​Front-End vs. Back-End Developers: What are the Differences?

By: Fullstack Staff

Front-End vs. Back-End Developers: What are the Differences?

Maybe you’ve just started to explore programming, or maybe you’re already well on your way to becoming a web developer. Wherever you are on your journey, it’s important to choose the right mix of tools, languages, and specialties that will match your career and personal objectives.

Some web developers decide to specialize in a given programming language, while others cultivate expertise in a particular area of web development, such as mobile devices or databases. The most common distinction for web developers, however, is the choice between one of two areas: front end or back end.

As you progress in your studies, you’ll undoubtedly encounter these terms more and more. So what exactly is the difference between the front end and back end, and what can you expect from each area in terms of skill set and daily work?

What is Front-End Development?

Front-end development refers to crafting the experience that the end user has in the web browser. For this reason, the front end is also often called the “client side,” because it involves everything that takes place on the client’s computer.

Developers who work on the front end are responsible for customizing a website’s look, feel, and behavior: everything from font sizes and colors to dropdown menus and forms. Since humans are visual creatures, creating an excellent front-end experience is essential in order to attract and retain users.

Because front-end development focuses so much on a website’s appearance and aesthetics, it’s often confused with web design. Although there’s often a fair bit of overlap in skill set and responsibilities, the divide between designers and developers can usually be summed up as modeling vs. implementation.

In the course of their job, web designers may engage in user research, build wireframes and mock-ups, create graphics and logos, and select fonts and color schemes. All this is to describe how the website’s design will look and feel at a high level. Front-end web developers, meanwhile, focus primarily on the technical details of how to code and implement these design specifications.

What is Back-End Development?

Back-end development, on the other hand, is about defining a website’s internal logic. Just as the front end of a website is often called the “client side,” the back end is referred to as the “server side” because it runs on the website’s server and not the user’s computer. Websites are like icebergs: they have a lot going on below the surface that isn’t apparent to the end user.

Every website back end consists of three parts: the server, the database, and the application. Back-end developers write code that enables these three components to interact and work together, in order to perform the right functions and deliver the right information to the end user.

For example, when you place an order on an online marketplace like Amazon or Etsy, the back-end software creates a new entry in the website’s database that contains information about the order such as the item, the price, and the shipping address. When you want to retrieve the order or change a piece of information, the software pulls the right entry from the database and sends the data to the front end.

The Difference between Front-End and Back-End Development

A good example of the distinction between a website’s front end and back end is Google Maps. Let’s say that you pull up the Google Maps site in order to find the fastest way to get to your friend’s house. You enter your starting point and destination into the website’s front end, which then sends it to the back end running somewhere on Google’s servers. The website’s back end calculates the most efficient routes between the two places via a number of different transportation methods, and sends these routes back to your computer. Finally, the front end takes this routing information and displays it to you on a map of your current location.

Back-end developers for Google Maps are responsible for building smart, efficient pathfinding algorithms that get you where you need to go in the shortest amount of time. Front-end developers, on the other hand, are responsible for taking this information and displaying it to you in a way that’s attractive and easy to understand.

In fact, once you understand the difference between the front end and the back end, you can start to see any large website in terms of this division. For example, Facebook’s back end includes software applications that determine how to order your friends’ posts in your timeline and which users to recommend as friends. Then, the Facebook front end receives this information from the back end and displays it to you in a pleasant, user-friendly interface.

The important thing to realize is that the front end and back end are usually completely separate from each other. Even if Facebook changes its algorithms on the back end for the best way to order content, developers don’t necessarily need to alter the website’s front end to reflect these changes.

Front End vs. Back End: The Skills Required

Even once you understand the difference between the front end and back end of a website, you might still wonder which programming languages are best to learn for each field. Since front-end and back-end developers have different responsibilities, it’s only natural that their jobs require different skills and technology proficiencies.

Nearly all front-end developers use three primary languages in the course of their work: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

  • HTML: A markup language used to describe the structure and content of a web page. Tags are the basic unit of HTML; they are written with angle brackets <> and provide semantic information about the text that they surround, such as denoting a page’s title and headings. HTML is invisible to the end user.
  • CSS: A style sheet language that works in conjunction with HTML to describe the design and appearance of a web page. For example, a CSS file may define that any text surrounded by the HTML <a> tag, which is used for hyperlinks, appears green and bold.
  • JavaScript: A programming language used to create interactivity and dynamic content on a web page. JavaScript can be used for everything from displaying the current date and time, to validating a user’s form input, to adding animations.

