Programming vs. Web Development: What’s the Difference?

Ben Stegner 16-02-2017

The world of programming can be difficult for outsiders to grasp. For instance, if you don’t have programming experience, you might not know which language is the best for beginners to learn.


However, the misconceptions about programming go even further. Though terms like “software engineer,” “web developer,” and “programmer” get thrown around, there are some key differences about their work that you should know. Let’s examine what makes programming and web development so vastly different.

Different Focuses

While both types of professionals type lines of code to make things happen on a computer, their focuses are vastly different. Programmers vary in what they make, but typically create brand-new computer applications or add on to existing software. Web developers, on the other hand, deal specifically with building and maintaining websites.

To understand the distinction, consider the role of a web designer. The designer creates the mock-up of a website and might plan its feature set. This person doesn’t need to write any code to accomplish this, though. They might use programs like Adobe Dreamweaver to block out the website design, or build a model in Photoshop.

Web developers bridge the gap between these web designers and programmers. While a web designer comes up with an idea for the website, the web developer builds it to their specifications. In this project, a programmer’s role might be creating a new tool to help process the website visitor’s requests. In the long run, a programmer would move on after his app was completed, while the web developer would probably be responsible for updating and maintaining the site.

Another important point is the scope of each professional’s work. In a business environment, a programmer might be tasked with expanding proprietary software that a company has used for years.


Thus, they might spend a lot of time figuring out the code for older applications and trying to add new features to them, since a company doesn’t want to throw away software essential to its business. When it comes to website design, it’s rare to surgically add new parts when a company wants a new website. For websites, it’s more efficient to start from scratch.

They Use Different Languages

As you probably know, there are dozens of different programming languages, all with different strengths and purposes. Someone building mobile apps will use a different language than someone building a web application — we’ve already discussed how to choose the right web programming language.

A web developer uses HTML (which isn’t really a programming language) to organize text and CSS (also not a true programming language) to customize how that text displays. Then, they use JavaScript for client-side work What is JavaScript, And Can the Internet Exist Without It? JavaScript is one of those things many take for granted. Everybody uses it. Read More (like checking to see if you’ve left the password field blank when signing in) and PHP for server-side behavior (such as searching for a term that the user entered). Of course, there are other languages used in web development as well, such as Ruby.


On the other hand, a programmer could use any number of languages to build the application that he or she needs. Depending on the situation, a programmer could use C#, Java, C++, Python, C, or any other number of choices to build an application.

An important implication of these differences is that web programmers have to regularly keep up with changes in the languages they use. A textbook on web programming written in 2015 could be severely out of date by now due to rapid developments in those languages. Thus, web programming classes often teach via online resources instead of books.

In contrast, a textbook written on C in 1985 could still be fairly effective in teaching students that language, because it hasn’t changed much in decades. Of course, there are some stylistic standards and best practices that an old resource might miss, but nowhere near the level of web development.

Differences in Implementation

You might not think it, but the languages discussed above actually perform very different functions behind the scenes.


Programming languages like Java and C++ are high-level languages, which means that typing a line of C++ code is heavily abstracted from the actual machine instructions that it turns into when you compile it. Writing in low-level languages, like assembly code, would be extremely tedious and difficult. These lower levels of code closely deal with hardware, so you must specify moving data in and out of specific memory registers.

For instance, have a look at this example assembly code to print “Hello, World” from LMU’s computer science website:

    global  _start

    section .text
    ; write(1, message, 13)
    mov rax, 1              ; system call 1 is write
    mov rdi, 1              ; file handle 1 is stdout
    mov rsi, message        ; address of string to output
    mov rdx, 13             ; number of bytes
    syscall                 ; invoke operating system to do the write

    ; exit(0)
    mov eax, 60             ; system call 60 is exit
    xor rdi, rdi            ; exit code 0
    syscall                 ; invoke operating system to exit
    db  "Hello, World", 10  ; note the newline at the end

In C++, typing this simple line would perform the same function:

std::cout << "Hello, World";

We can see that when the code programmers type actually compiles, the machine processes it into a computer-readable form to create a working application. This contrasts significantly with most web development work, which doesn’t need to be compiled. There is the exception of some “web based applications” which compile and run on the web server but display on the client machine — but this is where the area between application programmers and web developers gets gray.


