The death of “front-end developers”

Whenever somebody asks what I do I tell them I’m a front-end developer (answer could change based on the person asking). A decade or two ago it was pretty clear what my job entails. I would write HTML, CSS and some Javascript for interaction purposes. Even though I spent most of my early career doing PHP and MySql work I still prefer to be perceived as such (more on the relevance of this information later). Around early 2010 this started to change. Javascript became a thing — a very big thing. Early last year I started meeting more front-end developers and I realize something. Front-end developers are no longer the front-end developers I traditionally knew.

The Problem Surfacing

I realize this was happening everywhere. There was this project that we had designed and wanted to build a web prototype for a client. A front-end developer was given the task and the results were truly underwhelming. I can’t actually show the work so I mocked a wireframe to demonstrate what happened.

Left shows the design and right shows the web prototype developed.

I tried to illustrate some of the issues I remember, from wrong font sizes to spacing to alignment. There was a lot more issues, but you get the point. To the developer this was fine because he was more concerned about the functionality and JS behind this and visually he believed it was “close enough”. Unfortunately, for this client (and any client IMO) would equally care for the aesthetics. This individual was extremely talented in JS builds and development but visuals and CSS weren’t his strength. On the flip side, I also worked with individuals who are truly amazing CSS developers but aren’t heavily invested in deep JS work.

Basis for Revolution

Casually Validating the Problem

Proposed Solution

  • front-end engineer: front-end (maybe middleware) functionality developer,
  • front-end designer: front-end visual/interaction developer, and
  • front-end full stack developer: fully competent in both of the above.

When I tell people this two common questions arise from this:

  1. Wouldn’t this box people in? Eg. A front-end designer might know how to developer React components.
  2. Wouldn’t everybody just say they’re a front-end full stack developer to maximize their job opportunities — and ego?

For the first question, I don’t think so. As I have mentioned at the beginning of the article. I am quite confident in backend work, but my biggest assets’ on the front-end and I labelled myself as such. This has never limited my opportunity to talk or participate in the backend. Over the last few years I’ve done as much as architect my own database structure and workflows from scratch. The key is it’s not within my mastery or even my interest, so I don’t present it as part of my “portfolio”. The point is to outline where your strengths and interests are.

The second question is a maybe. Even without the divide on the front-end I still hear lots of people claiming they’re full stack developers — I guarantee they’re not. You’ll always get people like that, but I trust in those who are good with their craft to present themselves more accurately. I genuinely believe they’re very skillful front-end full stack developers and they should present themselves as such. For the rest of us, like decades ago where we organically sorted ourselves to the front and back end categories hopefully we can do the same here.


Check out my unofficial follow-up to this article, Front-end development is like figure skating, it reward

Front-end engineer by day, front-end designer by night and Batman all of the time for @myplanet #vancouver.

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