The Differences Between Back-End and Front-End Development

By Joshua Gross, 19 November, 2022

In order to create a high-functioning site or app that is easy for users to interact with, both front-end developers and back-end developers are necessary.

That being said, it's easy to get confused about the difference between back-end and front-end development and what this means for the development of your new digital product. While these two types of professionals work together to create websites, apps, or software, their goals and concerns are on opposite sides of the same coin.

At the same time, there are also full-stack developers who possess skills in both the front and back end, but each of these has become so specialized that it's more typical for a professional to focus their attention on only one.

Let's take a look at what you need to know about both of these vital aspects of site and app development to help you build the best team for your project.

What Is Front-End Development?

Front-end development focuses on the part of a website, app, or piece of software that the user sees and interacts with. One of their main goals is to ensure that users can navigate the site or app easily. Through the use of design skills, specific programming languages, and an arsenal of other tools, front-end developers create layouts, drop-down menus, and designs for sites and apps.

The programming languages used by front-end developers include HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. They use HTML to help lay out the content and structure of the site, CSS to incorporate additional design features, and JavaScript to add the more complex interactive aspects of a site.

In some cases, a front-end developer might also be well-versed in other programming languages, such as Ruby, PHP, or Python.

A number of different libraries and frameworks are utilized by front-end developers to ensure that the code is condensed and the content appears in its optimal form on any device.

In addition to code editing tools such as Eclipse and Notepad, these developers might also use software like Sketch or Photoshop to aid in the graphic design component of the role.

Creativity and technical knowledge are necessary on the front-end, as front-end developers help to ensure that the user interface functions correctly and visually appears in its proper form on all devices and browsers.

Wondering if you need both a front-end developer and a UI developer? Check out our recent post on the topic to find out.

Front-End Developer Soft Skills

In addition to being proficient in the design and technical aspects of the client side of an app or site, the best front-end developers will also possess a number of vital soft skills. These include:

  • Creativity: Front-end developers aren't usually taking on the bulk of the design tasks, but they still need to have the ability to think creatively. This is because they are performing essential tasks that allow the web designers or UI/UX team to achieve their vision.
  • Problem-solving: There are always technical issues that pop up during development, and front-end developers need to be able to come up with creative solutions to problems and have the ability to work under quite a bit of pressure.
  • Teamwork: Communicating with the complete project team and the client is an important part of front-end development. For this reason, highly developed skills in the realm of teamwork are essential for these professionals. They need to know how to work independently and collaborate with a team.

What Is Back-End Development?

Back-end development deals with the "invisible" structure under the surface that makes it possible for the user to experience the front end of a site or piece of software.

While front-end developers focus on the aspect of a site or app that users interact with, back-end developers are concerned with the server side of sites. They are the people behind-the-scenes that help ensure the overall functionality of an app or site and build the structure of the product so that the front end can perform and display as desired.

The databases, operations, and API of a site are created by back-end developers. You can think of these developers as working "under the hood" of apps and sites, dealing with aspects of digital products that aren't seen by the end user.

The programming languages used by back-end developers include Python, Java, and Ruby. They also use tools to store, organize, and alter data, such as Oracle and SQL Server.

Back-End Developer Soft Skills

Even though back-end developers are more behind-the-scenes than front-end developers, they still need a wide variety of soft skills to help the development project go smoothly. Some of the non-technical skills that are valued in back-end professionals include:

  • Communication skills: One of the tricky parts of being a back-end developer beyond the highly technical aspects of the job is communicating with non-programmers about your role. People that don't have experience coding aren't going to be familiar with the details of the process or even the vocabulary, so it's important to be able to describe complex things in lay terms.
  • Listening skills: Back-end developers need to be able to listen well to understand what is expected of them and what is desired from the client. It only takes one small communication problem to lead to issues that set everyone back in the project timeline, so listening is just as essential as being able to give clear instructions to these professionals.
  • Teamwork: It's common for back-end developers to be all-stars when it comes to working independently, but they still need to be well-versed in collaborating with others. Whether they are constantly working with new people or consistently engaging with the same team, people on the back end of an app or site need to be team players for everything to function smoothly.

What Is Full-Stack Development?

While some people specialize in front-end or back-end development, others are full-stack developers who can utilize coding skills for both the front and back end.

These are professionals that are proficient in the development of an entire application or site. It's common for companies to hire this type of developer in order to benefit from their ability to look at the big picture during the app or site creation.

It's typical for full-stack developers to know the standard programming languages for both the back and front end while also having skills in developing algorithms, web architecture, Git and GitHub, and databases.

The Differences Between Back-End and Front-End Development

Now that we've taken a closer look at front-end and back-end development, let's dive into the specific differences between these two crucial roles in website and app development.

