Front-end vs. back-end development: What's the difference?

Front- and back-end development are the two main specialization areas within web development. Front-end handles what is visible to visitors while back-end handles the background processes. Both are equally important in making a functional website.

If you have any interest in web technology, you may have heard the phrases "front-end" and "back-end" used casually. But what is meant by front-end development vs. back-end development? Front-end developers handle the surface interface of websites, while back-end developers handle websites' communication with databases and servers.

Both front and back-end web developers play a vital role in creating and maintaining websites. They both write code in various kinds of programming languages for a living, and they both use tools such as frameworks and libraries to expedite their work. However, they use different programming languages and frameworks and each deals with different moving parts that contribute to the finished product.

Read on to learn about the differences and similarities between these two career paths, and how a coding bootcamp can kickstart your journey as a front-end, back-end, or full-stack web developer.

What is front-end development?

Front-end development is the programming of all visible elements to visitors/users of websites and web applications. Programmers who specialize in front-end development are said to be specialists in client-side web development, as their work focuses on what clients see.

Front-end specialists' work encompasses all the essential elements of functional, dynamic websites, including:

  • Layout/design
  • Buttons
  • Internal links
  • Images
  • Navigation

To excel in their work, front-end developers need a sense of how the different surface-level site elements combine into a cohesive, easily-usable whole. They need good rapport with the back-end developers who make data from the server available. They also usually need to communicate with web designers to make their aesthetic ideas fully functional.

Front-end languages, frameworks, and libraries

Anyone can learn to code, and to become a web developer you need to know at least a few programming languages to write active code. Front-end specialists must master the "big three": HTML, CSS, and Java. These are among the easiest programming languages to learn and form the front-end's foundation. Some other useful front-end languages include:

  • HTML5
  • Angular
  • Swift
  • Elm

To reduce busywork, web developers often use frameworks. Frameworks are skeletons of prewritten code into which developers enter domain-specific coding. Front-end frameworks eliminate overhead in making a website's client-side and are often powered by JavaScript or Java. Some popular front-end frameworks include:

  • AngularJS
  • Backbone
  • Bootstrap
  • React.js

When developers want more freedom, they draw upon libraries. Libraries are bundles of prewritten code that developers can plug into their own code. Some libraries used by front-end specialists include:

  • jQuery
  • LESS
  • Lodash

Front-end developer skills

Front-end developers' work straddles both the creative side of web development and its more technical aspects. To succeed in this specialization, you need soft skills such as a strong visual sense. You also need to know how to code with programming staples like CSS and JavaScript.

On the soft skills side, front-end developers need the following skills to excel:

  • Strong visual sense and creativity
  • Strong written and verbal communication skills
  • Strong sense of teamwork and group collaboration

When it comes to coding-related hard skills, successful front-end specialists should master the following:

  • HTML and CSS
  • JavaScript and JavaScript frameworks
  • Testing and debugging
  • Version control systems

Examples of front-end roles

Front-end web development roles tend to emphasize the aesthetic and organizational aspects of the field. If you choose to specialize in front-end development, you will not only work in an in-demand area, but you will also be able to expand into areas such as digital design and UX/UI design on the front-end team.

Here are some of the most common job titles enjoyed by front-end specialists:

  • Front-end web developer
  • Front-end web designer
  • Front-end SEO specialist
  • UX designer
  • UI developer

Getting started in front-end development

If you want to become a front-end developer, the best way to start is by becoming competent in HTML, CSS, and Javascript. From there, you can move on to tackling front-end frameworks such as Bootstrap and Backbone. Try hosting a site from a local server and learn by trial and error.

There are many online and in-person tools at your disposal to learn the basics, including coding apps, massive open online courses, and coding bootcamps. Coding bootcamps afford the opportunity to quickly learn the fundamentals and construct a portfolio. They can even help you specialize in mobile app development and UX design!

What is back-end development?

Back-end development is the area of web development focused on all of the necessary background processes occurring at the "server side" of websites, web apps, and mobile apps. What is interesting about this area of web development is how important it is despite being "behind the scenes" and invisible to lay people.

Back-end web developers' work includes the following concepts:

  • Database management
  • Communication between servers and applications through Application Programming Interfaces (APIs)
  • Back-end logic
  • Accessibility and security policy compliance

In order to properly create and maintain websites, back-end web developers need to work closely with front-end developers. This allows for smooth communication between different databases, servers, and applications and therefore smooth delivery of a final product to clients at the visible end.

