You're not a web developer if you don't know JavaScript

Mario Casciaro

July 01st, 2015

Mario Casciaro is a software engineer and technical lead with a passion for open source. After the recent publication of his successful book Node.JS Design Patterns, we caught up with him to discuss his views on today’s most important web development skills, and what the future holds.

The best tool for the job may not be in your skillset yet

I remember working on a small side project, something I try to do as much as possible, to put new skills into practice and try things outside of my job. It was a web application, something very similar to a social network, and I remember choosing Java with the Spring Framework as the main technology stack, and Backbone on the front-end. At the time - around 4 years ago - I was an expert Java developer, and considered it the technology with the most potential. It worked perfectly to implement enterprise web applications as well as mission-critical distributed applications and even mobile apps. While Java is still a popular and valuable tool in 2015, my experience doing this small side project made me rethink my opinion – I wouldn’t use it today unless there was a particular need for it.

I remember that at some point I realized I was spending a lot of my development time in designing the object-oriented structure of the application and writing boilerplate code. Trying to find a solution, I migrated the project to Groovy and Grails and on the front-end I tried to implement a small homemade two-way binding framework. Things improved a little, but I was still feeling the need for something more agile on both ends, something more suited to the web.

The web moves fast, so always let your skills evolve

I wanted to try something radically different than the typical PHP, Ruby on Rails or Python for the server or JQuery or Backbone for the client. Fortunately I discovered Node.js and Angular.js, and that changed everything. By using Node I noticed that my mindset shifted from “how to do things” to “just get things done”. On the other hand, Angular revolutionized my approach to front end development, allowing me to drastically cut the amount of boilerplate code I was using. But most importantly, I realized that JavaScript and its ecosystem was becoming a seriously big thing.

Today I would not even consider building a web application without having JavaScript as my primary player. The amount of packages on npm is staggering - a clear indication that the web has shifted towards JavaScript.

The most impressive part of this story is that I also realized the importance that these new skills had in defining my career; if I wanted to build web applications, JavaScript and its amazing ecosystem had to be the focus of my learning efforts. This led me to find a job where Node, Angular and other cutting-edge JavaScript technologies actually played a crucial role in the success of the project I was in charge of creating.

But the culmination of my renewed interest in JavaScript is the book I published 6 months ago - Node.jsDesignPatterns - which contains the best of the experience I accumulated since I devoted myself to the full-stack JavaScript mantra.

The technologies and the skills that matter today for a web developer

Today, if I had to give advice to someone approaching web development for the first time I would definitely recommend starting with JavaScript. I wouldn’t have said that 5-6 years ago, but today it’s the only language that allows you to get started both on the back end and the front end. Moreover JavaScript, in combination with other web technologies such as HTML and CSS, gives you access to an even broader set of applications with the help of projects like nw.js and ApacheCordova.

PHP, Ruby, and Python are still very popular languages for developing the server-side of a web application, but for someone that already knows JavaScript, Node.js would be a natural choice. Not only does it save you the time it takes to learn a new language, it also offers a level of integration with the front end that is impossible with other platforms. I’m talking, of course, about sharing code between the server and the client and even implementing isomorphic applications which can run on both Node.js and the browser. React is probably the framework that offers the most interesting features in the area of isomorphic application development and definitely something worth digging into more, and it’s likely that we’ll also see a lot more from PouchDB, an isomorphic JavaScript database that will help developers build offline-enabled or even offline-first web applications more easily than ever before.

Always stay ahead of the curve

Today, as 4 years ago, the technologies that will play an important role in the web of tomorrow are already making an impact.

WebRTC, for example, enables the creation of real-time peer-to-peer applications in the browser, without the need for any additional plugin. Developers are already using it to build fast and lightweight audio/video conferencing applications or even complete BitTorrent clients in the browser!

Another revolutionizing technology is going to be ServiceWorkers which should dramatically improve the capabilities of offline applications. On the front end, WebComponents are going to play a huge role, and the Polymer project has already demonstrated what this new set of standards will be able to create.

With regards to JavaScript itself, web developers will have to become familiar with the ES6 standard sooner than expected, as cross-compilation tools such as Babel are already allowing us to use ES6 on almost any platform. But we should also keep an eye on ES7 as it will contain very useful features to simplify asynchronous programming.

Finally, as the browser becomes the runtime environment of the future, the recently revealed WebAssembly promises to give the web its own “bytecode”, allowing you to load code written in other languages from JavaScript, When WebAssembly becomes widely available, it will be common to see a complex 3D video game or a full-featured video editing tool running in the browser. JavaScript will probably remain the mainstream language for the web, but it will be complemented by the new possibilities introduced by WebAssembly.

If you want to explore the JavaScript ecosystem in detail start with our dedicated JavaScript page. You'll find our latest and most popular, along with free tutorials and insights.

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