Front-end vs. Back-end Developers

Do you have an interest in programming, website development, and application development? If so, then becoming a developer is a career move you may want to research. When it comes to developers, there are typically two groups to choose from: front-end developers and back-end developers. In this post, we’re going to look at the differences of each in terms of description, skills, programming languages, and earnings to help you in your decision.

Front-end vs. Back-end Developers

If you are either wondering what the difference is between a front-end developer and a back-end developer, or looking for an explanation that you can easily give your friends when they ask you what you do, here are a few ways of describing the two.

  • Think of your head. Your face would be the front-end that interacts with others using input from the eyes, ears, and nose and producing output through the mouth. Your brain would be the back-end where information from your eyes, ears, and nose is stored and where information to the mouth is sent from.
  • Think of your house. Things like the interior design, furniture, shingles, siding, windows, doors, etc. would be the front-end. The framing, insulation, beams, and foundation would be the back-end.
  • Think of your car. The engine, computer system, oil, gas, lights, etc. are a part of the back-end. Everything else is the front-end.

A front-end developer is someone who creates the front-end of a website or other application, or the part that users engage with to get to the information in the back-end. A back-end developer is someone who creates the storage and output capabilities of said information.

Let’s say that a client wanted a custom WordPress website developed for their business. The front-end developer would work on the website that is shown to visitors on the web, plus anything that the client would see and use in their day-to-day business. This includes the WordPress theme itself and any customizations needed to the WordPress admin panel / dashboard.

The back-end developer, on the other hand, would work on optimizing the database, customizing the WordPress software itself, and creating the plugins needed to create the overall functionality of the client website, whether it is a simple blog or an ecommerce store.

Skills

So what kind of skills does a front-end developer need versus a back-end developer? Both are required to do some heavy lifting in the programming department. But front-end developers need a better eye for user interface design and visual appeal than back-end developers.

While front-end developers are not always the actual designers for the user interface of a website or application, they do have to know how to make the user interface aesthetically pleasing as well as functional. They will likely work closely with a designer if they are not designing the website or application themselves.

Additional skills that front-end website developers will need beyond programming include the ability to wireframe a website layout and design, create website designs in PSD or take PSD designs and turn them into functional websites, and deploy the website to the customer or employer’s hosting company.

Back-end developers, on the other hand, have little to do with the design of a website or application. Their job is to focus on what makes everything work behind the scenes. Hence, if you are not interested in design, then back-end development should be your focus.

Additional back-end developers skills needed beyond programming include the ability to integrate the user interface created by front-end developers with the server side logic, creating reusable code and libraries for future use, application optimization for speed and scalability, design of data storage solutions, and implementation of data security.

If you know what type of developer you want to be, the best way to determine the skills you will need is to look at profiles of other freelancer developers or job listings for specific types of developers.

Browse several different freelancer profiles or job listings (preferably ones that are at the income rate you desire to make) so you can see the full range of skills you should be developing or highlighting when you approach customers or employers for work.

Programming Languages

Want to base your decision on whether you should be a front-end developer or back-end developer based on the programming languages you will need to be proficient in? Here’s what you need to know.

Front-end: There are only three front-end languages HTML, CSS, jQuery and Javascript.

Back-end developers need to be proficient in programming languages that render on the server side of a website or application. The most popular back-end programming languages are PHP, Ruby, Python, Ruby on Rails and Java. Others include .NET, C, and Perl. Back-end developers also need to proficient in working with databases like MySQL, Oracle, and SQL Server.

If you don’t have experience in any of these just yet, you may want to start by taking some beginner courses in a few different programming languages to see which ones you are most comfortable working with. Alternatively, you may want to determine what types of projects you would ultimately want to work on, then find out what would be necessary to know to work on them.

Education

Fortunately, there are lots of different ways to learn both front-end and back-end skills and programming languages. The route you take in education may depend on the type of employment you seek. If you want to work for a company full-time, you may want to browse job listings to see the requirements they have as some will require specific degrees from universities to apply.

If you want to be a freelancer or start your own company, you may be able to forgo the format university route and self-educate through online courses. So long as you can deliver proven, you do not need to show a degree to make a living. If you are starting completely from scratch, you may need to develop a few projects on your own for your portfolio to demonstrate your experience to your first couple of clients. A strong portfolio is especially important for front-end developers.

Earnings

What you will make as a developer will depend on a lot of factors. These include the following:

  • Whether you are a freelance developer, contractor, part time, or full time employee.
  • Your specialties as a developer — the programming languages you are most proficient in, the tools you are most familiar with, etc.
  • Whether you are able to interact directly with the customer, have project management skills, and are able to manage a team.
  • If you are a freelance developer or contractor, the network you use to offer your services through.
  • Where you live and where you work from (telecommute or in-house).
  • How much education you have in your specialty.
  • How much experience you have working in your field.
  • How long you have worked at a particular company as a part time or full time employee.

While there are averages you can expect in terms of salary, all of the above will factor in on whether your earnings are closer to the lower end or upper end of the echelon. Indeed.com, for example, shows the following as average earnings for specific types of full time back-end developers. Note that some of the related job titles cross over into front-end development for comparison.

You can compare these to averages for full time front-end developers. Note that some of the related job titles cross over into back-end development for comparison purposes.

As you can see, the salaries can vary dramatically based on your experience (noted by junior, lead, and senior titles) and based on your specialties. Specialties also have an effect on salary, as noted by the difference in salary between a senior Javascript web developer who outearns the senior front-end developer.

For freelancers and contractors, what you will earn will be affected by the network you market yourself through, your reviews and ratings on that network, and your competition. Here’s a quick look at what the top back-end developers are charging on networks like UpWork (formerly oDesk).

These networks appeal to customers who are looking for developers who meet their budgets, and they allow customers to find developers who charge anywhere from $10 per hour and to over $100 per hour. If you market yourself on these networks, you will have to compete with people across the gamut in terms of rates. Increasing what you charge on these networks will require you to demonstrate your skills through testing on the networks themselves, having a complete portfolio, and having great ratings and reviews.

Full Stack Developers

People who have skill in both front-end and back-end development are often referred to as full stack developers. In other words, they have a full range of skills that can be applied to the user interface and everything that makes it work in the background.

Some people consider a full stack developer not as good as a front-end or back-end developer, and often refer to the saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” But it’s also worth noting that the full phrase is “Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than a master of one.”

As a developer, having both front-end and back-end proficiency means more opportunities. You will be able to apply to more contract, part time, or full time employment positions. Or, as a freelancer, you will be able to take on more projects without being limited to front-end only or back-end only.

From the customer or employer perspective, you will be able to understand projects as a whole — both how it needs to work for the user and how it needs to work in the background. You will give them one point of contact for all of their needs. And you will be able to support them when things go wrong on either side, making you even more valuable over the long term.

Demand for both front-end developers and back-end developers is continuously growing. Therefore, choosing either can help you create the career or business you have always wanted. Be sure to explore both worlds of development to determine which one is the best fit for you!

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