Backend vs Frontend Web Development - Exploring Both Sides
Aspiring web developers often don't know where to begin when it comes to learning the skills they need to pursue their dreams. Listed requirements for web development jobs are wide and varied, and with so many programming languages, web development tools, and methodologies out there, it's no wonder that some newcomers may feel overwhelmed. However, for those who are new to the world of web development, it's important to understand the differences that exist between frontend vs backend web development.
An appropriate metaphor for differentiating between backend vs frontend development would be a stage play. The frontend is what the audience sees, including the set and the actors, while the backend is the crew behind the curtains operating the lights and soundboard. If you see a job posting that requires "full stack skills" that means the company is looking for someone with qualifications in both frontend and backend development.
This post will provide you with an overview of what a typical frontend developer is responsible for as well as the responsibilities that a backend developer must undertake.
What do frontend developers need to know?
The frontend of a website is what the visitor sees on their screen. Because the focus of frontend development is creating a pleasant user experience, effective frontend developers need a basic understanding of human psychology. They must also learn from their competition; for example, several social networking websites existed before Facebook that offered many of the same features, but Facebook's superior visual layout gave it an edge over competitors like MySpace.
Consequently, Facebook has become one of the internet's most frequently visited websites while MySpace has faded into obscurity. No matter how smoothly a website runs or how much valuable content it has to offer, user experience plays a major part in determining a website's success.
Since frontend development focuses on what users can see, aspiring frontend developers should be well versed in the following technical areas:
Because HTML gives browsers the instructions for how to display content, every developer needs to learn it.there is no way around it. A frontend developer without thorough knowledge of HTML is like an architect who can't read blueprints. Read our complete guide to learn more about the differences between HTML and HTML5.
Equally important is CSS, which builds upon the basic instructions provided by HTML to create visually appealing user interfaces. CSS is becoming more and more powerful and design options available through the use of CSS are growing.
Fortunately, CSS precompilers like Sass and Less can greatly simplify the code writing process for frontend developers.
According to study done by Similar Web in 2015, 56% of traffic leading to the top US websites is from mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets rather than traditional desktops. This trend has created challenges for developers who try so hard to ensure that all visitors have the same experience when visiting their website, which is why responsive design, or optimizing websites to adjust to different screen sizes, is more important than ever.
Similarly, delivering responsive images is also an important aspect of responsive design and since different devices prefer different browsers, cross-browser development is equally important.
In order to ensure that a website visitor is having a great user experience, a frontend web developer should also learn the basics of perceived performance. What modifications to a website's layout make the user perceive that it loads faster or performs better? Knowing which adjustments to make will keep the user happy and ultimately drive a better chance at having them follow a particular path (e.g. purchase a product, sign up to a newsletter, etc).
What do backend developers need to know?
A well-designed frontend usually isn't as useful without proper backend support. No matter how beautiful a page looks at first glance, users will quickly turn away if the website doesn't function properly. When an application runs slowly, regularly crashes or encounters frequent errors, a key contributor to that is commonly due to backend problems.
The backend of an application handles all of the calculations and database interactions needed to ensure a consistent performance. The majority of actual coding is done on the backend, and all backend code runs on the server side rather than the client side.
While backend development is a very technical field, it still requires a degree of creativity and human perspective. Frontend developers depend on their backend counterparts to create code that is easy to understand and manipulate, so backend specialists should familiarize themselves with standardized style guidelines and idioms that exist for programming languages such as PHP, Ruby, Python, etc.
Budding backend developers should focus on honing the following skills:
There are several server side languages you can choose from to improve your backend development skillset. The list of programming languages below is simply a small selection of popular backend languages you can choose from. In the end, once you've learned the basic principles of programming, your knowledge should be transferrable to any programming language; you'll just need to learn each language's quirks.
- PHP is an extremely popular programming language that is suitable for both beginners and advanced programmers. It was originally created in 1994 and has grown immensely since that time so there exist a very large developer community. Additionally, many popular frameworks and content management systems are based on PHP including WordPress, Drupal, CakePHP, etc.
