Is front-end development having an identity crisis?

Vernon Joyce on September 09, 2018

Courtesy Adobe Stock Does front-end development as a we know it still exist; or has the role evolved into something we no longer recognise? As... [Read Full]
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I wouldn't say exactly having an identity crisis, but the barrier to entry has certainly gone up. I'm sure when the web was still in its infancy, you could have a career with just HTML & CSS, but as more people get into it, the bigger competition gets, the more people evolve. Competition leads to innovation, right?

We're still doing the user interface bits of it all, but not only can we put together a design, we can also make it interactive - heck, we can make the whole thing run only on the front-end by only communicating with back-end API's for data exchange. There's some seriously cool stuff you can do as a front-end developer now that you couldn't back then. This isn't a bad thing. The job is ever-evolving and so should developers be.

 

I do agree with you and I am myself a big advocate of continual development and learning. The way I see it there is an opportunity to branch into either building really good interactive experiences, or you could branch into building the full-stack. So yes for sure you can't just stick to HTML and CSS (although perhaps this is more a web admin as opposed to a FED).

A recruiter recently told me that "React only really started picking up at the beginning of this year", this of course in relation to South Africa, but there seems to be an expectation to know React really well so it becomes difficult to get into that space.

To me the big thing is that we have to start calling things for what they are. I consider myself a full-stack developer but I am finding it hard to get into positions that are considered "front-end development" because of, as you mentioned, the barrier to entry. The crux of it is: let's not call it front-end development but let's call it by what it is (which could be web engineering, web developer, full-stack developer).

This might also be a reflection of the industry in my country where a lot of organisations are recruiting on an international standard whereas the industry itself has a lot yet to learn.

Thanks for reading bud!

 

I'm also a full-stack developer coming from years of PHP background and unfortunately there aren't many full-stack positions, so I have to pick between front-end or back-end (currently am at front-end). The problem with being full-stack is that full-stacks usually are (and I certainly am) a jack of all trades, master of none type of developers, so I'm always a step or two behind just pure front-end developers.

It's cool you mention React, which is something I just very recently started experimenting with to keep myself in the loop of things (So far, personally, prefer Vue.js).

I don't think one can treat our jobs as merely jobs, they are more like lifestyle choices, because in order to do what we do and keep up with the fast pace of change in our industry we can't just clock out at 5 and then not think about work - more often than not, we need to experiment with new stuff at home, if we can't at work, because otherwise we become obsolete and soon find ourselves in the unemployment line.

As far as title goes, if anybody asks, I'm a software engineer. Great post by the way, I love this topic.

You sound like someone I'd enjoy working with! Clear and succinct (and I happen to agree with all of it, including the quality of the OP).

To quote a Nicolas Cage skit; "That's high praise".

The full phrase is "A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one"

As a full-stack developer myself, I've found this to be very true. Sure, I might not know every front-end framework inside out, but I've got knowledge elsewhere that someone who's only ever focused on the front-end won't have.

Yes, but tell that to the job market. Apparently, at least in EU, it's very trendy to pay full-stacks less money than those who are specialized in either front-end or back-end only. It's unfortunate.

Because the businesses wanting "full stacks" are cheap and view thier tech as an overhead/commodity. For some reason people are willing to work for them. If I am building the back end I would laugh and walk off if you started going on about me touching the front end. It's like hiring a data scientist and then forcing them to do the data engineering work also. Rediculous and hoaky.

 

This is everything 👇
"in terms of the role which is often supplied by a Human Resources department with little understanding of what they are hiring for."

Across design and development positions. Company leaders just hear stuff on YouTube or BuzzFeed and slap it into their job descriptions willy-nilly, not realizing that they're seeking a brilliant, made-up unicorn employee. It's bananas. I'm all about stepping above and beyond to fulfill a role or a need, but at some point, when the logic has evaporated from expectations, it becomes unrealistic.

