The Evolving Front-end Developer

There seems to be a trend forming

The web industry is constantly changing.  It ebbs and flows with the rise of new devices, and the decline of ancient buggy browsers (looking at you IE 7 & 8).  As newer technologies, workflows, and client needs come our way, we’re continuously re-positioning and shifting into new roles.  Not only to stay busy and profitable, but also to stay relevant.

“they're able to allow designers to create something attractive. But also, let the back-end guys focus on... whatever the heck it is they do back there.”

– Josh Carey

Front-End Developer @ Harbr Co.

Visualizing The Roles of The Web Design Industry

There are all kinds of things we – in this industry – call ourselves. Designer, UI/UX Specialist, Javascript Jedi, Full-Stack Engineer, etc. It all amounts to the same general goal: creating a digital environment that presents content to users. An overly simplified list of the positions or “roles” that produce a website or application would go something like this. Designer, Front-End Developer, and Back-End Developer/Programmer.

Here’s an example graph that kind of shows the “scale” of website or application – let’s call it “digital media” – production:

front-end-g1

Keep in mind that these roles are super-flexible and often shift left and right a bit over time. (Sometimes even on a daily basis, throughout any given week.)

Pre-Front-End Developer

In the early days, to publish a website required a person to be solidly on the “computer science” end of the scale. Websites were definitely not pretty, back in the day – but we all know that. (Check out Apple’s site from 1996)

apple-early-days

As time went on, we needed websites to look better and appeal to bigger audiences. Thus, a need arose for the “web designer” role. For the most part, the designer needed to know what was possible on the web. Early versions of web browsers were very limited in their capabilities. “Back-end guys” had the difficult task of transforming these more attractive creations into code. Understandably, there was often a lot of head-butting and arguing over what could and couldn’t be done on the web. A lot of the time designers and programmers just couldn’t get along. So then the need arose for a new role. A person who understood how important good design is, but also how equally important good, clean, usable, efficient code is. This role tends to span the gap and allows designers to design, and coders to code.

A Front-End Developer

For a while now, there’s been this unique breed of person. One that is able to take designs (non-functioning pictures), and code them into a format that makes it so a web browser can actually read it. This is an overly simplified explanation, but it generally describes the role of a Front-end Developer. They might dabble in design, or even code a small database. The main point here is that (when working within a team) they’re able to allow designers to create something attractive. But also, let the back-end guys focus on… whatever the heck it is they do back there. (I kid, I kid – sort of. I honestly can’t comprehend all their binary voodoo magic.)

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine (who primarily inhabits the Back-End Programmer part of the scale). We discussed the nature of the “Front-End Developer” role and how it seems to be adapting and evolving within the industry. It seems like there might even be a bit of a “split” happening within the role itself.

The Possible Near-Future?

There are more design-minded individuals who don’t want to have to learn all the fine nuances of jQuery. (Or what’s possible with all the different javascript libraries). They simply want to take design files and code them into the cleanest, most efficient HTML/CSS files imaginable. They take extreme pride in their Sass mixins and time-saving modular approach to markup.

Then, there are individuals who want to take user interaction to the next level. They push the boundaries on what websites and applications can do. That all takes a bit of a geekier (I use that term with the utmost respect) brain and code-language-understanding prowess that the more design-centric, front-end folks don’t possess. The kind of folks that understand and laugh (but also cringe) at this tweet:

else-if

I think more and more often, we’ll see digital media firms searching for people to fit these different roles. I think soon, the scale might look something more like this:

front-end-g2

Wrapping Up

To be an individual who is a “jack of all trades, master of all” in this industry would be quite a feat. There’s so much in the way of best practices, new tools that optimize workflow, browser & web standards, etc. Combine all that with having new devices such as retina iPhone 6 Plus screens (and the like) coming out every 6 months… Its just all too much to stay on top of. Find your niche and stick to it! Until you don’t want to anymore… I’m not your boss 😉