Web designOpinion

Does the world still need experts in CSS and HTML?

We asked a panel of web experts whether knowing all the ins and outs of CSS and HTML is enough to guarantee yourself a job any more.

Jeff Croft recently argued that being someone who knows all the browser quirks isn’t enough to get you a job now that browsers have matured. We ask: is 'HTML/CSS Guru' still a marketable skillset?

Paul Lloyd
Design, The Guardian

It's always easy to assume things are different to how they were previously. Yesterday's web developers had to wrestle with box-model hacks, image-replacement techniques and a thousand different ways to clear a float. Internet Explorer had become so dominant, that code was attuned to its various peculiarities.

As the old saying goes, "history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme". We're still futzing around with box-models, image replacement has given way to web fonts, animations, transforms, filters… and CSS3 layout modules are ten a penny. WebKit has become so dominant, that code is attuned to its various peculiarities.

Everything changes and nothing changes all at once. Specialise or generalise, how you develop your career is up to you. Flexible freelancer or CSS consultant, as Zeldman said, the best advice is always "follow the path you love".

Lea Verou
Front-end engineer / web designer

Knowing browser quirks was what mattered back then, because HTML and CSS were fairly small & simple on their own. However, as browsers matured, so did these technologies. CSS went from being a single W3C specification (CSS 2.1) to over 70 (!) specs. HTML also became more complex, although not as much. I believe that CSS is currently going through a revolution similar to the one JavaScript went through in the AJAX era (2004). From being considered a simple toy language that designers had to put up with, it's now starting to have its own conferences, its own tooling, its own books and its own developer ecosystem. CSS has become so big that there are currently very few people in the world that know all of it, if any. Even in the CSS WG, most members focus on specific areas of CSS and might know very little about other parts of it.

Not only do I think that CSS & HTML are still valuable on their own, but I think we will soon start seeing 'CSS developers', just like there are currently 'JavaScript developers'. However, even though I specialize in CSS, I've found that my knowledge/experience in related areas (from visual design to coding backends) has proven incredibly useful in a number of cases. So, while I don't think that someone needs to "diversify or die", knowing 'everything about something and something about everythingî is always a good goal.

Nicolas Gallagher
Software Engineer, Front-End at Twitter

Building and maintaining large web UI systems is still a difficult task that benefits from domain specialists. It's hard to find excellent UI developers familiar with the problem space. But having general knowledge and skills beyond HTML and CSS is necessary, because you're designing and working within a larger team and technology stack. I expect the situation to change more dramatically for HTML/CSS specialists once (encapsulated) Web Components are widely supported in browsers, and combined with design tools that output HTML/CSS for you.

Rachel Nabors
Interaction Developer and Founder at Tin Magpie

In interaction development, solid HTML and CSS skills are invaluable right now. There are all sorts of new HTML5 APIs to explore and CSS animations to create, and you need to have a broad knowledge of many techniques to pick the right combination for a project. The playing field may have stabilized for implementing copy-centric designs, but we are just getting started when it comes to interaction. There's a lot of slack to be picked up in the wake of Flash. Browser implementations differ, specs are half finished, and there are deeper questions about how we build interactions that have yet to be addressed. The people who will ultimately answer these questions will also need to be masters of the full range of frontend technologies including HTML and CSS.

Ben Callahan
President of Sparkbox

Very. It's true, the web standards movement and tools like preprocessors have all but replaced our need to write CSS hacks. Yes, our jobs are changing — HTML and CSS alone are no longer enough. But I challenge you to remember this, we are an industry made of "I can figure that out" people. Ask around and you'll see, most people making the web came to it from something else. It's this incredible diversity that gives me hope, we will adapt our skill-sets as quickly as the industry itself changes.

Andrew Clarke
Designer, author and host of Unfinished Business

Knowing how to write meaningful HTML and efficient CSS are skills that are going to be in demand for a long time to come. Browsers may have fewer differences between them, but those challenges have been replaced by needing to know how to implement designs for an almost infinite number of screen sizes.

Whether knowing HTML and CSS alone is enough is a different question. There are people who come to an "understanding of HTML and CSS plus a little JavaScript" from a technical background and others, myself included, who have come to them from design. Alongside knowledge of the aspects of code that help me do my job, I have knowledge of aspects of design that came with me to the web. So I may not know Backbone, but I'm a devil with a Bézier Curve.

Paul Annett
Senior Designer, Twitter

To land a job as 'webmaster' 15 years ago I needed only the ability to utter the words "I can do you a website". The barrier to entry was low and everybody was making it up as they went along, learning on the job.

These days it's much harder to get started, and knowing HTML & CSS is a basic expectation for many roles. They're still extremely valuable skills – you're less likely to get in the door without at least a basic understanding, even though the hype around web standards has subsided.

I still occasionally dabble in code, but it hasn't been part of my day-to-day workflow for some time. A solid understanding of how it all fits together is useful every day, but as I've moved into more senior roles in larger teams I've found myself working with specialists rather than generalists, and my own hands-on skills have adapted to reflect that.

This article originally appeared in net magazine issue 252.

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