The trouble with HTML and CSS skills

When talking to recruitment agents, I very often hear that having “just” HTML and CSS skills is no big deal as everyone is good at those. That’s probably because they hear and read so many times from web developers that they are really good at them. So, they think those skills are not very valuable.

But the truth is, while many developers say they have good HTML and CSS skills, most of them really haven’t. The problem is that the languages themselves are very easy (so, they might not be really lying as such). But applying them to real world projects isn’t easy at all. You could also say it’s the distinction between “CSS, the language” and “CSS, the skill”.
If it was easy, why is the quality of at least 90% of the web so crap? While working with other developers I have found that the vast majority (at least about 90%) of them are overestimating their HTML and CSS skills by far.

During the over 10 years of working in this business, I have worked with roughly 100 other web developers. And out of those only five were good enough in HTML and CSS so that I would rate them 4 or 5 (out of 5).

At a previous job we had a spreadsheet in which every developer would rate their own skills. Most backend developers had put 4 or 5 (out of 5) into the HTML and CSS columns. Then a project manager would see that and give them some template work. The following conversation would usually go like this:

Why did you give me frontend work? I’m a backend developer!
But you rated your HTML skills with 5!?
Yes, of course I’m good at HTML. It’s really simple. But that doesn’t mean that I can build templates!
But HTML and CSS skills are the ones which a frontend developer needs, right? You’re all good at that, so you can all build templates.
Nooo… You know what? I’ll re-rate my HTML and CSS skills to be 2 instead…

A few others would not re-rate themselves, do the template work and produce something really bad. Some of them wouldn’t even understand why it is bad, while others would know it but were not given the choice to say No.

That’s why I always add “maintainability”, “cross-browser compatibility”, “accessibility”, “interdisciplinary knowledge sharing”, etc to my list of skills. That makes it at least clearer that I know what other skills are necessary to be a good frontender.

Unfortunately I have no idea how recruiters (and also other less experienced developers) can distinguish between the developers who say they are good and the ones who really are. I wish there was some kind of official certificate, but there isn’t. Some tests are obviously quite good for that, but not an option for recruiters.

It is really frustrating to see most recruiters think they are common skills, while I know from a lot of experience that in reality they are rare skills. That’s why they will usually not be able to place me in a fitting job, because they don’t understand my skills at all. Fortunately I often get very different responses when I talk to employers directly, though.

Another response which is so different between recruiters and direct employers: Having worked in OpenSource projects is an immediate green flag for employers, as that indicates that the developer is passionate about the job, knows how to collaborate and you can even check out how they work. But for most recruitment agents, it is completely irrelevant. It’s a free source of evidence of a developer’s skills and they don’t care.
Some agents are even so ignorant, they deleted the reference to my OpenSource work from my CV! Whereas for some employers it is (understandably) the main reason why they get me in for an interview…

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2 Responses to “The trouble with HTML and CSS skills”

  1. seb says:

    I have similar thoughts when it comes to foreign languages.

    E.g. in Germany many write fluent English into their CV. This often refers to their school English. Someone with multiple years English exposure in another country needs to use the same description of his English skills as it is a standard term used.
    Differentiation of the actual skills is not possible on paper.

  2. selfthinker says:

    True. I guess the main point is that skills are *relative*. Your assessment of them highly depend on what you already know about the subject.

    And it also depends on the situation in which you need to apply those skills. Writing “fluent English” (while meaning “fluent *school* English”) on a German CV is fine. But you should rethink if you put the same on it if you’re applying for a job in an English-speaking country.

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