On top of these three pillars of front-end development, many programmers will use a variety of front-end frameworks and libraries to make it easier to write and organize their code. These aren’t different languages themselves, but rather add-ons to HTML, CSS, and JavaScript that aim to make development faster and more structured. Some of the most popular front end frameworks and libraries include Bootstrap, jQuery, Angular, and React for JavaScript, and Sass and LESS for CSS.

With back-end development, the roadmap is a little less clear-cut. After all, software that runs on the back end can be written in hundreds of different programming languages. However, back-end developers have generally settled on a handful of languages that are best suited for their needs. JavaScript is increasingly used on the back end, thanks to the popular JavaScript server framework Node.js. Other common back-end languages include Java, Python, Ruby, and PHP.

Just as on the front end, the use of frameworks and libraries is fairly standard practice for back-end developers. These include Ruby on Rails for the Ruby programming language, Laravel for PHP, and Django for Python. Using back-end frameworks and libraries saves you from having to “reinvent the wheel” and allows you to focus on the higher-level task at hand instead of the low-level technical details.

Nearly every non-trivial website that allows users to make requests will have a database on the back end. In addition to software development, back-end developers should have some experience with a given database technology, such as Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, or MySQL. This knowledge should include how to create database models, how to write to the database, and how to query it for relevant information.

In addition to the languages above, both front-end and back-end developers should be familiar with a few crucial technologies. You should understand HTTP requests, the REST architectural style, and how clients and servers communicate over the Internet. Other helpful concepts to learn include the model-view-controller (MVC) architectural pattern, platforms as a service (PaaS) such as AWS and Heroku, and version control systems such as Git.

Front End vs. Back End: The Day-to-Day Work

While we believe that everyone can benefit from learning how to code, most people who learn web development probably have the end goal of working as a front-end or back-end developer. So what kind of daily routine and working environment can you expect from these jobs?

Web developers generally fall into two camps: in-house employees and freelancers. Most freelancers have already accumulated several years of experience: they start off as full-time employees, and then transition into freelance web development work by doing projects on the side, allowing them to build a portfolio.

Although the majority of salaried web developers still work in an office with their coworkers, a growing number of them work remotely part-time or full-time. Working hours are roughly 9 to 5, but some companies may allow employees to shift this window by a few hours in one direction, as long as the work gets done and they’re available for meetings. Freelancers, of course, have a good deal more flexibility over their working hours and schedule.

At the start of their day, web developers generally catch up on what’s been going on since they signed off: emails, bug reports, pull requests, and code reviews. After that, they’ll likely get to work fixing a bug or building a new feature. Depending on the status and urgency of the current project, this may be assigned to them by the project lead or chosen at their leisure.

Of course, web developers devote the majority of their time to coding, but they also need to spend time working in close collaboration with their colleagues. These people may include other web developers, web designers, QA testers, project managers, and members of the IT and business teams. Nearly all web developers have at least one long meeting per week, and likely more, in which they report on their progress to the rest of their team and get advice on any roadblocks that they’re facing.

For full-time web development employees, the exact way of organizing work, collaborating, and holding meetings will depend on the methodology that the company uses. For example, the “waterfall” method of development is sequential; testing is only conducted after all coding has finished. Teams that use the “agile” development methodology, on the other hand, often work in rapid “sprints” of one month or less that are dedicated to the completion of certain tasks and that always result in a usable product.

Front End vs. Back End: Programs and Bootcamps

Demand is high for developers right now, and there’s no shortage of coding bootcamps offering to teach you front-end or back-end development—or both of them! (People who can work on both ends are called “full-stack” developers.) Don’t look for bootcamps or programs that will be the easiest or fastest to complete. Instead, your most important criterion should be whether the program will really prepare you for the job you want to have, whether that’s front-end or back-end development.

Bootcamps that focus exclusively on the Swift programming language, for example, will prepare you to develop iOS apps, but not to build websites. On the other hand, bootcamps that teach you a wide range of skills might appear to give you a lot of choice and flexibility, but you might not learn enough about any given skill to find a job. You’ll have to decide on the right balance between versatility and specialization so that you can locate a position in your chosen find.

The best idea is usually to choose a bootcamp that mainly focuses on a versatile language like JavaScript. Learning the ins and outs of JavaScript, and perhaps supplementing that knowledge with a JavaScript framework such as Angular or React, will allow you to work across multiple platforms and on both ends of web development.

Now that you know the differences between front-end and back-end development, see how each is woven into the curriculum here at Fullstack Academy and Grace Hopper Program. 

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