 

It’s a dilemma and not a new one. Job postings have been littered with unrealistic expectations for as long as I can remember. They’re often poorly written, and poorly understood by those who are writing them. So I take them with a grain of salt, first of all.

Now on the one hand I don't think I want to be typecast as frontend, or backend. But you need some sort of focus to what you're doing so the term fullstack still bothers me. The day is only so long. Put too many items on that tech requirements list and you are never keeping up with them.

 

I myself hate having to be labelled as either front-end, back-end or full-stack, but I feel that we don't really have a choice. Being a "unicorn" is both a blessing and a curse in that we are forced to pick a side when moving into new positions.

To your point around having only so many hours in the day - I find myself having this problem too. I WANT to learn about GraphQL right now but I can't seem to find an hour to sit down and get stuck in. Another problem with this is that I tend to learn in fragments and I never get really good at a single thing and this poses a problem for me when I look at some of the job postings for front-end developers.

How do we make the time to stay relevant?

 

"How do we make the time to stay relevant?"
Ha! You're asking the father of The World's Most Precocious Two-year Old Girl. I spend most of my "time" trying to figure out how to pack a week's worth of work into her two hour nap on Sunday. Mostly I just stare wistfully at blogposts that are discussing the things I'd like to be doing. Or taking a nap myself.

I say just do what you love and don't worry about what other people want you to be. When someone hires you it's just that. They did not re-hire the last person who had the job, they didn't hire some mythical know-it-all who doesn't exist. They hired YOU. So give them the best you can be because that's an experience they can't get from anyone else. There's your relevance.

 

Please, please, please for the love of all things do not use that god-forsaken term ‘front end designer’. If your job involves you using code, you are a developer. End of story. Yes, your role may require some design knowledge, but that doesn’t make you a designer. A designer – as I’m sure you appreciate – is someone who designs solutions to problems; usually in a tool like Sketch, XD or if they hate their developer colleagues, Photoshop.

You’re absolutely spot on that we need to reconsider the job title of front end developer. But I wold strongly suggest that the title UI developer fits better with the semantics of what people do when we’re talking about when we’re talking about specialists in HTML, CSS and interactional JS.

In addition, using the word designer only gives ammunition to the gatekeepers in this industry who proclaim people who only know HTML, CSS and interactional JS ‘aren’t real developers’. We have to be really careful with the language we use as it can – and does – have unintended consequences.

 

Excellent comment. I think this is really, really important to note.

  • Tip of the hat to you, good sir.
 

I'm currently employed as "Full-Stack Developer" which basically includes (but is not limited to) replicating mocks using HTML and CSS in an Angular application; optimizing the Angular application with caching strategies, bundling, etc.; maintaining and adding features to a monolithic Spring application; and refactoring the Spring application into a micro-services based architecture. All of this includes TDD, coverage and bench marking regularly. There is no CI/CD setup so I'm basically the lead on that endeavor for the refactoring project and did I mention this is my first job as a developer? The job description for this position was basically "Java developer with experience in micro-services and JavaScript". Don't get me wrong, I'm really glad I found this job. It's got a great pay and benefits and I live in NYC which has always been dream location for me but this is way more than I expected for my first developer job. I was bar tending just last year!

 

I'm in that dilemma. For most of my career I've been working on the Front End, but during this journey towards making things better and automating things that I don't like to do, I ended up with a solid understanding of NodeJS and data bases.

I still call myself a FED, but when looking for a job, it is hard to describe the kind of value I can bring to the table.

 

"I still call myself a FED, but when looking for a job, it is hard to describe the kind of value I can bring to the table."

This really resonates with me. Matching your skills with a job spec is hard because really there aren't a lot of roles that exist for people with comb-shaped skills.

 

As you righfully noticed, some parts of what's done on the backend (e.g. with PHP) constitutes the UI delivered to the browser, so these parts are relevant to frontend jobs. Some of that UI requires building network APIs, so that's relevant. UI puts requirements onto the application state persisted somewhere on the servers, so general API design and database structure is relevant, too.

