Imagine you’re building a brand new house.
Would you trust the interior designer to handle the plumbing work? Sure, they might know the number one rule of plumbing: Gravity is king. But you’d definitely be stretching the boundaries of their expertise if you asked them to do all the pipework to a level of quality that would pass inspection.
Shift the environment slightly, and the same could be said for web development. Websites, like houses, have grown more and more complex over time. The result? More specialization based upon the skills needed to perform each portion of putting “the house” all together.
Currently, the biggest division line for web development is front-end verses back-end development. To give you a better idea of where your skills would be best utilized, we laid out the differences between the two and asked web developers to weigh-in on what it takes to succeed in each area.
Front-end vs. back-end: The difference in developers
To put it simply, a front-end developer deals primarily with the outside appearance of a website—its virtual curb appeal. The back-end developer, on the other hand, is more concerned with the structure and the ‘guts’ of it.
The image above can help you visualize this. We mapped out the job duties of graphic designers, front-end developers and back-end developers on a spectrum that runs from purely art and design on the left to purely computer science on the right. As you can see, these roles all have a bit of overlap, with front-end developers landing squarely in the middle of the spectrum.
Now that you have a high-level understanding of the main priorities of each position, let’s take a closer look at front-end versus back-end development.
What does a front-end developer do?
Front-end developers deal with a website’s user-facing code, which encompasses the visual appeal and overall layout of the site. But their attention isn’t just constrained to making a site look good. A website also has to function in a way that is satisfying and simple for the user to navigate.
We used real-time job analysis software to examine more than 33,000 front-end developer jobs posted over the last year.1 The data helped us identify the five most desired skills for front-end developers. Here’s what we found:
This is a handful of the vast array of skills commonly required for front-end development positions. And the good news is that all of these skills can be learned and refined with practice.
However, if you’re trying to determine if you’re best suited for front-end or back-end, it may be more important to consider the traits and personalities that are ideal in each position. All developers must possess a keen eye for detail, as even the smallest error in code or design files can cause catastrophe on a website.
But front-end developers require a host of traits that set them apart from back-end developers. For example, they should be great communicators who are able to collaborate with other stakeholders within the company. They should also be able to think big picture and envision the end product. This holistic view differs from that of a back-end developer, who is often honed in on different pieces of the site.
“Empathy is also important, as front-end developers need to put themselves in end-users' shoes and be mindful of all details of the product experience,” says Weiting Liu, CEO of Codementor.io.
What does a back-end developer do?
These developers deal with – you guessed it – the back end of the website. If front-end developers are focused on the features that make a website look good and easy to navigate, back-end developers are focused on building and maintaining the infrastructure that allows those features to exist in the first place.
This is why back-end developers need a strong knowledge of programming and the logic that makes it work. We analyzed nearly 8,000 back-end developer job postings to learn more about what employers are seeking in quality candidates.2
Here are the top five skills employers were seeking:
As you can see, the most sought-after skills for back-end developers skew toward programming languages and working with databases. Above and beyond the technical skills, successful professionals in this position are analytical and meticulous. They thrive when presented with the challenge of mapping out the logic needed to make a website both fully functional and able to address a business’ needs.
It’s important for back-end developers to have the ability to quickly decipher what’s being asked of them, according to Mark Tuchscherer, CEO of GeeksChicago.com. Self-directed and self-motivated are both ideal characteristics for candidates in this position.
“Everyone wants a guru who can write amazing code, but we look for people who can take user stories and just run with them,” he says. “Having a back-end developer who needs to ask 50 questions about the work each day can be a major liability.”
What is a “full stack” developer?
If you’re new to web development, you may have seen and greeted the term “full stack” with a shrug. But don’t shrug it off quite yet! This dual option could be a great fit for the aspiring developers who find themselves torn between front-end and back-end work.
Put simply, a full stack web developer is someone who is proficient in both front- and back-end development. These developers are an understandably desirable choice for businesses and organizations with limited resources, as they provide a great value for the cost.
“10 years from now, as web technologies become more complex and advanced, it [will] become gradually harder for a single developer to know everything.”
But does that mean everyone should aspire to be a full-stack developer? Not necessarily. The realities of web development and its increasing complexity make this incredibly difficult to accomplish, especially for inexperienced developers. Larger organizations with complex challenges will likely continue seeking highly specialized professionals for precise projects.
“It is becoming more common for web developers to specialize in either front-end or back-end,” Liu says. “10 years from now, as web technologies become more complex and advanced, it [will] become gradually harder for a single developer to know everything.”
So does that mean front-end developers should disregard the skills needed for back-end work and vice versa? Not at all. The key is understanding enough about the limitations of both sides and how code from each side interacts with the other.
Which type of developer are you?
Now that you understand the distinction of front-end versus back-end developers, you should have an idea of where your skills can be best put to use. And as you know, there’s a lot to learn in this fast-paced field.
If you think you’re destined for front-end development, check out the web and interactive design degree page. If back-end development feels like your calling, you’d be well-served by polishing your web programming skills. Whichever path you choose, you could be one step closer to achieving your web development dreams.
1 Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 33,515 front-end developer jobs, Apr. 01, 2015 – Mar. 31, 2016)
2 Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 7,931 back-end developer jobs, Apr. 01, 2015 – Mar. 31, 2016)