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Front-End vs. Back-End Web Developer: What’s the Difference?

Dec 13, 2023

Nearly everybody uses the internet today to some extent. From scrolling through Facebook and YouTube to participating in virtual job interviews, people across the world go online to fulfill various needs. Thanks to the developers who build and maintain websites and applications, billions of people can access and share information with the click—or tap—of a button.

But what exactly do web developers do? This article covers what front-end and back-end web developers are, what their job duties look like, and how these two roles compare.

Understanding the Role of a Web Developer

Web developers create functional, appealing websites for users to interact with. When you sign into social media, purchase online products, write in your personal blog, or conduct business analytics, you are engaging with the work of web developers. What you see—and even what you don’t see—on the many websites you visit are products of a developer’s initiative and skill.

Web developers work as part of a team of software engineers, programmers, and designers to lay the infrastructure of websites and continually iterate and improve on that foundation. Developers are usually in charge of how a website looks, how it works, and what elements go into its construction. They walk a tightrope of digital function and aesthetic—they manage the nuts, bolts, and gears behind the scenes in addition to the style and form that appear on the page.

Web development itself is often categorized into the distinct fields of front-end and back-end development. Both front-end and back-end developers share much of the same knowledge and many similar skills, but they specialize in different domains of a website’s life cycle. Yet more developers may choose to work in each domain, using a balanced skill set to accomplish their tasks. These kinds of developers are commonly known as full-stack developers.

Front-End Web Development

The aspects of a website you see while you browse the internet compose the front end. This includes text, images, colors, menus, links, and more that work in unity to create a holistic user experience. Front-end developers help realize this user experience through writing and debugging the code that makes up the front end. These developers are typically known as client-side or client-facing developers, as the work they do is immediately apparent to website users.

A major component of front-end development includes manipulating Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to give structure and meaning to a website. Common front-end dev duties include:

  • Coding new website pages and elements
  • Testing and editing web elements
  • Collaborating with programmers and designers to create user interfaces
  • Deciding web page layout and functionality
  • Measuring and recording website performance
  • Troubleshooting with clients and users

Resources Used for Front-End Web Development

Building and maintaining the client-facing side of a website requires many resources. These resources may range from individual programming languages like JavaScript to entire libraries and frameworks that enable user interaction with the website. Front-end developers train to become proficient with these tools to craft high-quality websites across numerous platforms.

Front-end development relies heavily on HTML to provide the basic backbone for websites. HTML is a text-encoding system that developers write out in a document and then send to a web browser. Various HTML elements—which make up the overall syntax of the code—are brought together to establish a website skeleton. By using HTML, developers can tell the web browser how a web page should look, including where headings, paragraphs, and images go.

Developers on the front end use languages like CSS and JavaScript to elaborate upon HTML’s foundations. CSS helps define the visual structure and style of a page by adding different colors, text sizes, and margins. JavaScript is an object-oriented, just-in-time coding language, which makes it perfect for applying visually appealing modules like buttons, drop-down menus, chat boxes, and more.

Libraries and frameworks are also incorporated to fine-tune web pages and website elements. These tools are sets of prewritten code used to resolve common problems and optimize efficiency in website development. Some examples of libraries and frameworks include the following:

  • AngularJS
  • jQuery
  • Backbone
  • Foundation
  • Bootstrap
  • React

 Back-End Web Development

Just as a car contains its engine and other vital components under the hood, so too does a website include complex programming in its back end. Back-end development concerns the behind-the-scenes software and coding that keep websites up and running. The back end is server facing, meaning it is connected to a server that relays data and provides functionality to a client computer.

When users enter information on a website, like inputting their email address, it goes through back-end pipelines and into the server for processing. Application programming interfaces (APIs) are used to keep communication channels open between computers and servers, and these interfaces live in a website’s back end.

The Role of a Back-End Web Developer

You might consider the role of back-end developers as the “unsung heroes” of web development since much of what they do isn’t clearly apparent to end users. Back-end devs write and edit the hidden code that maintains a website’s operability. They keep watch over and make changes to APIs as needed. In essence, they’re responsible for organizing the underlying logic of a website.

Back-end developers also manage the databases that store and retrieve website data. Such data includes user and session information, product and order details, and other useful items. Databases help maintain—and in some cases increase—website security, scalability, and ease of use.

Because back-end web developers spend a lot of time with complex sets of code and data, they need to acquire a range of skills, which usually include:

  • Attention to detail
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Programming language fluency, especially in Python, Java, and C#
  • Understanding of basic website architecture
  • Debugging and troubleshooting skills
  • Knowledge of back-end frameworks and libraries
  • Familiarity with servers

Resources Used for Back-End Web Development

Back-end devs make extensive use of programming languages, databases, and language libraries to accomplish their duties. While these devs may be versed in HTML and CSS, they often spend most of the time writing in Python, Java, and C#. Regarding database management, back-end devs use scripting languages like SQL and software like MySQL to conveniently interact with stored data sets.

Libraries for back-end development help take pressure off of devs, providing templates of code that convey a wide range of meaning. This allows devs to spend a majority of their time polishing ready-made code rather than starting from scratch. Examples of back-end libraries include Django, Ruby on Rails, Flask, and Laravel.

Additionally, many back-end developers opt to attend coding bootcamps to learn or brush up on programming language skills quickly and affordably. These bootcamps can be a great avenue to a fulfilling web development job.

Client Side vs. Server Side

Client-side (front-end) development and server-side (back-end) development bring different aspects of programming and design to the table. While the client side emphasizes how coding can directly influence user interface and experience, the server side focuses more on the background processes of database and server management that give purpose and life to websites.

Neither one is more important than the other, and whether you gravitate toward the client side or the server side depends on your overall interests and goals.

What’s Next?

As you prepare for a career in web development, consider WGU for a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, or certification that can help you stand above the competition. WGU offers accredited, online programs in IT—including a bachelor’s in software engineering—that let you study at your own pace, with no set log-in times for coursework. Our competency-based learning model allows you to progress through courses as quickly as you prove mastery of the material, potentially graduating faster and saving money. Our software engineering degree also enhances your résumé with multiple industry-recognized certifications from AWS, CompTIA, and ITIL® built into the curriculum.

Alternatively, you could earn an industry-recognized certificate in front-end development that grants specialized skills in front-end design, HTML, and JavaScript.

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