- Ruby is easy for individuals with no prior knowledge of the language to read and understand. Ruby is useful for coding business logic, calculating data and distributing servers to ensure optimal performance. Ruby on Rails, a framework for making web applications, is especially popular with small businesses and startups, and some massive companies including Twitter and Hulu still use it today.
- Python also has a reputation for being easy to read for non-coders. Django, a popular framework for developing web applications, is Python's equivalent to Ruby on Rails. Reddit and Dropbox are examples of major websites built on Python.
Backend developers could also benefit greatly from learning other languages such as C#, Java, C++, etc.
As the universal database query language, SQL, or structured query language, is essential for every web application that needs to store information. Whether you use Django, Ruby on Rails, WordPress, or any other framework to make your website, you must also use SQL to interact with databases which are part of every backend application. A few popular database choices include Postgres, MySQL, and MongoDB.
An API, or application program interface, defines how software components should act. They allow developers to integrate one service with another easily. For instance, you can use the KeyCDN API to integrate a CDN directly into your web application and can set up specific rules to trigger actions such as purges whenever a particular even takes place.
Most web pages and apps today are integrated with other systems including payment processors and social media networks. Web services allow for easy communication between frontend and backend technologies. Two web services that all backend developers should become familiar with are SOAP, or Simple Object Access Protocol, and REST, or Representational State Transfer.
What should frontend and backend developers both know?
There are also a couple of things that both frontend and backend web developers should learn. These are skills that are applicable to both sides of the web development process and knowing them will help increase your value as a developer.
Version control systems (VCS)
Keeping track of changes can save developers a lot of pain if they make a mistake. Fortunately, version control management systems like Git or Mercurial allow coders to revert to older versions of their work for quick revisions.
The diagram above shows the basic GitHub workflow (a version control system service). Another reliable VCS provider you can consider using is Bitbucket.
Testing and debugging
Bugs are an inescapable part of web development. Both frontend and backend developers get the pleasure of testing and debugging. In either case, when a new version of a particular library is being implemented or a new feature is being developed, frontend and backend developers must properly test and debug their setup before going from staging to production. Otherwise, you may be in for a big surprise if a piece of code isn't quite right and ends up breaking the entire web application.
Full stack development
The line between frontend vs backend web development isn't always so clear. The end product of web development isn't the result of one side finishing their job and handing it off to the other; it's usually a back and forth process. That's why full stack developers, or those who specialize in both frontend and backend development, are in high demand.
In fact, most developers working outside of multi-million dollar companies directly participate in both aspects of the development process. Therefore, while the difference between frontend and backend duties are clearly defined, many web developers can technically be considered full stack developers.
Backend vs frontend - Picking a side
Any individual can put together a simple web page, but large websites for multimillion dollar companies are collaborative endeavors that require a vast number of specialists. Having multiple skills can increase your career prospects, but knowing a little bit of everything isn't always preferable to being an expert in a few fields.
That said, the only way for budding developers to find an area of expertise is to pursue as many opportunities as possible. If you're going to dedicate the time needed to pursue a career in web development, you should figure out which aspect of development is most rewarding to you. For example, if you enjoy turning mockups into final products and designing interfaces that appeal to users, you may be best suited as a frontend developer. If you're more into abstract concepts like algorithms, complex systems and how to model data, a backend job is more up your alley.
Deciding between frontend vs backend web development isn't really a choice between one or the other; every developer needs to understand both sides of the process. Startups and other small companies that lack the resources to hire a lot of specialists prefer job candidates with both frontend and backend qualifications, yet larger businesses are more likely to favor candidates who excel in specific areas. Full stack development has become its own specialty as a way to bridge gaps between the two sides for improved collaboration. Just keep in mind that whether you pursue frontend, backend or full stack development, being a successful web developer requires a commitment to lifelong learning.