Given the complexity of the modern UIs the browser-side is no longer enough.

Titles are hard. Some companies say "UI Engineer" which is closer to what the modern frontend has become, i.e. full-stack implementation of UI features. The client-server architecture is an implementation detail of a web UI so it's silly to split responsibilities based on technologies used. Technologies are chosen to implement products, not vice versa.

 

So I do agree with you, in some contexts some backend languages are very relevant.

Personally I started learning PHP because I had to build forms to send emails and later I needed to make changes to Wordpress templates.

But this creates a problem as I actually don’t understand how PHP works at its core. I would fail interview questions and I have no desire to deep dive into the language. I might be able to do the job but since I don’t understand a fundamental programming concept I might be deemed not qualified for the role.

Also I like UI engineer as a title!

 

Tech deep dives are off the table for me. I only do conversational style interviews. I try to feel them out as much as possible but if I get in an interview and it slips into deep-dive I just say "I don't know" to everything to end it ASAP.

Tech deep dives are a really bad sign. At the least you are being treated as a commodity.

 

I'm a front-end developer specialised on HTML/CSS scalable and modular architectures and my JS skills are not so advanced allowing me to build a PWA from scratch. I think there are a many specialisations and they should not mixed. A lot of JS FED aren't able to build a scalable CSS and HTML architectures (most of them doesn't know about 60% of CSS possibilities) so that's why there are people focused on the UI (that it doesn't mean building only js components).

 

Thanks Mattia, I can very much relate to your situation. I have 12 years experience in CSS and I feel that’s often taken for granted.

I’ve recently started building scalable SASS architectures (design systems or UI libraries) and you can only do this if you have a really good understanding of SASS and CSS.

I think there is a speciality space in CSS and HTML especially when building large projects.

 

This is so true, to avoid this kind of unrealistic recruiters and offers, I had mentioned in very clearly that I develop only javascript application, because I work mainly on back-end api development and write front-end code too (but don't do the designing part), people refer us Full Stack developers, but I had seen even though clearly mentioned what I do, even big shot recruiters (from Big companies) contact me and in requirement I see they looking for skills like python, Java, go etc, just pathetic, they expect a JavaScript developer to work in the languages where they are not really interested, this is strange but true fact.

 

Hopefully you will take your nicely defined scope for a FED and help HR out next time you need one wherever you work.

One thing I have noticed in doing this for a few years, getting hired and being involved in a hiring process, those in charge have no idea what is going on really from a team organization and skill standpoint.

The "I want a person who can do everything" makes their jobs easier. It does little however for overall effectiveness outside of small teams doing very complex work. Its a cop out for being able to build and actual team of people with expertise in differing technologies. HR also needs criteria to filter candidates on so they throw every keyword in the business in the job description. Then depending on how much they want to pay they will throw junior, mid, senior on there with a smack of programmer, developer, or engineer.

 

I agree to the fact that the difference should be clear in order to give the right importance to every specialty like developing rich animated experiences in contrast to engineering scalable fast user interfaces just to exemplify.

The article exposes a very truthful and overlooked fact. The industry is expecting unicorns, but are they willing to pay a unicorn for what is worth?

 

I never fully understood what is the purpose in defining someone a front-end engineer to be honest.
As an engineer I was raised to know "all", from databases to OOP, from designing circuits for iot to scripting language.
In my startup our approach is to leave to a designer the design of the UI, and for us to reproduce it, as it would be really an unnecessary pain to integrate two different part (front-end and back-end).
I personally find it more Agile and easy to organise, hence I find the only suitable figure to be a full-stack developer.

 

From a workflow perspective I agree with you, it makes complete sense for a single developer to handle most of the development work and have that intermediate step (i.e someone that just builds UI). I personally believe that the UI designer should be doing the front-end work whereas the engineers build the integrations.

Another thing I was getting at is what you mention in your comment. You know about a lot of things as an engineer; and in that role it makes sense that you should. But it feels as if a lot of that responsibility is moving towards the front-end developer now. It's not necessarily wrong; perhaps front-end developers should be learning these skills; but then we have to standardize it or the list of required skills just becomes too long.