Working on Different Sides of the Same Coin

Perhaps the most obvious difference between front-end and back-end developers is that they work on different sides of an app or website. While front-end developers are focused on the visual elements that users interact with (also known as the client side,) back-end developers are working behind the scenes to build and tweak the parts of a digital product that are unseen by users (also known as the server side.)

Through their collaboration, these two types of developers create websites, apps, and software that allow users to interact with digital products in a way that is beneficial to both themselves and the brand.

Approaching Development With Different Goals

By having front-end and back-end developers focusing on different goals, they can create products that are fully functional and easy to use.

On the front end, developers approach development with the goal of making a site or app accessible to all users and responsive on all necessary devices. Back-end professionals approach development with the focus of creating a digital product that supports the goals of the front end and functions properly.

Bringing Different Strengths to the Table

Both sides of the development process are equally vital and important. That being said, front-end and back-end developers typically bring different strengths to the table to create a cohesive, attractive, and highly functional site or app.

While front-end developers know how to work on the UI/UX of an app or site as well as the design, back-end developers bring the strengths of knowing how to solve system-related issues and implement algorithms.

Specializing in Different Programming Languages

Another key difference between these two types of developers is the programming languages they primarily work with. Programming languages allow individuals to communicate using code in order to create the desired outcome.

Front-end developers typically work in languages like:

  • HTML: HTML stands for Hyper Text Markup Language and is the standard text formatting language that both makes and displays web pages, with files consisting of both the content and the tags.
  • CSS: Short for Cascading Style Sheets, this is a popular styling language in web design that is simple enough for HTML elements.
  • JavaScript: One of the most popular client-side scripting languages, JavaScript is open-source and supported by a wide variety of browsers, enabling the user interaction to be enhanced.

They also use libraries and frameworks, such as:

  • jQuery: Helping to simplify the interactions between the Document Object Model and JavaScript, this is an open-source JavaScript library used on the front-end.
  • SASS: Used to extend the functionality of CSS, this is a robust and reliable CSS extension language that includes everything from inheritance, variables, and nesting.
  • Flutter: Managed by Google, Flutter is a UI development SDK that is open-source and powered by the Dart programming language.
  • React.js: Component-based and open-source, this JavaScript library is maintained by Facebook and used for the view layer of an application.
  • AngularJS: Primarily used to create SPAs (single-page web apps,) this is a front-end JavaScript framework that is open-source and transforms static HTML to dynamic HTML.

The languages back-end developers work with, on the other hand, include:

  • PHP: Designed for web development, this is a service-side scripting language that is written and executed on the server-side.
  • Python: Allowing programmers to integrate systems efficiently and work quickly, this is an object-oriented programming language.
  • Java: Used for building desktop and web apps, this is a class-based object-oriented programming language.
  • C++: Widely used as a part of back-end programming, C++ is an object-oriented, general-purpose programming language.
  • Node.js: This cross-platform, open-source runtime environment uses the JavaScript language in order to run on many different operating systems.

Some of the frameworks they might utilize during development are:

  • Ruby on Rails: This server-side framework provides default structures like web pages, web services, and databases.
  • Express: Used for server-side development, this is a Node Js framework that can be used to build hybrid, multi-page, and single-page apps.
  • Laravel: This robust web application framework uses PHP and allows developers to reuse components from a variety of different frameworks in order to build web apps.
  • Django: Following the model-template-views pattern, this is a Python web-based framework that is used to create complicated and large web apps.
  • Spring: Providing support for Java apps, this is a server-side framework that supports frameworks like Struts, Hibernate, and EJB.

These different languages, frameworks, and libraries allow front-end developers to create the client side of a digital product and back-end developers to build and perfect the server side.

Earning Different Pay

While both front-end development and back-end development are considered pretty good gigs, there is a difference in how much each of these roles typically receives when it comes to salary.

The average annual salary of a mid-career front-end developer is almost $77,000 in the U.S., while the average for back-end developers at the same point in their career is $101,619.

Finding the Right Team to Develop Your Digital Product

If you found yourself here because you're considering piecing together your own team to develop a web app, that's great! In our post about how many developers you need to build a web app, you can see that there are a lot of different options on the table (and pros and cons to each one,) including finding your own freelancers.

While this can appear to be the most budget-friendly option out there, it's worth understanding that there are hidden costs to hiring different developers and experts online that you've never worked with before (and that haven't ever worked together as a part of this particular team.) If you're worried about the time-cost of screening and hiring these various professionals and the potential setbacks you could face if you have to switch developers mid-project, you might consider hiring a team like ours.

At Planetary, we love working with brands of all sizes to create beautiful, functional, and highly-intuitive digital products. If you're curious about whether we'd be a good fit for your next project, drop us a line today.