Gas up your time machine and go back to the year 2008. Find a group of 10 random developers, ask them about Shopify, and watch their eyes glaze over.
Today, Shopify is 15 years old and it's more popular (and powerful) than ever! So powerful in fact that, cumulatively, Shopify merchants have created 3.6 million jobs in 2021 (and it’s...July).
That number doesn’t even include the mystical, code-slangin’, behind-the-scenes sorcerers who help merchants create and optimize unique, personalized stores.
We’re talking about Shopify developers. Whether you’re interested in becoming a Shopify developer yourself or a merchant wanting to better understand the developers of your shop--here’s all you need to know to get started.
Where Do Shopify Developers Come From?
It’d be nice if there was some sort of Shopify College where aspiring Shopify code wizards could attend four years and receive a shiny new degree, but that’s not how it works. (At least not yet.)
(We really want to make a Hogwarts reference here, but we’ll spare you our fandom.)
Some developers come from other eCommerce platforms like WooCommerce and Magento. Things change real quick on the web, and the shifting of trends in eCommerce, along with Shopify’s rapid growth and unmatched agility, have made Shopify a particularly scintillating alternative. (For example, many casual theme developers for WordPress have also moved into Shopify theme development.)
Other Shopify developers aren’t jumping ship from other platforms. Shopify’s accelerated expansion necessitated the recruitment of developers from all backgrounds, fluent in a programming language or two. If you can speak the lingo, you’ll have a place within the Shopify ecosystem.
Speaking of Languages…
Ruby On Rails
The best programming language to understand as a Shopify developer is Ruby on Rails. Shopify itself is built on--and therefore obsessed with--RoR. Aside from Ruby on Rails being its native language, Shopify uses Ruby for its scripts, meaning that Ruby developers may adapt a bit faster to the Shopify platform than others.
Liquid is a template language created by Shopify and written in Ruby that serves as the backbone for Shopify themes. It handles various data like values of properties, product information, and other store data. It can also do some mathematical and logical operations, loops, and other things that other programming languages can do.
OK, Back To Our Original Point
Shopify developers come from various backgrounds, and not only from previously popular eCommerce platforms. What matters more than your experience on other platforms are the coding languages you know.
Got it? Good. Moving on.
Developing a Store
There are traditionally two endpoints in web development – frontend and backend. The frontend handles everything the site visitor sees, while the backend handles the logic of the website. In Shopify, most of the development is frontend-related.
There are two approaches to Shopify's theme and store development. Let's call the first one the traditional approach, which is very similar to theme development in WordPress. The developers create a theme using Shopify's tools for theme development, including Theme DevKit and Liquid tags.
For most merchants, this approach is quick, easy, and can satisfy all of their store’s needs--but it’s not foolproof in that some desirable features may not be provided natively by Shopify.
The second development method is called the headless approach, and while certainly powerful and flexible, it’s also more complicated to create and administer.
Instead of using Shopify's native theme development tools, headless uses Shopify as an API and the headless theme is usually made with a frontend framework (like React or Vue). In effect, you're separating the frontend of the store from Shopify's platform and using your own, which gives you more flexibility, performance, and integrations.
Merchants might lean this way when they want freedom over the URL structure (not locked into Shopify’s structure). This could be important if they’re migrating a site heavily reliant on existing organic SEO ranking. Another benefit of headless development is increased performance, depending on the frontend technologies used.
However, there are downsides. Headless stores are trickier to navigate and maintain, as they require much more advanced coding knowledge. A theme customizer also will not be available, though the developer could create a login system for the merchant to use.
Selecting a development approach is not something you want to trial-and-error with. Picking the wrong one can cost store owners a lot. Fortunately, there are experts who can analyze your store, listen to your needs, and guide you in the right direction.
The Development Process
Even when not buzzing busily about a shop’s code, developers should be firmly embedded in the development workflow--which starts with listening to the client’s needs and managing expectations about what can be done within Shopify and what will need to be realized using custom development. Looping in an experienced Shopify developer from the beginning ensures that there are few-to-no over-promises in the scoping process.
Once that mischief is managed, it’s time to design.
(Sorry, we couldn’t hold back any longer.)
It’s a common misconception that designers are essentially graphic artists, only responsible for the aesthetic appeal of a site. Since their files are actually the very blueprint for what the developers will build, good designers are also concerned with functionality--which is why it’s critical for developers and designers to work in sweet symbiosis.
Designers don’t necessarily have the technical know-how to determine whether they’re designing something that would be a total pain in the keister to build (making it a pocketbook vampire for the client), and developers aren’t usually particularly concerned with how pretty something is. Get them to work harmoniously together, though, and watch magic happen. 🔮
When the designer, developer, and client are happy with the design, it’s time to bring it to life. This is where developers rule--carefully following the blueprint and meticulously constructing the code to be sure there are no significant differences between the design and the real thing.
If that process sounds tedious and time-consuming, that’s because it is. Say the design of a homepage takes roughly 25 hours. The development of the same page is likely to take closer to 35--perhaps more, depending on its complexity and the experience level of the developer(s).
Once the initial development concludes, the site is sent to a QA tester, who’s responsible for checking all functionalities--testing it on different devices and web browsers to ensure it’ll look and function the same, no matter where it’s viewed.
After it passes all QA tests, it’s ready for client review.
OK, That Was A Lot. Let's Sum Up.
Because of Shopify’s exceptional ease of use (for developers and merchants), becoming a Shopify developer requires a relatively small time investment (depending on what you already know) and only basic web development knowledge, if you want to get your feet wet with frontend only. When you’re ready to graduate to more advanced backend work, Ruby on Rails will quickly become your best friend.
That said, as the development market becomes heavily saturated with novice-to-intermediate Shopify devs and merchants’ tastes become more sophisticated, it’s critical for would-be Shopify wizards to not only keep up with the latest and greatest in programming, but also to become familiar with different kinds of stores, custom elements, integrations, and other things that will help them stand a head above the rest.
An easy way to stand out as a developer is to become an expert in something -- a specific app, a particular theme vendor, some type of unique need like a customization piece or custom third party apps, etc.
If you’re a merchant on the hunt for the crème de la crème in Shopify design and development, we know a great one stop shop.