A front-end developer is someone who works on software, like desktop or mobile websites, that users interact with. Specifically, a front-end developer spends time on the side of technology that the user touches and sees.
The front end is also commonly referred to as the client side, or more broadly speaking, the user interface.
While many people use front end to describe website-related development, it can refer to any software that a user interacts with.
For the purpose of this article, let’s use a broader definition: front-end development can include the engineering work done on mobile apps of desktop software.
When I first learned about front-end development I heard a simple metaphor from a teacher that I have not forgotten.
I want to share this metaphor with you.
Front-end development is akin to building the buttons on an automated teller machine (ATM).
It goes without saying that the client side of an ATM is mission critical for withdrawing money.
But it is just one part of the process.
The back end of the ATM needs to store cash and properly account for withdrawals. The front end is what the user touches and interacts with when completing the transaction.
Taking this example back to the world of software, front-end engineers work in close collaboration with back-end engineers, designers, and product managers to design and build products holistically.
Let’s walk through a front-end developer's interaction with each stakeholder they will engage with when building a website or application.
Firstly, a front-end developer must work with back-end engineers who manage the servers, instances, databases, and storage that modern applications and sites run on.
Much of the work between front-end and back-end developers is what drives cloud computing, which is the on-demand delivery of IT resources over the internet.
Secondly, front-end developers interact frequently with designers. Designers are responsible for the look and feel of products.
A designer owns the color scheme, layout, and usability requirements.
Designers help bring style, aesthetic frameworks, and schemas to the forefront so that the front-end developer can bring all of these attributes together for end users.
Thirdly, a front-end engineer will have a relationship with the product manager, the stakeholder most responsible for thinking strategically about how to build and bring a product to market.
Product managers own the product experience, the profit and loss of a product, and launch and marketing guidelines.
If you want to explore the field of front-end development, you should be prepared to work in a dynamic and collaborative manner with other internal technical stakeholders to drive your product forward.
Necessary Technical Competencies for Front-End Development
In order to become a front-end developer, you not only need to understand the nature of the work (which I have attempted to demystify above). You also need technical skills.
To think about it formulaically, front-end development is about engaging other stakeholders + helping users + working with technology.
Learning how to write these languages and how they interact with each other is imperative to being an effective front-end engineer.
While writing this piece I interviewed a close friend who is a product manager at a large technology company.
I asked him the following questions to provide you - the reader - with more guidance:
- What makes a great front-end developer?
- How does a front-end developer demonstrate ownership when building a product?
His answers are illuminating.
If you are applying for a job as a front-end engineer, or want to become a better front-end developer, you would be wise to incorporate his guidance into your work.
What makes a great front-end developer?
“A strong and effective front-end developer shows a determined focus and obsession on what users and customers need and want.
They start with the use-case of the customer and works backwards, working tirelessly to earn and maintain customer trust by building the front-end of products.
Strong front-end developers own their products and own solutions. They need to think medium to long term while delivering immediate product results.
A good front-end developer uses project tracking tools to track changes, demonstrate progress, and most importantly let their peers know why changes are being made and when.
A front-end developer knows what their job entails and stays in their lane.
Lastly, a strong front-end engineer strives to invent and simplify.
By bringing a spirit of innovation to work, this developer may suggest improvements to the product, back-end APIs, or other aspects of the technical stack that make the product more usable and more effective.”
How does a front-end developer demonstrate ownership when building a product?
“A front-end developer is curious and this curiosity drives their ownership in the success and growth of a product.
The engineer never stops seeking ways to improve the product, or themselves.
Lastly, the front-end engineer has and maintains high standards. They raise the bar for product excellence - speed, operational efficiency, security, reliability - and ensure that defects do not get sent down the line.
These are attributes that front-end developers demonstrate when contributing to the building of products.
If you are a front-end developer, you need to communicate with your team.
You need to manage complexity, celebrate wins, and send product launch emails.
This is ownership and this is leadership.
In summary, front-end developers are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable. They show conviction.”
Jobs and Common Skills Needed
Now that you know what a front-end developer does, who a front-end developer interacts with, and what makes someone effective at this job, let’s turn to the skills needed to interview for and accept a role in this field.
Web development jobs are in high demand.
If you enjoy writing, testing, and deploying software, creating websites, or using HTML and CSS to interact with databases and services, you might thrive in a web-development career.
I reviewed dozens of front-end development jobs to summarize the core skills that nearly all job postings desired. Here are the top five attributes you must demonstrate:
- Proven technical skills in web programming;
- Demonstrated skills with HTML and CSS;
- Experience working with others to test, diagnose, and analyze software;
- An understanding of security and best development practices.
Bringing It All Together: Examples and Conclusion
The day to day responsibilities of a front-end developer may vary depending on the technology that your job or team uses.
Regardless of the tech stack, you should expect to play a substantial role in shaping the front-end culture, have technical ownership of one or more of products, and be a subject matter expert on the software architecture.
Whether you start an online business, join a small company like a fintech startup, or manage engineering teams at large enterprises, you will need to navigate these processes and work-flows to drive value.
Remember the ATM metaphor.
If you want to help users withdraw cash from the machine - and find that to be worthwhile and exciting - you are well on your way to building products that add value to users.
This will make your career exciting and worthwhile.
Here are additional and specific examples that can inspire you to dive deeper and become a front-end developer.
Runners Athletics is a website that brings together a simple and elegant UI with powerful e-commerce backend ordering flow.
If you want to sell products on the internet a front-end engineer will need to bring together the clickable CTAs (Calls To Action) with back-end payment and ordering systems.
Many sites prompt you for your email or contact information. Signup forms are good examples of front-end design.
They are action oriented, easy for the user to engage with, and help a company or website collect valuable information.
Front-end work can improve not only mobile and desktop sites but video social media tools as well. Front-end developers can help the browser edit and compress videos and render better visual displays.
Offeo.com leverages front-end developers to build work-flow tools and ready-made templates for video as well.
A front-end developer had to build these compelling templates that interact with payments, color schemes, and graphics.