A Frontend vs Backend Developer: Two Sides of the Web Development Coin
Confused by the difference between frontend and backend development? We’re here to help you clear the fog away.
Front end vs back end development, full stack developer vs front end developer, UI developer vs front end developer… the list goes on. These and other terms may sound bewildering to many, especially to those without a web development background. In this post, we tackle this confusion and explain the most common roles that various professionals play in the process of creating websites and web applications.
Web development is a broad technological area that deals with creating visually attractive and well-functioning websites and web applications. In their work, professionals who build these solutions use a wide range of programming languages, frameworks, and tools.
All of these developers have one common goal — to ensure that the final product looks perfect, operates smoothly, and fulfills the ultimate objective that the client has specified. That being said, there are two sides to the web development coin.
One is related to what visitors see on the screen. The other handles the inner workings of the site, such as database management and sending requests to a server. These are, respectively, the front end and back end of a web solution.
If you’ve come across these terms and wondered what exactly the difference between a front end and back end developer is, this post is for you.
Frontend vs Backend Web Development: The Main Differences
As we mentioned when drawing the general distinction between frontend and backend development above, the former deals with what users see in their web browsers. A frontend developer takes the mockup (an image) of a website that a web designer has made and converts it into a functioning web solution that users can interact with.
Users can then interact with these controls separately: choose an option in a dropdown, fill out a form, select a checkbox, and so on. This is not possible with a mockup, which is just an image of the page in its entirety.
What a Frontend Developer Needs to Know
Let’s take a look at what function each of these three important frontend tools performs.
HTML: A Skeleton of a Web Page
HTML stands for Hypertext Markup Language. It provides a skeleton of a webpage. HTML uses a number of element descriptors called tags to give a web page a specific structure. Each web element has its own tag and its own location on a page. For example, the ‘<form>’ tag reserves a space for a form, while the ‘<p>’ tag defines a paragraph.
CSS: The “Flesh and Blood” of a Web Page
HTML creates the structure of a site, and that’s all. If you run a page that only has HTML tags with some content inside, it will look like an ordinary text you might have typed in a word processor. To make a web page visually attractive with the elements having appropriate styles (colors, borders, font face and size, and so on), frontend developers apply CSS or Cascading Style Sheets.
CSS is a technology that enables frontend developers to describe the style of each web page component using certain properties organized into rules.
Thanks to CSS, visitors see web pages as, well, web pages we’re used to seeing and not as plain text, controls, and images haphazardly grouped in one corner of the page.
One of the most serious of these is verbosity. Frontend developers have to repeat the same syntactic structures over and over, making the code long and hard to debug. Another problem that frontend developers face is the ever-increasing complexity of modern user interfaces with a lot of interactive features.
By using these superstructures, frontend developers can build website interfaces much faster. The resulting code is also much leaner and easier to test.
In addition to knowing how to write code, frontend developers should also be able to work with graphic software, including Photoshop, Sketch, Figma, Adobe XD, and similar editors.
Let’s continue discussing the difference between a front end and back end web developer. As the name suggests, backend developers are concerned with the under-the-hood operation of a website or web application.
A front end without a back end is like a car without an engine. Just sit behind the wheel of a car like this. Turn the ignition key and press the accelerator pedal. Nothing happens. The car may look beautiful, all leather inside and a dashboard with an animated clock, but what’s the point of having a car that can’t move?
The back end serves as a website’s engine. Press the Submit button under a form on a site that only has a front end. Nothing will happen. You won’t be able to add new users or dynamically changed content to your website.
There are three essential components that a website’s back end consists of:
- A database, which is a collection of related data tables. To manage databases, backend developers use various DBMS (Database Management Systems). Some examples include MySQL and Oracle.
- A server, which is a computer that hosts the database.
- A special application, called a web server, that runs on a physical server, sending data from a database and receiving requests from a website. One example is Apache HTTP Server.
A backend developer’s key mission is to ensure that this data back-and-forth process is smooth and error-free.
What a Backend Developer Needs to Know
SQL or Structured Query Language. This is the main tool for working with databases. By means of SQL queries, backend developers can perform various database manipulations, such as retrieving, updating, and inserting data into tables.
PHP or Hypertext processor. This scripting language can be embedded right into HTML pages, which is very convenient for web developers. Speaking of front end development vs backend development, there’s also a difference regarding the place where the code written in the two principal programming languages is executed:
- PHP is run on a server
There are other backend programming languages and frameworks, such as Python, Java, Ruby on Rails, and others. Backend engineers must also be able to configure web servers, test code, create APIs, and do many other essential things to ensure efficient communication between the client side and server side.
Full-Stack Development: Front End Development and Back End Development Instead of Front End vs Back End Development
Here’s the good news. We shouldn’t always be talking about the difference between frontend and backend development because there are professionals who can handle both sides. We call these full-stack developers.
They are supposed to handle the server-side and client-side tasks equally efficiently. In reality, though, many full-stack developers don’t possess a deep knowledge of both parts. What they must be able to do first and foremost is to understand the entire web development process and identify bottlenecks and issues.
So, when contrasting a full stack developer vs a front end developer or a back end developer, you should know that the former can do all things on both ends, but not so proficiently as frontend and backend developers can do separately.
Since only one developer is required to handle all the tasks when creating a website, full stack development is a preferred option by startups and companies on shoestring budgets.
Front End vs Back End Development: Additional Front End Development Roles
The frontend development field is more varied than its backend counterpart. It also includes some distinct roles that you might have heard. Let’s go over these as well.
UX Designer vs Front End Developer
Have you ever encountered a hard-to-navigate, badly structured site? Have you ever landed on a site that is the complete opposite of that? When comparing two solutions like these, we can make one definite conclusion: the first site either had no UX designer at all or a poor one.
UX stands for user experience, and it’s all about the ease of interaction between the user and the site. UX designers are responsible for ensuring that ease. How? Here are some things they do:
- They hold interviews with real users, asking them questions about their main pain points when using the solution.
- On the basis of the information obtained during the interviews, they create user personas, meaning profiles of the most typical users.
- They create wireframes (schematic representations of websites), implementing the best UX practices in them.
- They build prototypes, which are a series of screens that imitate the most typical user flows, and test them on real users.
In general, a UX designer is a kind of bridge between users, developers, and business owners. A solution with a good UX has a much higher chance of commercial success than otherwise.
UI Designer vs Front End Developer
Another important role in frontend development is that of a UI designer. While a UX designer focuses on the convenience and functionality of a user interface, a UI designer’s main concern is the look and feel of the website.
Guided by the ideas produced by UX designers (normally in the form of a wireframe), a UI designer creates a mockup, which is basically an image of a website with all the controls drawn as they will be seen when the site goes live.
A UI designer takes all the essential graphic design principles into account, such as the use of white space, selecting matching colors, and others. For example, a UX designer finds the best location for a call-to-action button on a web page. A UI developer’s task is to give the best color and style to that button so that users will want to click on it more often.
The roles of a UI and UX designer are so interconnected that many companies blend them into one position — a UX/UI designer. As for the UI designer vs front end developer distinction, the former cares about design, while the latter converts a mockup into a working web solution (by coding) that users can actually interact with.
Web development is a complex process that has many facets. While web developers play different roles, we can talk about two distinct groups among them.
One, called frontend developers, is responsible for the user-facing side of a web solution. The other, known as backend developers, works with the hidden part consisting of a database and server. Together, these two big teams create visually attractive and interactive websites and web applications.
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