Your Answer to: "What's the Difference Between Front-End, Back-End, and Full-Stack Engineering?"

I used to think that you were either a web designer or a web developer. Or maybe you were one of those rare unicorns who did both. But either way, you either worked on the design of the site, or the code that made it work.

And then I started seeing all these job listings asking for “front-end developers” or “back-end developers” and even “full-stack developers.” What the heck does that mean?

After a little research, I found out that as the web has grown more complex and as more becomes possible on the internet, developers have gotten more specialized. And that means instead of developers who do it all, a lot of them focus on specific parts of development, whether that’s a specific programming language, framework, or other technical area of expertise.

Still not sure what that means? Read on for more insight into what front-end, back-end, and full-stack developers each do (and why the lines between them are getting really blurry).

Front-End

The front end of a website is the part a user sees and directly interacts with. It’s built with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

HTML (HyperText Markup Language) is the backbone of the web. Every website you visit is built with HTML. It takes care of all the structure and content. HTML5 is the current iteration of HTML on the web, although sites built with older versions still run fine in your browser.

CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) is what controls the way the HTML looks on the page. CSS sets the colors, fonts, background images, and even the way the page is laid out (you can use CSS to arrange the HTML elements on a page however you want, even if it’s different than the order they’re arranged in the HTML file). CSS3 is the current iteration of CSS on the web, and adds a ton of features for things like basic interactivity and animations.

Now, you can create a website with just HTML and CSS, but it’s JavaScript that’s really the gamechanger (plus, it’s what’s causing all the aforementioned blurriness). JavaScript lets you do many, many things, but to put it simply, it lets you add in interactivity, more complex animations, and even makes it possible to build fully featured web applications.

Back in the day (like 2012), web browsers used to be really bad at interpreting a lot of JavaScript, so adding complex functionality with JS wasn’t always a good idea. But, browsers have gotten much more powerful, making it possible to do with JavaScript what used to be reserved for “back-end” programming languages. And, there have been advances in JavaScript itself (including the creation of frameworks like AngularJs, jQuery, and Node.js). In short, what happened is that what we mean by “front-end” development has radically changed in just a few short years.

It’s the internet, what can we say!

In short, front-end developers use HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to code up websites. They’re the ones who take the design and create a functioning website from it. Some sites are only built with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Other sites, however, have more code hidden away in the back end of the site, to augment or enhance the front end of the site.

Check out front-end job openings now!

Back-End

While the front end is everything the user interacts with directly, the back end is much more behind-the-scenes and can have some advantages over front-end technologies for specific projects. Back-end programming languages include PHP, Ruby, Python, and more.

One thing to note: You’re probably not going to see many job listings that say a company is looking for a “back-end developer.” Instead, you’ll find listings looking for Ruby developers or PHP developers, because the actual programming language a developer knows is key to being the right fit for a particular job.

As far as what you can do with a back-end language that you can’t do with JavaScript, the list is much more limited today than it used to be. One key difference: Most content management systems are built on a back-end programming language, as are many large, complex web applications. JavaScript can suffer from performance issues (such as it gets slow or even buggy) in some cases, so while it’s now possible to use JS to build just about anything you can think of, sometimes there are still better solutions out there. Learning to code will teach you to find the best solution for your specific problem, and sometimes that means using a back-end language.

Back-end developers generally work with a front-end developer to make their code work within the site’s design (or to tweak that design when necessary) and front end.

Check out back-end job openings now!

Full-Stack

Full-stack developers work with both the front and back end of a website. They’re familiar with HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and one or more back-end languages.

As the line between what can be done on the front end vs. the back end becomes more and more similar, and as things that were previously only possible on the back end become possible on the front end, more developers are becoming what we call “full-stack.” A lot of employers (especially agencies who work on different kinds of sites) are looking for developers who know how to work on all the parts of a site, so they can use the best tools for the job regardless of whether it’s technically “front-end” or “back-end.”

Now, contrary to what a lot of people think, “full-stack” doesn’t necessarily mean a developer is actually writing all of a site’s code themselves. Many full-stack developers spend the majority of their time in either the front or back end code of a site.

But, the point is that they know enough about the code across the entire stack that they can dive in anywhere if needed. And some full-stack developers do code entire websites, including both the front and back ends, but usually only if they are working freelance or are the only developer working on a project.

Most full-stack developers specialize in a particular back-end programming language, like Ruby or PHP or Python, although some, especially if they’ve been working as a developer for a while, work with more than one. In job listings, you’ll generally see openings for “full-stack Ruby developer” or the like.

Check out full-stack job openings now!

The great thing about learning web development is that it’s always changing, so even if you do choose an area, chances are that within a few years what it means to be a “front-end” or “back-end” developer will radically change. Learning both front and back-end languages is a great way to make yourself a more valuable, forward-thinking, and versatile developer, because it’s not likely that you’ll actually be able to focus exclusively on one or the other.

Not sure where to start? Check out the free Ultimate Guide to Coding for Beginners for a roadmap to learning tech skills.

This article was originally published on Skillcrush. It has been republished here with permission.

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