 

As others have said, this is primarily a disconnect between HR/Management and the teams that really know what the skills are that they need. The job title I have is “Director of Software Development”, but if anyone asks what I do for a living, I say “Software Engineer“. I’m what would probably be classified as a full-stack developer. Which title/description best describes me and my 25+ years of experience? Depends.

The model that has worked for us (IT division at a large research university) is to allow the TEAM to come up with the job descriptions. The only thing HR does is vet the language to make sure we are as inclusive to as wide a group of applicants as possible. Our technical leadership will occasionally adjust the postings based on initiatives we think we might need in 2-3 yrs time.

I have interviewed a lot of people over my career,and I have never missed on a person who in their interview said “I don’t know technology Z, but I know technologies W, X, and Y, which are similar, so there is no reason I can’t learn Z”.

Our industry moves to fast to get hung up on labels. Be a good co-worker, encourage those who are struggling, accept help when offered, learn for defeat and share success. And always learn. The rest will take care of itself.

 

I love this discussion! I am really struggling with where I currently identify as a developer. I primarily do custom-built WordPress sites and am most fluent in HTML, CSS, and Javascript. However, my role has demanded that I learn more about the 'back end' technologies. It's frustrating because I'm not sure which to tackle first, if at all. I would love to expand my skill-set but am torn which direction to take my dev skills since there is no clear standard. It also feels extremely realistic to be knowledgeable in all of these different areas AND still devote enough time to being a great UI designer (since I am passionate about both design and dev).

 

I think a good modern description of FED would be

"Developing the user-side of the API"
or
"Developing user-interfaces"

How this looks in detail, and who you need, depends on the company and the project.
A Silicon-Valley-Startup-FED will differ vastly from the same role in a traditional European company.

I wouldn't focus so much on the "hard" requirements on Job-Ads, apply anyways, we're in demand!

 

I like your descriptions Antonio and I do agree with you.

Personally I apply regardless of the role - I’m very much about “fake it till you make it” (to my own detriment I’m sure)

 

This is article is everything, especially now that I’m looking for a job. Sometimes the skills that are perfect for a job aren’t perfect to another, and being a FED lately means that you can develop in most of these front-end frameworks and at least understand how the backend works. Sometimes it’s frustrating because we know so many technologies but it’s never enough for HR.

I hope others can appreciate the level of commitment and learning for a front-end position. Thank you so much for publishing this article!

 

Thanks for the feedback Lis, and all the best for your job hunt!

 

Whether or not something like functional programming is an expectation depends on the FE position in question, e.g., if my FE is built in Elm, it's an expectation, because it's likely I don't have the time to train up somebody in FP.

Regarding the position requiring Java and MongoDB, that's not an FE position, it's full stack, if they're expected to do anything other than interop with the non-FE techs. Calling it an FE position doesn't make it one.

You're also limiting this to web development, which while the primary consumer of "front end" development, isn't the only one, e.g., there are new apps where there might be a Swing, JavaFX, or whatever the MS equivalent is. FE just means "immediately user-facing", which isn't only the web. Obviously that's a very small portion of FE jobs these days--just sayin'.

The examples shown seem to boil down to labeling problems, not definition problems.

 

So yes, primarily my point is really that the labels are wrong (I.e the job titles). I’m completely aware of the landscape as it currently stands, and I’m a realist, don’t get me wrong. This is exactly the case for the Java role as it should have been labeled full-stack as opposed to FED.

But I’ll give you a very practical example.

I know plenty of front-end developers who work in agencies. At a stretch they might use some Angular but they are mostly responsible for building interactive web experiences for brands - which is very different to building data driven web applications. If 99% of FED roles ask for some sort of back end or Reaxt experience where would that leave them?

Perhaps the onus is on them to upskill and keep up with tech, but if you work full time that’s often very hard to do.