Back-end languages, frameworks, and databases 

Back-end web development, as one might expect, draws upon a slightly different set of tools than front-end web development. For instance, even though JavaScript is often used at the server-end of web development, CSS and HTML are absent. The programming languages that back-end web developers most often use include:

  • Python
  • PHP
  • Ruby
  • JavaScript
  • Java

Python is a favorite of many back-end developers due to its general-purpose applicability and usefulness in automation.

Back-end web developers often use frameworks to automate some back-end tasks necessary to keep sites running quickly and securely. Some of the most popular include:

  • Django
  • Laravel
  • Flask
  • Ruby on Rails

Without these frameworks, common website functions such as infinite scrolling would not be possible.

Libraries are also used in back-end development to allow for more flexibility. For instance, some popular Python libraries used by back-end specialists include:

  • FastApi
  • Pillow
  • TensorFlow

Using prewritten code from libraries decreases the tedium and repetition of delegating many basic back-end coding tasks.

Back-end developer skills

Back-end developers need an eye for detail and passion for the architecture that makes websites possible. However, they also need strong communication skills to be able to work effectively with front-end developers. Successful back-end developers in this way mix a strong passion for data, detail, and math with soft skills in effective communication and critical thinking.

Employers tend to look for these traits in back-end developers:

  • Strong skills with PHP and Python
  • Familiarity with multiple back-end frameworks
  • Database management
  • Effective written and verbal communication
  • Critical thinking

Examples of back-end roles

Back-end web development careers usually find a stronger focus on technical aspects of web development. A back-end career can give you an opportunity to specialize in topics such as databases, machine learning, and artificial intelligence within your field.

Some common job titles found on back-end web development teams include:

  • Back-end web developer
  • Java developer
  • Full-stack web developer
  • Software engineer

Getting started in back-end development

Due to the more technical nature of back-end development, getting started can initially seem intimidating. Remember that you do not need to learn everything overnight! Start by choosing a programming language to focus on, along with the framework that goes with it. For instance, if you choose to learn Python, gain some experience with the Django framework, which uses Python.

You can learn some programming and database basics through a variety of avenues, including coding forums such as Stack Overflow, coding apps, and coding bootcamps. Coding bootcamps can provide a foundation in topics such as data science and help you build practical experience.

Salary comparison: Front-end vs. back-end development

While both front and back-end developers are currently in high demand, back-end developers possess a slight advantage in terms of average earnings. According to Payscale, back-end developers make a median annual wage of $81,000, while front-end developers make a median annual wage of $75,000. This can perhaps be attributed to the more technical nature of back-end logic and database management skills, skills that are somewhat less common and valued more highly by employers.

Various other factors can play a role in salary, though. In the tech hubs of the Bay Area, Atlanta, and New York City, higher demand and cost of living contribute to higher salaries for skilled web developers. The best way to boost your chances of earning high wages as a web developer is by specializing in back-end development, but being willing to do full-stack development work for startups or smaller businesses.

What is full-stack development?

Full-stack web developers take on a hybridized role tackling both the front and back ends of web development, usually for startups and small businesses. These developers are not specialized like front and back-end developers; however, they have strong enough overall knowledge of both the client and server sides of web development to wear both hats for low-budget enterprises.

You can quickly and effectively learn full-stack development skills at full-stack development bootcamps. This gives a good chance of getting a job upon graduation, especially in booming cities where startups are common, such as San Francisco.

Which is right for me: front-end or back-end?

When considering whether to pursue a career in front or back-end development, you need to take stock of your interests, strengths, and career plans.There is no right or wrong choice, just the one that best fits your unique character and needs.

You might enjoy front-end development if …

  • You have strong visual/design sense.
  • You are less interested in the dry details of how information reaches people.
  • You have a strong interest in how ordinary people perceive and use the internet.
  • You are a people person with a strong sense of teamwork.

You might enjoy back-end development if …

  • You have a keen eye for details and logic.
  • You are more curious about what's going on "under the hood" of interesting things, rather than the surface appearance.
  • You possess strong critical thinking skills.

You might enjoy full-stack development if …

  • You are not sure whether you want to specialize in front or back-end development yet.
  • You are trying to accumulate practical experience quickly.
  • You are willing to work in a high-stress environment, like a startup with a limited budget.
  • You live near a major tech hub, like the Bay Area, Austin, or Boston.

In conclusion

Front-end, back-end, and full-stack web development all have the potential to become not only career paths but personal passions. Web and mobile development are still young disciplines, with new innovations being released almost daily. Which path you take boils down to your temperament and unique interests. None of the three career paths is "best" –– only that which is best tailored to you.