Do you ever wonder if the proliferation of ready-made site builders like Wix, Squarespace, and Wordpress hurt the web development job market?
Maybe you are learning web development and wonder if there's even a point to it all when template builders are so easy to do and already have services integrated.
I had the same doubts last year when I quit my job to start a freelance practice. "Why would someone pay me enough to replace my six-figure salary? Some of the most trafficked sites online run on Wordpress!"
This post will convince you that website builders are no replacement for the services of an experienced web developer. You may even be tempted to give the next Squarespace site you come across a dainty little pat on the back.
Automation in Other Professions
Web development is a young field compared to the likes of engineering, law, and architecture. And we are not alone when it comes to automation and industrialization.
Take architecture as an example. We have prefabricated and modular homes that ship completed, a far cry from those videos of Amish communities working together to pull up a barn frame.
As far back as a hundred years ago, the Sears Catalog gave Americans all over the country the opportunity to order pre-cut building materials directly shipped by rail and built themselves. Think Blue Apron, but for houses.
Given these facts, you may think the number of architects has declined over the years, but according to NCARB (National Council of Architectural Registration Boards), the number of US architects is still on the rise.
The architects today simply moved to more specialized fields of architecture, similar to how Front-End devs now manage WebPack configs instead of installing jQuery. A similar pattern exists in other professional fields, oftentimes automation leads to specialization and does not cause overall employment to decrease.
In fact, the creation of these new-fangled tools may be an arrow in your quiver (instead of in your torso).
Better Tooling is Your Friend
Excel and other spreadsheet programs are now synonymous with accounting and financial reporting. This wasn't always the case. Once upon a time, accountants used pages of premarked papers to keep a business's ledger. Imagine doing the books of a company as large as Apple or Google with pencil and paper!
We see a similar shift currently in individual tax returns, as more people move from small accounting practices to automated software. However, the number of accounting jobs has not decreased. In fact, it is projected to increase by 96,000 in the US over this decade.
While these tools did not replace accountants at all, they did increase their daily productivity by leaps and bounds.
Hours an accountant once spent writing on a paper ledge and double-checking figures by hand in the 40s and 50s are done in milliseconds via spreadsheet formulas and OCR software. Individual tax accountants now spend more time working on interesting tax situations like multi-national income and new-fangled asset classes.
Similarly, web developers can use these automated site builders to flesh out 90% of the grunt work in creating a new site and fine-tune the most crucial 10% by hand.
Wouldn't you rather spend time architecting a web app's accessibility style guide than churning out raw HTML like a typist? I know I do.
Expanding Consumer Base
All these architecture and accounting examples are all too elitist, let's visit a somewhat more blue-collar field.
The number of automotive mechanics in the United States increased exponentially throughout the 20th century. Why is that? Surely you would answer it's because the number of cars in the country increased even more greatly during the same time period.
Not only did the total number of cars on the road increase, but cars have also gotten significantly more reliable over the past century as well. But this did not cause a flood of unemployed car mechanics.
Similarly, what site builders have done is given every man, woman, and child who wants one a Ford Model T. And just like the mechanics, there will only be more demand for front-end developers.
There's a paradox named for this effect: the Jevon's paradox. The paradox states that technological advances that reduce resource consumption will increase the overall consumption of that resource. This is in part because consumers will find more uses as the cost is lowered.
Urban planning issues aside, can you imagine living in modern suburbia with only a Model T?
As site builders' usage increases, a proportional amount of edge cases will also arise, most of these edge cases will require customization before they are eventually absorbed and become the new baseline. A restaurant that does not have a website will not pay a web dev to add a QR menu or tip with Paypal.
You Can't Put a Price on Taste
Speaking of restaurants, I'm a pretty good home cook. I can make everything from stovetop pizza to duck a l'orange.
You may think that because of this, I am an infrequent visitor to restaurants.
In my experience, the exact opposite is true.
I observe a direct relationship between a person's cooking capability and the frequency of their restaurant visits. It is the foodies that visit restaurants weekly and the person who cannot julienne a carrot also never visits the hot new bistro. Is this a paradox?
The same phenomenon occurs in web development. The Wix, Squarespace, and Wordpress of the world not only democratize the web, but they also develop a sense of taste in their users.
Which is easier, convince a business without any online presence they need to spend thousands on web performance improvements, or one that already has traffic and received performance complaints?
Trust the Plumber
These days we can find step-by-step instructions on how to do almost every household project online, so why do we still pay for plumbers? I recently learned this lesson the hard way when I did some household plumbing work and made a mess of things.
Truth is, the professional service we provide isn't limited to the task itself.
Like every other service professional, our work comes with it a degree of quality guarantee and peace of mind.
When a site I built run into an issue, I will make it my highest priority of the day to get that issue resolved. The same cannot be said for the customer service specialist for one of the page builders, even if they reply within the same business day.
Who's more likely to hire you, a business owner who does not have a site or one that installed a buggy plugin and is bleeding customers?
While the page/store builders will not replace all web development work, they will replace the routine and the low-skill ceiling work. Just like with every other profession I listed.
So next time you hear an ad for one of the massive page builder companies, interpret it as a sign that they are paying for additional demand for your work. Cross their latest features off your list of selling points, accept that it may already be commodified, and work on staying one step ahead of the game.
If you find this post helpful, you may also be interested in learning how to stay one step ahead of the competition by creating performant websites using the Navigation Timing API.