I do concur that my experience is completely based on web so perhaps my opinion is biased.

 

I don't really understand what the problem. It's perfectly ok to look for a Software Engineer with experience in a specific version of a language, and experience with frameworks, and even domain.

Once I posted two job specs for Java Developers:

  • Java 8 developer, with experience in delivering Regulatory Projects and Oracle DB.
  • Java 8 developer, with experience in working with Spring Cloud, and API Design.

Those were two different people.

 

So much this! I just ended a 5 year stint at Cisco, where I started as "the CSS guy" who picked up what I could of what was thrown at me. Toward the end of my time, I was waist-deep in AngularJS, TypeScript, Node, and React. Definitely a challenging time but it made me appreciate my little niche a bit more, and I'm hoping most of my work will continue in that vein but am also glad to be a more fully-rounded "web designer," as it were.

 

"We forgive back-end developers for not knowing CSS and interactive JavaScript..."

We don't. Spend some time looking for a back-end development position, and you will find listing after listing calling for experience with Angular/React/Whatever.js.

 

The lines are blurred and have been for quite a while regarding what was web-design --> front-end development --> full-stack development --> to "I have no idea on how to classify my occupation". I decided to walk away from it all last year. I regret not jumping head first into programming, back when I decided to take up web design as a major at the local university...
Recruiters have no idea what they are looking for, they go with keywords and then its a pageantry from that point on because they are not programmers or developers.

 

I definitely agree how the lines have gotten much blurrier, in my opinion due mostly to JavaScript. The growth of JS frameworks, Node, React, and its proliferation into at least one part of any web project, are the biggest ones. But considering how many programmer positions need to move between different focuses anyway (such as FEDs needing to play with the back-end sometimes), it was always ready to keep on blurring.

It's definitely past the point where a FED can have reliable work with just HTML, CSS, and some JS. But I think there's enough FED focuses that haven't bled over yet, such as progressively layering styles, accessibility, responsive design, and managing design systems/style guides/pattern libraries. Certainly in my position there's been plenty similar ones I've done the most work on, while the back-end focused devs worked mostly in Ruby, APIs, or server-related tasks.

So while the role is changing, I still think FEDs have an identity they can focus their common skills around. But those skills will likely shift along with the landscape to some extent. They'll always be there though.

 

Just a note, Angular and React are not languages they are frameworks/libraries.

 

I never said either were a language.

“Where do we draw the line then in terms of what is considered a front-end language or framework?

Which frameworks or libraries then should be part of the role's scope if we are excluding PHP, C#, Java etc? JQuery for example is a the perfect tool for building interactivity for the web, where most front-end developers might argue that it's better to learn Vue.

Libraries like React on the other hand requires a developer to learn concepts that traditionally were not associated with the front-end”

 

? you said exactly that.

Languages like Angular and React require developers to have a much deeper understanding of programming concepts; concepts that might have historically been associated only with the back-end. MVC, functional programming, high-order functions, hoisting... hard concepts to grasp if your background is in HTML, CSS and basic interactive JavaScript.

reactjs.org/

A JavaScript library for building user interfaces

angular.io/

One framework. Mobile & desktop.

BTW it was just a suggestion.

 
 

As I see it there aren't front-end and back-end developers, there are just developers. There are roles that involve mostly or exclusively front-end and back-end web development, and should maybe be called front-end or back-end, but the defining characteristic of a developer is that they can learn technologies and languages and use them to solve a given problem.

Standardizing the role might make sense within a given company, but across companies the requirements are likely to vary, and the front-end technology landscape evolves from month to month.

 
 

Great article.
My politically incorrect though on that is everything is really messed up. And it is in a very fast pace - there is no time for a peaceful consideration on anything.

 

Great article.
My politically incorrect though on that is everything is really messed up. And it is in a very fast pace - there is no time for a peaceful consideration on anything.

 

I do agree - in this industry we are especially susceptible to not being able to take a step back to plan ahead as we are always on to the next. It’s hard.