Web Language Processing

Earlier, we mentioned that HTML and CSS Learn HTML and CSS with These Step by Step Tutorials Curious about HTML, CSS, and JavaScript? If you think that you have a knack for learning how to create websites from scratch -- here are a few great step-by-step tutorials worth trying. Read More are not true programming languages. Rather, HTML is a markup language What Is HTML5, And How Does It Change The Way I Browse? [MakeUseOf Explains] Over the past few years, you may have heard the term HTML5 every once in a while. Whether you know anything about web development or not, the concept can be somewhat nebulous and confusing. Obviously,... Read More and CSS is a style sheet language. Their syntax describes what’s on the page and how it’s organized (HTML) and how it looks (CSS). They’re for presentation, while a programming language is functional. You can test this yourself — create a text document on your computer called test.html with some basic HTML code, like this:

<h2>This demonstrates why <i>HTML is not a programming language</i>, but rather a <u>markup</u> language.</h2>

Save it and open it in your browser of choice, and you’ll see that the HTML you specified already took effect inside your browser. No code compiled; your browser just knows how to interpret HTML. Compare this with a short C++ program that outputs “Hi!” to the screen — you can’t make that code do anything without a compiler like you’d find in online tools or in Visual Studio.

In Short

It’s fair to say that web developers are a subset of programmers, because similar methods and skills are in place for both positions. Web developers use skills and tools that programmers wouldn’t, such as graphic design utilities and video editing software. Also, web developers are typically in contact with their clients more often than a programmer. A programmer created Mozilla Firefox, but a web developer built

If you want to get started with programming, Microsoft’s free development tools are a good place to start. If you’re leaning towards web development, we can help you choose between front-end and back-end web development Front-End vs. Back-End Web Development: Which Path Is Right for You? Learning web development is a great way to understand coding, but where should you start: front-end or back-end web development? Read More .

Related topics: Programming, Web Development.

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  1. Il
    August 20, 2019 at 6:50 pm

    You are absolutely the most stupid person I've ever read from. Keep coding random useless stuff, while we code useful VISIBLE inventions for people.

    Web development is programming... But web design is not.

  2. jburns131
    November 9, 2018 at 12:39 pm

    I have to say I disagree with most of this article, and here are a few reasons.

    So far in my coding adventures, I started out as a PHP Programmer, then I became a back-end web developer, and now I am a software engineer.

    I am now consider myself a software engineer, even though I work on mainly web and networked software because after learning and using the 3+ different web technologies (minimum needed to create a simple single web page) for as long as I have, never mind keeping up to date with the ever changing landscape. I learned so much that I now understand how software/computers/languages work.

    Now I use the right tool for the job and can move between languages and technologies.

    Just using and learning PHP properly I learned OOP, design patterns, how to properly test my code, how to write secure code and avoid common vulnerabilities, a handful of frameworks, application architecture, and the tons of other skills needed to write software.

    Now I can move between languages and technologies with less effort/learning curve these days.

    I do agree that there are different software architectures, techniques and considerations when building a desktop app vs a website vs mobile app.

    Also, because of the paradigms I've learned using PHP, I can pick up C#, Go, even C++ or Rust (just to name a few) and use either one of those to write background web dev software and services, along with any other use I can leverage out of them.

    My view is that once you understand how software languages work and can make computers do what you want them to (it happens sometimes if you're patient and it's having a good day lol), that's equivalent to learning how to read and write a language, how properly format an essay, understanding the structural differences between a poem, a novel and a textbook.

    The next step is finding out which problem domain or industry you are interested in and want to solve problems for. But more importantly, we should use the right tool for the job.

    I can use PHP to write desktop apps using PHP-GTK, I could use PHP to write console apps, I can use PHP to write back-end client/server software... but there are better tools for those domains. It just took time, experience and a flat forehead from banging my head against my desk over the years :-)

  3. Arthur Hernandez
    April 20, 2018 at 11:18 am

    So are desktop programmers obsolete ? I understand that web developers are people working on back end of web sites that in turn get devekoped into a web app . Front end being html css js . And programmers are people who use wpf wfc to create a desk top application or java with javafx to make a desktop application ? Basically i want to know if desktop applications are irrelevant now due to a number of web technologies and how it is preferred rather than a desktop app ?

  4. Jehanzeb
    November 28, 2017 at 2:05 pm

    There isn't any need for these distinctions. I can write code in PHP,C# and C. What it makes me than? I can't call myself a programmer then?

  5. Haseeb Jehanzeb
    February 17, 2017 at 9:16 am

    There isn't any need for these distinctions. I can write code in PHP,C# and C. What it makes me than? I can't call myself a programmer then?

  6. Jason Honingford
    February 16, 2017 at 4:14 pm

    These job titles are meaningless. People, mostly journalists, try to invent a distinction, but the fact is these are not standard. Every company has wildly different ideas of what they mean. I've been a designer, programmer, developer, engineer, and consultant, and I've not changed what I do. I build websites, desktop apps, and services.

    • RitZ
      January 9, 2018 at 1:27 pm

      Spot on! Tasks involved are overall the same with different specialization. I simply call myself a software engineer with specialization in web.