Front-End vs. Back-End Developer: What Is the Difference?

By: Fullstack Staff

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 (JavaScript, Python, Swift), while others cultivate expertise in a particular area of web development, such as mobile devices or databases. The most common distinction for web developers is the choice between front end and back end, and as you progress in your studies, you’ll undoubtedly encounter these terms more and more.

So what exactly is the difference between back-end and front-end web development, 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 user experience and user interface that site visitors interact with. For this reason, the front end is also often called “client-side,” because it involves everything that takes place on the client’s computer.

Front-end developers are responsible for customizing a website’s look, feel, and behavior. The user interface includes everything from font sizes and colors to dropdown menus and forms. 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 versus 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. They dictate how the website will look and feel. Front-end web developers, meanwhile, focus primarily on the technical details of how to bring web applications to life.

What Is Back-End Development?

Back-end development, on the other hand, is about defining a website’s internal logic. While the front end of a website is called “client-side,” the back end is referred to as “server-side” because it runs on the website’s server and not on the user’s computer.

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 to perform functions and deliver information to the end user.

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

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 you pull up Google Maps 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 your search query to the back end, which is running somewhere on Google’s servers. The website’s back end calculates, for multiple modes of transportation, the most efficient routes between the two places you entered and sends these routes back to your computer. 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 to where you need to go in the shortest amount of time. Front-end developers are responsible for displaying that information in a way that’s attractive and easy for you to understand.

Once you grasp 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, while the Facebook front end receives this information and displays it to you in a pleasant, user-friendly interface.

The front end and back end are usually completely separate from each other. Facebook is constantly changing the back-end algorithms it uses to order content, but it’s rare for developers to alter the platform’s front end to reflect these changes.

Front End vs. Back End: The Skills Required

Now that you know the difference between the front end and back end of a website, which programming languages do you think are best to learn for each field?

Front-End Skills

The primary front-end languages are 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. One common usage is to denote a page’s title and headings. HTML itself is invisible to the end user, but its commands are not.
  • 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. Neither the CSS file nor the HTML, as mentioned, can be seen by the user; all they will see is a bold, green link.
  • JavaScript: A programming language used to create interactivity and dynamic content on a web page. JavaScript can do everything from displaying the current date and time to validating a user’s form input to adding animations. As with all programming languages, JavaScript is not visible to the end-user, but its effects on the objects it acts on--forms, images, etc.--are.

In tandem with these three pillars of front-end development, many programmers will employ a variety of frameworks and libraries to make it easier to write and organize their front-end code. These add-ons to HTML, CSS, and JavaScript aim to make development faster and more structured.

Some of the most popular front-end frameworks and libraries include Bootstrap, jQuery, AngularJS and React (for JavaScript), plus Sass and LESS (for CSS). Front-end devs must also use mobile-first or responsive design to ensure web pages render well across devices.

Back-End Skills

The roadmap for back-end development is a little less clear-cut. Software that runs on the back end can be written in hundreds of different programming languages, so back-end developers usually narrow things down to a handful of languages that are best suited for their needs. JavaScript, though initially a front-end language, is increasingly being used on the back end, thanks to the popular server framework Node.js. Other common back-end languages include Java, Python, Ruby, and PHP.

Like front-end developers, back-end developers, too, employ frameworks and libraries to take care of low-level technical details, so the developers themselves can focus on the higher-level tasks at hand. (Sort of like using the “SUM” function in Excel, instead of adding everything up yourself, to get a departmental budget done more quickly.) Back-end frameworks and libraries include Rails for the Ruby programming language, Laravel for PHP, and Django for Python.

Nearly every website that allows users to make requests will have a database on the back end. In addition to programming language know-how, back-end developers should have some experience with database technologies like Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, and MySQL. This knowledge is used to write business logic, or a set of rules, into the back-end code. Developers use these rules to dictate how to create database models, how to write to the database, and how to query it for relevant information.

General Skills

The languages, frameworks, and databases above are not the only tools developers need to be familiar with. There are a couple remaining technologies both front-end and back-end developers need to understand in order to be successful. Those include HTTP requests, the REST architectural style, and how clients and servers communicate over the internet. Other helpful concepts to learn are the model-view-controller (MVC) architectural pattern, platforms as a service (PaaS) such as AWS and Heroku, and version control systems like Git.

What to Expect on the Job

Now that you know the skills front-end and back-end developers need, it’s important to know what kind of daily routine and work environment you can expect.

Web developers generally fall into two camps: in-house employees and freelancers. Most freelancers have already accumulated several years of experience in-house before transitioning into freelance web development work by doing side projects, which they can leverage to build a portfolio and thus a clientele over time. A freelancer’s work day will vary depending on how many clients they have and what sort of work they’re doing for each. More of their time will be spent on non-development work--like organizing their calendars, management projects and putting together status reports, and keeping track of billable hours--as compared to in-house devs, who likely have a manager tasked with much of that.

In-house developers generally start their days by catching 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.

Web developers of all stripes spend a lot of time working in close collaboration with their colleagues--other web developers, web designers, QA testers, product managers, and other members of the IT and business teams. Nearly all web developers have at least one long meeting per week to establish or shuffle priorities and monitor progress, and many teams hold a daily stand-up meeting to quickly go over work completed and work in queue.

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, teams that use the agile development methodology work in “sprints cycles,” and often hold daily scrum meetings to go over completed tasks, roadblocks, and work in queue.

Enroll in a Program or Bootcamp

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--if you want to learn both--full-stack development. Instead of looking for the bootcamps that will be easiest or fastest to complete, your most important criteria should be whether the program will really prepare you for the job you see yourself in.

For example, bootcamps that focus exclusively on the Swift programming language will prepare you to develop iOS apps, but not to build websites. Bootcamps that teach you a wide range of skills might appear to give you a lot of flexibility, but you might not develop enough expertise in any single language to find a job. You’ll have to decide on the right balance between versatility and specialization so that you can successfully land a position in your chosen field.

If you’re just starting out, it’s wise to choose a bootcamp that teaches something versatile like JavaScript. Learning the ins and outs of this one language and becoming familiar with frameworks like AngularJS or ReactJS will allow you to work across multiple platforms and on both ends of web development--front- and back-end.

Now that you know the differences between front-end and back-end development, you are ready to research more on your own to figure out which kind of work most appeals to you.

See how front-end and back-end skills are woven into the curriculum at Fullstack Academy and Grace Hopper Program, or meet the team of instructors.

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