 

This distinction really speaks to me:

"the one builds applications and the other builds experiences."

 

This post hits the nail on the head. Not only is there an issue with most job descriptions, but you could prepare for the interview for angular/react(eg. mixing paint colors) and come to find out during the interview they start asking you how to mix paint and how to change the oil and swap out the engine and pull dents, while the fresh info on your mind are about mixing paint. It why after so may years I have no choice but to become a full-stack developer, even though I enjoy back-end development and databases, I'm having to learn the front-end frameworks and all that comes with it.

Now I sit home without a job because someone decided to make me wait 2 months for a second interview and then finally they decided I wasn't a good fit because I didn't answer a question to their liking. The problem is that all this knowledge and so-called technical "wisdom" is good for nothing, try to use it to survive in the woods, HA! go use your ruby language knowledge to start a camp fire. You can't! Use it to make you an sandwich! Good luck! Ok maybe with robots and AI we are going somewhere in that regard, but what comes along with robots, is they could at a flip of a switch start killing humans instead of making them sandwiches.

So while so many people take this stuff so seriously an think it's so important, really it's not. Really most people only know lies and are far from the truth. On TV and other media all you see is a rotating globe, but when you look at the real world, it sure looks flat, and doesn't move not only that but you only feel movement when you are drunk. Youtube search "Russianvids" to know more about how much everyone is actually deceived in this world, the reality is all this tech is not good for us humans, it's just another form of magic, a lesser magic, to control people and to control their minds and take time away from the things that really matter.

Really all this stuff falls into the plans of the elites who rule the world, they control our minds, they tell us what to think, how to think and what the do and how to act. The reality is none of this tech is all that important as its made out to be. It's all a form of mind control. They say money makes the world go round, but the reality is the world is stationary and doesn't go around. Water finds it level and there seems to be no way to measure any curvature.

So to my original point of the comment is, people judge wrongfully, they have no clue what they are doing and expect others to fall into their scope of thinking blindly, not even knowing that they don't know. Really what all this comes down to, why the expectations are growing isn't simply because more developers are joining the market and the tech is evolving but it's because the people who rule the world need these things in order so they can control the world and our minds even more. They can't do it as effectively without us doing it to ourselves.

 

I’m sorry to hear about your job predicament - that’s not cool. It does however add to the point I’m making so thanks for sharing.

I had a very similar experience (although with a different ending). I had botched a whiteboard style logic question - and I admit it was a simple question that I over complicated the answer to.

This cost me that job, even though I answered every single React question without a hitch (by the way the job was for a “Senior React Developer”).

As for systems of control - I have many views on that but haven’t thought about it much within this space. You’ve definitely given me something to ponder...

 

This has been the outcome for the last 6 months for me. Along the way I try to tell people the truth but they refuse to believe, it's easier to keep believing the lies they have known all the time and so it doesn't help me much to mention to them that all that stuff they know is lies. In fact, most people only know what they're told, which is not necessarily the truth, but necessarily lies masquerading as truth. In school they don't teach people how to think, they teach people what to think.

Another instance is when I applied for a ruby developer and even though I know rails good enough just because I forgot the answer to a question question and said "I can't remember", I didn't get the job. Doesn't mean I can't look it up when I need it, and the guy must not think that way. Most people think you have to memories all of it, and forget we can search for stuff online. In the beginning of the interview the guy didn't even introduce himself, he just said "Go ahead", and said "Go ahead?" and he's like, "Yeah, go ahead". Mostly people get so full of themselves and are clueless about true wisdom, all this tech wisdom is not wisdom at all.

All this tech we keep building out will be used by the elites to control us and kill us later, so think about that.

I found your post on hacker news and created an account on dev.to because of that. So thanks for that and thanks for the great posting.

I recently wrote a post of my own, granted it's not very well written since I did it fast and there's just to much info on these topics. You can find the post on my dev.to page, but here's the link to it.

dev.to/mcflat/did-you-build-your-h...

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