It’s even nerdier than it sounds.

Back in the mid 2000s, I spent a good deal of my free time learning to code PHP in my school’s library while most of my classmates were out partying.

I attended the University of Central Florida, and like many college campuses, there were paper flyer bulletin boards everywhere. I was building a web app that could consolidate these campus-wide boards into a searchable, sortable, and environmentally friendly medium. After spending about eight months perfecting my web app, I launched the site and promoted it as best I could. About two weeks later, Facebook Marketplace debuted, and I quickly realized that there wasn’t much point in continuing.

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The bright side of the story is that my web app landed me my first “real” job writing code professionally. (I was doing freelance work previously.) I was able to showcase my design work and my PHP code, and that was enough to get me hired.

Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like had I not worked so hard learning on my own. It was a big turning point.

Most employers in the web industry care about demonstrable skills above all else (including Treehouse). They’re not interested in college degrees or boring resumes. Rather, they want to know what job candidates can do right now. Building experience and creating a portfolio of work can be difficult, but it’s much easier if you know where to look. The path I took is just one of many.

Photograph of the 3rd floor of the UCF library.
Here’s part of the UCF library, where I taught myself PHP and used that knowledge to ultimately land work. (Photo by Flickr user cybrgrl)

Contact a Local Organization or a New Business

There’s no shortage of demand for web design skills, even for beginners. Every business and organization has a need for a website, from the world’s most valuable companies to local volunteer groups. Smart business people and organizers know that a great website could be the difference between swift failure or wild success. Many of these organizations are just getting started, so even though they might understand the critical importance of creating a web presence, they might not have the money, time, or skill to make it happen.

That’s where you come in. If they don’t have a website or their existing site doesn’t look very good, contact them and offer your skills. When you talk to them, be tactful. The people you’re contacting might take a lot of pride in their current website, so try asking if they’re looking for web design help without offering any critique. Explain to them you’re trying to build your portfolio. If they don’t accept, you’ve at least introduced yourself. Networking could potentially lead to a gig later on.

You may also consider charging a small fee, even if you’ve earned money for your work before. This will help you gain experience negotiating and creating a freelance contract. A little cash can also keep you motivated when frustration hits. Some small businesses may choose to barter and spread goodwill, especially if they’re new. Sometimes this is annoying, but if you’re still gathering experience, trading might be a nice bonus for your time. For example, I was once offered weekly beer deliveries in exchange for ongoing site maintenance. Now that I think about it, I probably should have taken the deal.

Photograph of a dog poking its nose through a chain linked fence.
Building a website for an animal shelter or foster organization could raise awareness and ultimately improve the lives of many animals. (Photo by Flickr user Dave Parker)

If you’re having trouble thinking of an organization to contact, here are a few more ideas:

  • Farmer’s markets
  • Local clubs and meetup groups
  • Volunteer organizations
  • Independent artists and musicians
  • Church community groups

Gain Experience by Building a Web App

Nearly a decade ago, I first learned how to write PHP because I had an idea. Things didn’t go the way I planned, but it was a great experience. Learning with a goal in mind helped me focus on the right things. It was also a powerful motivator because my desire to complete my vision helped me push through frustrating bugs and problems.

The experience was valuable because I had a complete piece of work that could demonstrate my abilities to potential employers. When I went to interviews, I brought my code with me in case they asked for a sample of my work.

Building an entire web app by myself also helped me gain a better perspective of how the disparate components of a website work together. This was valuable experience to draw upon once I was working inside an organization with other team members because it made it easier for me to interact with specialized job roles. I’ve designed and developed several more small applications since and it’s always a helpful experience.

Create a Personal Website

If you don’t feel confident enough to contact a local business or build a web app, build a personal website first. Whether you want to be a designer or a developer, you’ll need a portfolio of work. In fact, this is exactly what I teach in the Treehouse course How to Make a Website.

Screenshot of
This is the simple portfolio project in the Treehouse course How to Make a Website.

If you don’t have anything to put in your portfolio yet, you can omit the portfolio portion of the site or fill it with related content. For example, maybe you’ve done graphic design work and you’re making the switch to web design. Alternatively, you could save the portfolio site for another time and just create a personal site to showcase a hobby or talent that you enjoy, such as photography or baking. This is a fun way to get started because the focus is on you and your own personal expression.

Going Further

There are plenty of ways to get experience in the web industry, and these are just a few. If you have anything to contribute or any questions you’d like to ask, let me know in the comments!