Website Basics 101

I’ve recently gotten a few questions from friends about how to build a website, so I thought I’d do a post with an overview of the basics behind building websites. I am by no means an expert on this subject myself, but when I first started coding the summer before my freshman year of college, I had no prior programming experience and spent a fair amount of time just hunting around for good guides to learn from before I built up a basic working knowledge of the various components of a website. I hope this overview will provide a foundation from which I can delve more deeply into specific topics in future entries.

1) Client-Server Architecture
When you type in the url of a website and hit enter, you are sending a request from your device (laptop, desktop, mobile, etc.,) through your browser (Firefox, Safari, Chrome, etc.,) to a remote server asking for the server to load the page of the website for you. The web server receives the HTTP request and then processes it as a static file (html) or as a dynamic file (PHP, Python, Ruby, etc.,). If the file is dynamic, it may require interaction with a database. If this is the case, then as the server is running the script on the file, it will query a database (such as MySQL) and return important data back to the server. The server then serves up the page and sends it back to you through your browser. What you then view is the front end of the website. All of this generally happens in under a second. Below is a diagram of the process:

Diagram Courtesy of ProgrammerPlusPlus.

Let’s unpack these interactions a little more.

2) The Front End
The front end of a website refers to what you see when you view a page. You may see text, figures, color, layout, etc., The front end of a site is generally divided into two categories: content and design. The content refers to the actual words, images and other features on the page. Content is coded using the hyper-text markup language or HTML for short. The design, layout (color, alignment, text size, etc.,) is all coded using cascading style sheets or CSS for short. CSS and HTML work together to make the front end of the site visually appealing. Front end designers often add in things like javascript, flash and AJAX to make the site more visually appealing, but the fundamentals behind the front end are HTML and CSS.

3) Going Dynamic -> Programming Languages
If you want to create something that goes beyond a static page and actually allows user to interact with the site and with each other, you will probably need to use a programming language to create functions and to filter and place content provided by users into data stored in a database. This will require a programming language such as PHP, Python, ASP.NET, Ruby, Perl, etc., If you are just starting out, I highly recommend the PHP framework as the support, documentation and resources out there on PHP are incredible. There’s a reason why many of the heavy hitters out there like facebook, wikipedia and wordpress use PHP. It is an incredibly robust language and easy to scale if you plan well.

4) Building in a Back End
Most major websites and startups these days work with data provided to them by users. For example right at sign up, facebook collects data in the form of: first name, last name, email, password, gender and birthday (and that’s just barely the tip of the iceberg in terms of data they collect and store on users). In order to store and retrieve data, you need a database to house all that data. There are a number of databases that are known to do this well, but MySQL is a database that has long been at the forefront of data storage. In order to place, retrieve and manipulate data, you will need to know the Structured Query Language or SQL.

If you’re new to the coding scene, this may seem like quite a bit to digest at first glance, but luckily the Internet has a tremendous amount of resources on each of these topics. I’d highly recommend Codeacademy – it’s a great way to visually learn how to write code. I also recommend the W3C markup validator to make sure your code is bug free. Finally be sure to test your code across browsers (Firefox, IE7, Safari, Chrome, etc.,) as minor differences is display across browsers can occasionally be a nuisance for users. Good luck and happy hacking.

Lessons Learned

Being a young entrepreneur has many advantages. Students generally have fewer financial obligations and are able to take more risks. In addition, students often have more opportunities that stem from being in the university environment. Such opportunities include access to knowledgeable professors and relationships with other intelligent students. But today, I’d like to talk about several of the problems related to being a young entrepreneur.

Let’s turn back the pages of Cornell history to 1994 and examine a case of particular relevance to Cornell. That year two computer science students named Stephan Paternot and Todd Krizelman founded a primitive social networking site that would later be known as The company was an instant success and in 1998 it attracted a lot of attention by posting the largest IPO gains of any company in history up to that date. At the age of 23, Paternot and Krizelman were valued at $100 million each.

Yet the fame and success these youths acquired soon attracted a lot of criticism from the media. In 1999, CNN filmed Paternot dancing on a table with model Jennifer Medley in a Manhattan night club saying, “Got the girl. Got the money. Now I’m ready to live a disgusting, frivolous life.” Unfortunately, things did not stay so perfect for Paternot. 1999 was the year of the dot com bust and shares of dropped from a high of $97 to less than a dime. The two young entrepreneurs lost all of their money and faded out of the spotlight. The following year, Paternot and Krizelman were forced out of the company—a sad ending to a story-book beginning.

Tales like these of young entrepreneurs experiencing massive failures are all too common. And when it happens, the ending is never good. There is just something to be said about age and the experience that comes with it. It’s simply not enough to just have the technical talent or the strong work ethic to make a startup succeed. Often you need the wisdom of those who have already done what you have done. So finding the right mentor—whether it be a faculty advisor or a parent or a close friend—is essential to navigating the unfamiliar territory of entrepreneurship and enterprise.

Interested in hearing more about mentoring? Check out the eClips theme where Entrepreneurs Discuss the Role of Mentors

Students at Work

Here at Cornell, we’re often taught by professors and lecturers a generation or two removed from us. And by all means this is an obvious necessity—imagine what college life would be like without the structure and wisdom given to us by those with more experience and knowledge. Needless to say there is some value in learning from your peers. In fact, much of our informal learning comes from one on one interaction with our friends and student mentors. It is this kind of interaction that I would like to touch on today.

Last week I interviewed two student entrepreneurs here at Cornell and learned some interesting things from my time with them. The first student I interviewed was Joseph Duva, founder and President of His company is an auction website where homeowners and licensed contractors connect through a real-time online biding process. While Joe made many interesting points, one point that stood out the most to me was his comment on the phenomena of translating an idea into a business. He stated that there are dozens of people with great ideas out there, but few who are willing to commit to the process of going from the idea to the implementation of the idea. Listen to the clip below to hear more from Duva:

The second interview I conducted was with Jonathan Santomauro. Jon is a great guy and something of a serial entrepreneur. Currently, he is the president of Global Procurement Strategies, Inc.—a tactical outsourcing firm that creates partnerships with major corporations to increase the efficiency of their procurement divisions. Jonathan is also the president of, a consumer office supplies and furniture company currently in development stages. The most important lesson I learned from Jon was that the attitude of an entrepreneur is absolutely critical. Especially when interacting with people, everything depends on interpersonal skills—skills which can only be developed over time or with the aid of a mentor, in Jon’s case his parents.

If you haven’t already done so, I would highly encourage you to take a look at these interviews as I’ve just scratched the surface all that we spoke of.