Chris Castiglione Co-founder of Adjunct Prof at Columbia University Business School.

Frontend vs. Backend Developers: What’s the Difference?

4 min read

When learning to code beginners are often confronted with two paths: frontend AND backend. Which do you choose? Can you do both? How much does someone who codes HTML & CSS make at a job? In this post, we’re going to look at the differences of each in terms of description, skills, programming languages, and earnings.

Frontend vs. Backend Developers

  • Frontend developers build how a website looks.
  • Backend developers build how a website works

Let’s say that you wanted to build a WordPress website for your business. The frontend developer would create the theme: the images, style, and presentation. While the backend developer may work on managing the database, as well as the site’s users, security, and site performance issues.

Frontend vs. Backend Developers (Infographic)
Frontend vs. Backend Developers (Infographic)

Programming Languages

Frontend developers primarily use three languages:  HTML, CSS, Javascript. Over the past few years, the role of the frontend developer has evolved, and so professional frontend devs might also want to consider developing some more intermediate to advanced JavaScript skills, as well as building up experience using command-line tools and a framework such as React.

Backend developers need to be proficient in programming languages that render on the server-side of a website or application. The most popular backend programming languages are PHP, Ruby, Python, Node.js, and Java. Typically a good backend developer will be a master at one of these languages, but familiar enough to code in a 2nd or 3rd programming language. Backend developers will 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 coding courses in a few different programming languages to see which one catches your attention.


So what kind of skills does a frontend developer need versus a backend developer?

Frontend developers work on the appearance and user-interface of the website, and so in addition to the programming languages listed above, the frontend dev should have some skills using design tools like PhotoShop, Sketch or Figma. Frontend developers should also know the basics of web hosting, and buying a domain.

Backend developers, on the other hand, need to have critical thinking skills. A backend dev is often debugging code, as well as designing systems for how the user will interact with the website. Questions the backend dev should be able to answer: Where is data stored? Is it stored securely? If the site’s traffic 100x’s overnight, will the site be able to scale without crashing? How can I add a new feature to the website, without breaking the current functionality? How can I test a website (often on a staging platform, and/or running tests using test-driven development) so that the end-user experiences as few errors and bugs as possible?


Front-end vs. Back-end Developers (Comparison Definition)

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. This way your portfolio can demonstrate your experience to your first couple of clients. A strong portfolio is especially important for frontend developers.

Regardless of if you are looking to become a frontend or backend developer: I’d suggest you learn HTML and CSS. These two languages are very powerful (and not too difficult to learn) and are the basis of all web development.


Frontend: $70,000 USD (average base pay according to Glassdoor.) With a range from $56k to $111k. And an hourly rate of around $50/hour.

Backend dev: $117,000 USD (average base pay according to Glassdoor). With a range from $100k to $140k. And an hourly rate of around $65/hour.

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 frontend developer.

In addition, on sites like UpWork you’ll be able to find developers who charge anywhere from $10 per hour and to over $150 per hour. And so if you’re looking to hire a dev, you really must do your homework (aka. take time to review the developer’s portfolio, interview, and ask for references from past employers) in order to find the right match.

Cost of Hiring Developers

A developer can charge different amounts based on a variety of factors. Here are a few of the top reasons:

  • 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.
  • The amount of experience you have working in your field.
  • How long you have worked at a particular company as a part-time or full-time employee.

What is a Full-Stack Developer?

People who have skill in both frontend and backend 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 frontend or backend developer. 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 frontend and backend proficiency means more opportunities. You will be able to apply to more contract, part-time, or full-time employment positions. As a freelancer, you will be able to take on more projects without being limited to frontend only or backend 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. This makes you even more valuable over the long term.

Demand for both frontend developers and backend 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!

Learn to Code Comment Avatar
Chris Castiglione Co-founder of Adjunct Prof at Columbia University Business School.