ghost copywriter for a few online publications and managed Google ads and other digital marketing strategies for a local eco cleaning company in Edinburgh.

At the time, finding full time work was imperative though and I knew what I had to do to make better money. Go back to coding.

Learning Digital Accessibility

I applied and got hired more or less in the interview for a web developer role at the agency that handled all of the publications for the Scottish Government.

Sure, a lot of my job entailed glorified HTML data entry, but it was also highly focused on creating fully-accessible HTML.

I’ve talked about that a little bit on here in episode 30, so head back to that episode if you want the longer version, but it was at this job that I really began to learn web accessibility best practices. Because I understood SEO, especially on-page SEO, I also started to see how all of that really played together.

Mostly though, it turned me into a web developer that cared about all of my audience, not just those with the same abilities as me. It also gave me a skillset that I could monetize easily.

Applying it All as a Web Developer & Agency Owner

I moved back to the States in 2014 and got hired on as a full time web developer at a local agency. I remember telling my boss at the time that I would take his low ball offer, but I’d soon prove to him why I was worth way more than that.

And I did, quickly.

In Scotland, I’d learned not only web accessibility and pieced together how that benefited SEO, but I’d also learned responsive web design.

I was able to save a client who wanted their money back because their site wasn’t responsive by converting it post-launch.

I then taught the other web developers and even the designers about responsive web design and we completely switched the processes the company followed.

I worked with the copywriters on staff to name images, properly tag them, and implemented other accessibility best practices to improve our reach and on-page SEO. I could also fill in a gap on a website without turning it back to them and having to slow down production.

And I got two raises over the course of 4 months that gave me a 70% increase in salary and put in charge of the web development team as a whole.

Building Marketing Websites as an Agency Owner

I worked at that agency for a couple of years, but I always knew that I wanted to be in control of my own schedule, and honestly, my own stress levels. Tell you what, your clients can be stress-inducing but nothing makes it easier to handle than being your own boss and being in charge of your schedule.

I left the agency to form my own with a partner. After a couple rough months, we started quickly landing contract after contract for websites. And other digital marketing services.

I was able to keep our costs low because I had experience writing copy for the web, could custom code the WordPress websites myself faster than a template or a premium theme would even allow, and I could set the digital marketing strategy.

When I decided to go out totally on my own in 2020, I wasn’t even worried because I’d been doing this for so long. I’d spent literally 15 or 16 years studying websites from all aspects.

Marketing Skills Only Help You

That’s really the key to all of this.

Yes, my “outside of the box” skills as a web developer (web accessibility, on-page SEO, copywriting, social media marketing, digital marketing), have always gotten me rewarded with more work. But they’ve also allowed to me to command a higher salary.

As a single-person agency, I am able to outsource less and do most of the work myself, allowing for higher profits.

My nearly twenty years of experience in a variety of avenues also allows me to command more than a traditional web developer or web designer might be able to. In fact, my hourly rate, as a single person, is pretty close to what a lot of the local agencies charge hourly.

If you walk away with nothing else after this episode today, let it be this: learning more about how websites and digital marketing all work together can only help your career.

You may spend 95% of your days coding or designing websites, but if you want to build websites that actually get results, you have to understand how that all works.

If you want to make more even at an agency, having skills outside of web development can actually help you command more money. You’re not just a code monkey – you can think for yourself, take initiative, and do more than just “what you’re told.”

I’m not even sure my past bosses know how much time and money I saved them over the years with my knowledge and skills. I was terrible at asking for raises and communicating everything I was doing, to be honest.

Next time a boss comes to you with a task that isn’t a coding task, ask yourself – if I say yes to this, will I learn something valuable?

Specializing is great, but getting even just a basic understanding of the pieces that lead into your own job and unique expertise can only help you.

(Shoot, I didn’t even talk about how I know also teach Digital Marketing at Wichita State because of my 20 years of unique experience.)

And if you want to learn more digital marketing that can help you as someone who builds websites, well, make sure to subscribe to this podcast on your favorite app. Every topic I cover is literally something that’s helped me either in past jobs or as a freelancer and agency owner.

Who’s ready to learn?

Join the Conversation!