Can someone who doesn't code still be considered a developer?


I am not a web developer, but I came to this website because I desperately want an honest answer from a community of developers for my question about a couple of web developers my company hired.

I am a graphic designer working for a small graphic design studio. I know a little bit about HTML and CSS, but not enough to build a website from a blank slate or anything like that. Our studio doesn't do web design. We are a group of print-design specialists. We've always used Squarespace to have our portfolio website, but we didn't know what we were doing, the site was super-slow, and we decided we were better off hiring a professional web developer to have something better.

So, we hired the first guy. He said he could build a full-custom website from scratch with a photo gallery to showcase our past design work beautifully. We paid him $1,000 for it. He did his job, and we were okay with it until my friend mentioned that he'd seen something similar to our website elsewhere. It turned out that he stole the website template they were using for their website and tweaked just a few elements. He didn't do any meaningful "development" at all.

We decided to re-do it again, and we hired another guy. He insisted that we should build our site on WordPress. We paid him around $2,500 to do the work. Again, it looked nice with all the bells and whistles front and back, but it was s.l.o.w. He kept telling us that it was just how things were with a full-featured website nowadays. This time, we dug a little deeper on the technical side of things. To our shock, we found out that this guy used a $50 off-the-shelf premium theme, removed all the branding stuff to hide where it originally came from and made it look like he built it from scratch.

We confronted both of them on separate occasions. They both insisted that it was standard practice. They said it was common for a developer to start with some pre-made stuff to avoid reinventing the wheel much like automobile companies outsource their manufacturing. Quite honestly, we aren't buying it. They are ultimately saying that "custom website" is a matter of tweaking some templates, and they could call themselves a "developer" doing that. How is that different from us doing Squarespace then?? We could've done what these guys did if we knew it was how these guys built their "custom sites." We can't help feeling ripped off.

So, with all that considered, my question is this. Is it normal in your field to regard someone as a "developer" or a "programmer" even if all you do is to tweak a few things and not build something from scratch? How do you qualify someone as "developer" in your field? Maybe our expectation is not reasonable and maybe it is just the way things are when it comes to website constructions? Or, are we getting ripped off?

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6 answers

My opinion on this is going to upset some folks.

I would say in both cases you encountered the typical sleazy dishonest fly-by-night dirtbags who specialize in ripping people off. If they had to it is highly likely they would be able to create anything fresh out of the box for the simple fact they don't know how.

The majority of con men out there calling themselves developers do this, so yes they were 100% right when they said it is pretty much standard practice... and that's a massive problem in this industry right now!

Site owners are slowly starting to wise up to this, but in general because the normal person doesn't know anything about HTML, CSS, JavaScript, accessibility, emissive colourspace, or any other aspect of building a site properly, it becomes ridiculously easy for these two-bit scammers to saddle people up and take them for a ride.

This situation is often only exacerbated by the fact most of these off the shelf templates they start with are themselves poorly coded and developed, and in fact could be telling large swaths of your potential visitors to go such an egg. As these jokers themselves slapping together and modifying these templates rarely have the proper knowledge of the underlying languages, they're unqualified to even know if what they are handing you is garbage or not.

... which is why I have told more than a few clients the past five or six years to sue for damages. Particularly if they did something like use an off the shelf template and didn't tell you that's what they were doing.

It's one thing to tell you they're buying off the rack, it's something different entirely when they do so and then have the nerve to call it bespoke... since then it's not even tailored. For all intents and purposes such "developers" little more than glorified alterations ladies.

You work with print graphics? Great, you'll know exactly what you got then; you didn't get artists or an artisans, you got plagiaristic tracers. The guys who brag about what great artists they are when everything they've ever done has been paint-overs of magazine cover photographs.

... and whilst yes, that is pretty much industry standard, that doesn't make it right. It just means they're part of the sleazy fly-by-night scam artists who have destroyed any sort of ethics, morality, or decency in the industry.

It's something I'm always saying, always pointing out, and always fighting against no matter how many people that might upset for the simple fact that it is dishonest, two-faced, and nothing more than outright con-artistry.

