What are the Differences between Frontend and Backend Web Development?

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Are you looking to pursue a career in web development, but stuck between choosing frontend and backend development as your area of specialisation? You might want to know what these two fields mean exactly, what sets them apart from each other, and which is the right career path for you. Let’s start by defining them.

Web Development Basics

Web development is all about communication. It has two elements that work together to ensure seamless communication between the user, website and database: frontend and backend development.

Frontend web development focuses on the client-side or the interaction of the end-user with a website. Backend web development refers to the server-side or the processes happening in the background that enable these interactions.

The client-side is responsible for requesting data stored on a database (which is run remotely on a server) and then displaying them on the site for the user to see. Meanwhile, the server-side acknowledge these requests and delivers them to the client-side so that users can see and use them.

For example, when you use the Chrome web browser to search for web development jobs, Chrome acts as the client, which sends your query to the Google search engine site on your behalf. Google’s server then receives that query and responds with relevant search results. In a similar vein, when you’re browsing a website for information, you’re essentially on the client-side of the website while the server-side works in the background, processing all the requests that you send (e.g., filling out forms, playing videos, or placing an order).

If the frontend and backend elements fail to communicate because of some coding error or bug, your website will be inaccessible. This is where frontend and backend developers come in. Both types of developers play an important role in making your website functional, but the responsibilities they perform, programming languages and tools they use, and even the skill set they possess can vary.

Now let’s get into the meat of the matter – the differences between the two types of web development.

1. Design and Data

Frontend and backend web development are like two sides of the same coin. The former involves the use of programming languages for the purpose of transforming data into the visual elements of a website. These visual interface elements are those that the end-user can see and interact with such as buttons, input fields, texts, and images.

On the other hand, backend web development uses programming languages for the purpose of powering your website. It enables your website to perform its intended function. Without backend development, users won’t be able to interact with the interface elements fully (e.g., place orders, create an account, or fill out forms).

One way of looking at it is the work done in the frontend ends up in the visual aspect of the website, while the work done on the backend are those that happen behind the scenes.

2. Programming Languages and Tools

Frontend web developers utilise HTML, CSS, and Javascript to build the visual and interactive aspects of a website, also known as the graphical user interface. It also involves responsive web design, colour theory, typography, grid system, and prototypes.

Apart from these programming languages, frontend developers might need to be familiar with CSS and JavaScript frameworks. These are used to add responsive features to the site so it will look as aesthetically pleasing on a mobile device as it does on a desktop, for example. They might also need to learn how to use code libraries, such as LESS and jQuery, which compiles code into a more efficient form. Some frontend developer jobs also require experience with Ajax, a web development technique for creating asynchronous web pages.

On the other hand, there are jobs that only require you to design and redesign basic websites. You don’t necessarily need to possess backend development skills since the sites are static. The content will be fixed like a printed page and shall remain so until updates have been added into its HTML file. Some examples of static sites are personal blogs and portfolios, as well as restaurants and other small business sites.

Many backend developers are familiar with frontend languages, such as HTML and CSS, but need to utilise other languages such as Java, PHP, Ruby, Python, and .Net to get the backend job done. These backend languages generally run on coding frameworks. For example, Ruby on Rails refers to a commonly used backend software technology where Rails is a framework written in Ruby language. This software for creating applications can make the web development process faster.

In addition to this, backend developers also use a database to store, organise, edit, and retrieve information. A database typically runs on a remote server, such as MySQL, Oracle, PostgreSQL, MongoDB, and SQL Server.

Backend developers use these languages and tools to create dynamic sites. This is especially common in websites with content that is changing constantly, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Google Maps.

3. Learning Curve

Frontend developers have the upper hand over backend developers in terms of immediate feedback as the user’s attention is usually focused on the visual aspect of the website. However, frontend developers have other important considerations to bear in mind too.

For instance, they have to keep up with the latest web design trends and frontend technologies, as well as figure out which technology is best suited for the website they are building. The process of choosing technologies can be overwhelming, considering the large amounts of alternatives available.

Furthermore, mastering HTML, CSS and JavaScript languages is difficult enough, but it’s even more difficult to have a full grasp of various technologies that have become standard in today’s frontend web development. These include CSS Processors (e.g., SASS/SCSS and LESS), Bootstrap, and JavaScript frameworks (e.g., ReactJS, AngularJS, MeteorJS, and Backbone). Throw browser compatibility into the mix, and you can understand why the very idea of frontend web development sends some people running.

While frontend technologies are still establishing themselves in the community, backend technologies like Java have been growing in a slow and steady pace. It means that updates don’t get released at the same pace as that of frontend technologies. This means you can pick and focus on one language to specialise in, use it for many years, and still stay relevant in the job market. So, although getting started with backend web development can be very challenging, you will find your journey to be much easier once you have a solid grasp of Java, PHP, Python, Ruby, or other backend languages.

4. Salary

In Australia, the national average salary for frontend developers is about A$109,000 per year. The annual salary for junior frontend developers starts at A$39,000 per year whereas senior developers get as much as A$185,000. In Queensland, the salary is about A$95,000 per year based on industry and experience.

Backend web developers receive a higher salary than frontend web developers, with a national average salary of about A$110,000 per year. Entry-level backend developers get paid around A$43,000 per year while the more experienced ones make as much as A$187,000. Those based in Queensland can earn up to A$102,500 annually.

5. Career Advancement

Web development offers an exciting career path to those who dare explore it. You can either be a frontend or backend web developer, or even both and market yourself as a full-stack web developer. Both fields allow you to pursue advanced studies, whether by opting for a bachelor’s degree or self-education plus apprenticeship.

In the frontend, you will dabble in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript whereas in the backend, you will encounter various scripting and functional programming languages, as well as Java and .Net. You will also find yourself using different frameworks, such as ReactJS, AngularJS, Symfony, or Laravel.

Once you have learned the basic building blocks of your chosen field, you can then decide where to specialise in. The good thing about backend web development is that you can pick a language of your choice. If you want to build websites on PHP-based Content Management Systems like WordPress, then choose PHP as your backend language.

Know that there is no escaping HTML, CSS, and JavaScript in frontend web development, albeit they are relatively easier to learn than backend languages.

The typical career path of a web developer starts from entry-level, then mid-weight, senior, lead, and up to the technical director or head of web development. You can also opt to become a:

  • Project Manager
  • DevOps Expert
  • Database Administrator
  • Systems Administrator
  • Software QA Expert
  • Web Development Instructor

In the end, your career path as a web developer boils down to your passion for learning new things and dedication to becoming a well-rounded professional. You can even transition into becoming a full-stack web developer. This opens up more opportunities as you are able to work on both “ends” of a website with master-level skills.

Now that you know the differences between frontend and backend web development, find out if becoming a web developer is a good career choice and if you can be a web designer and developer at the same time!