Simply put, anyone telling you to use Wordpress for business doesn't know enough about websites to be making them for businesses. Anyone who uses off the shelf frameworks or templates and has the brass to claim that it's a custom solution is bald faced lying. The people using these broken, nonsensical practices on the whole basically are nothing more than predators, taking advantage of your ignorance so they can charge you several thousands for work that I would feel guilty charging $50 for.

Just be thankful you're not working in healthcare, banking, public utilities, or government agencies where the typical results of these sleazy shortcuts can land you in court with four to six digit fines per DAY. Because the folks who slop together these ready-built answers don't know the first blasted thing about the underlying technologies they most often result in sites with major accessibility violations, which in certain industries and types of sites can run afoul of contractual obligations, or laws such as the US' ADA or UK's EQA.

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Jason Knight, have you read the responses from the other guys in this thread? I find it hard to believe that anyone would think this supposed common practice is excusable somehow. And no, I don't know much about HTML coding stuff, but I know enough to put together a straightforward page with some headers, paragraphs, links, and images if nothing more. And I can tell that the second block of code is FAR simpler than the first one. I will pick that one any days of the week if it does the same thing the first one does!

I appreciate all the responses and insights I got from everyone in this thread, but I find yours the most honest, no-nonsense, and the most likely explanation of the guys we hired (and fired, I might add). After reading through these comments, I am quickly leaning toward learning this stuff myself, at least just enough to build what I want (a simple portfolio site) so I won't have to ask another one of those guys to do it. I find it ridiculous that people charge a premium price for just tweaking mostly-pre-made stuff and calling it "custom job" and, somehow, I need to understand it. It's like saying my boyfriend hits me and somehow I need to understand where he is coming from, his anger issues and work with him. If that's how most people in this field think, I might as well skip paying them and learn to do that myself instead.

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I agree with Jason Knight wholeheartedly. I have a few comments to add involving the non-technical stuff.

In my opinion, this should all be part of the contract. When you create a contract for work with someone, specify exactly what you are looking for! The more specific the better. This does a few things:

  1. If the potential "developer" is planning on doing something like this, they likely will either speak up, try to convince you to change the contract, or just not take the job. Essentially, you would avoid this problem up-front.
  2. If they sign the contract which says (essentially) "You cannot rebrand or use a template," then, they can't do it and if they do, you can now sue them for your money back because they signed a contract saying they couldn't do that.

That's how I would handle it - everything else is subjective and water over the dam... Also, this is probably the only way you could win a lawsuit successfully because as you noticed "developer" is not a protected term meaning that there is no special license or credentials someone needs to call themselves that, unlike a Doctor or Attorney which require special credentials. So instead of relying on the title, rely on the specifics of the job which are clearly spelled out in the contract. Otherwise, get a recommendation from an acclaimed developer so you know you aren't dealing with a dirtbag.

The problem is now that no matter what we say - if you sue one one these guys, their defense will be "Well, I did it to the best of my abilities, I have 50 other happy customers, and this is standard practice." That's a pretty good defense when there's no contractual obligation otherwise.

In my opinion, this should all be part of the contract.

I heartily endorse this comment. I don't do JACK until I have a contract in hand, and if the client is domestic to the US I expect it to be signed and notarized so that it is as legally binding as possible.

For those of you not familiar with them, a "Notary Public" is basically a licensed witness for legal documents. Many companies keep one on staff or on retainer for just such instances. An oath, document, paperwork, or agreement witnessed by a Notary is legally binding in the US.

Such a contract would clearly state the expectations, responsibilities, and duties of BOTH parties. I will not take on a client who won't send me back a contract signed and notarized anymore for any country where notaries are part of the law.

... and I distrust anyone who doesn't operate that same way. Far too many websites are built with even less legal standing (and commensurate protections) than a handshake offers.

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Hanah Steven,

Unfortunately, I think it is relatively common for people who can work only by tweaking existing templates and frameworks to call themselves a "developer." Your post reminds me of this article:

The author discusses the exact problem you bring up in your question. I tend to agree with him, and I'm also sure that Jason Knight can say a lot about what he thinks of the article. ;)

In any case, I think the people you hired cut a lot of corners and overcharged you for their work. It's a red flag when I hear stuff like someone using an off-the-shelf premium theme for a WordPress project that's supposed to be a "full-custom" job. I wouldn't pay any more than $30 for someone to customize it for me if I were in your situation and that's what you want. (= Hire someone to customize for you so you won't need to mess with it yourself.) But then, I wouldn't even use such shortcut myself. WordPress premium themes are bad news in my past experiences using them.

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The question if they are developers is irrelevant. One could argue that everyone who can make any code language print your name on the screen is a developer.

This has everything to do with expectations and agreements.

For some people/businesses, a $50 Wordpress template is more than enough (apart from the fact that it's slow in your and most cases) to make them perfectly happy. It can and does everything they want. If the expectations meet the clearly stated list of what-do-you-get-for-this-money, 'Saul Goodman ;-) I've done these sites in the past. These clients had zero money, wanted something yesterday and had a lot of demands regarding editing the whole thing themselves. We made it very clear where the road we would then take would bring them. In the end, we could always say "we warned you". In most cases, these sites ran for years ;-)

It IS in fact very common to start with code that has already been written. That's the whole business of frameworks and libraries. Even if you start from scratch, at some point most dev's use jQuery, Vue or whathaveyou. Or they might have based their "naked" app on Laravel, CodeIgniter or Wordpress. Even tailormade applications commonly use frameworks done by others. That's why they exist!

That being said, there's a border there and that is stealing (or reusing a template bought buy someone else). If that's the case with guy 1 you should have immediately asked your money back.

Both guys should have clearly informed you about their practices. But it's always a two way street. You could have asked one more guy and a small shop for the same. So you had an idea. So you could compare. I would never ever hire the first guy to build my house without asking two more for the same thing and confront them about the differences. So why would you ever do that for anything?

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And, to end this positively, there's also a huge lot of coders helping other coders and non-coders, by sharing their knowledge and software analogously, and digitaly through platforms such as Hashnode, Github, StackExchange, etc.

Encounters with con artists should only strenghten us by making us more resilient and more knowledged for future endevours. And as long as they exist, let's just use them back for that.

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Yes, they can themselves developers but... they weren't honest with you and you actually got ripped off. They should've explained you the different offers or the technologies to use. Specially if you were paying some kind of lotta money. May be they weren't programmers and that was all they knew, who knows. But you expected something else and you should have demanded that based on your first experience. Custom websites is not a matter of tweaking templates, sure if you are a programer you can get some help. But if your customer ask you for custom down from the botton to the top you have to do it, and of course charge what's due. A programmer is not a simple tweaker because he knows how to build what is tweaking and why whe he does. But a developer may be just a tweaker of CMS's and templates. Wordpress was supposed to be easy for the end user, but there are people that just don't have the time, and maybe want their wordpress with extra features and there are profesionals in wordpress who know hoe to programm those features. But that's not to say that every person is a profesional. So you qualify him by his knowledge and his reaching, what is capable of doing. programmer does not equal developer. May be a good developer or one of the bunch that are beginning into the world of programming. Nop, changing images in a template does not make you a developer. Being able to put things together, set up serves and services, mixing the righ libriries and using them, may be, but you are limited to what exist. Same apply to programmers, there are bad, good and excelent programmers and their tool are logic, rmembering resourses, inside lenguage functions, the range of lenguages they know, how well they know each lenguage and how well they know how to apply them to solve problems or even knowing what question to ask to solve those problems.

jose manuel iriarte alarcon, Thank you for your insights. I agree, merely switching out images and texts in a pre-made template shouldn't be considered "development." Sure, we sometimes use some professional stock illustration materials to jump-start on a project, but we still spend ours building a new illustration (logo, etc.) out of that in Illustrator, using various techniques. The final product never resembles the original material in that case. I expected the same with the website project, but, after a series of discussions in this thread, I realize now that I was utterly mistaken.

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