What is a front end developer? Skills to become a front end web developer

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March 18, 2021
5 minute read

Front end development is a fantastic career path in technology. The profession is growing rapidly and there is a significant talent shortage. That means new front end developers have a massive opportunity ahead as the world becomes more technology-driven.

At the same time, you might be wondering what a front end developer really is—and what they actually do. That’s what this guide is all about: understanding what a front end developer is and does all day, what skills you need to become a front end developer, plus the career path and salary opportunities available to front end developers.

What is front end development?

Front end development is the practice of making technology (products or websites) visually appealing and presented in an intuitive way.

What does a front end developer do?

Put simply, a front end developer takes the functional code of a technology product (or website) and makes it appealing and accessible for humans.

Is front end development easy?

Becoming a successful front end developer has its challenges like any other career. However, many elements of the process are made easier because of increased access to resources and online courses. Further, there are significant mentorship opportunities for front end developers through bootcamps or through your employer, which helps make learning that much easier.

What’s the difference between a front end developer vs backend developer?

A front end developer takes a piece of technology and designs the user side (as in: what clients or customers see). A back end developer, on the other hand, builds the core functionality and features of a piece of technology that is later made more accessible by the front end dev team.

Frameworks and programming languages front end developers use

Front end developers use a wide range of programming languages and frameworks, many of which overlap with web design work. Here are the key languages and frameworks that all front end developers should think about learning.

HTML

Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML) is the standard markup language for web pages. HTML is how front end developers design and build the various elements on a page, for instance identifying header text or building sections of a web page. When you learn HTML, you’ll want to learn popular programming interfaces such as Document Object Model (DOM) interfaces.

CSS

CSS—or Cascading Style Sheets—describes how HTML should look on a web page. These style elements can apply on a per-page basis or operate sitewide, for instance designing a header or footer. Building sitewide CSS is a common time-saving measure for front end devs.

JavaScript

JavaScript is a client-side programming language that allows you to build complicated or complex features on a website. Where HTML and CSS focus on how the site is displayed or looks, JavaScript looks more at how the site actually functions or what it can do. A part of learning JavaScript is also learning its major libraries such as jQuery. JavaScript is also a full stack development language, meaning it can extend to both front end and back end development.

PHP

Similar to JavaScript, PHP allows developers to build complex functionality on a website. A key difference is that PHP is server side, meaning it generates HTML code that can be displayed on a website.

Python

Python is a general purpose programming language that works on all major operating systems. The code itself is built for readability, making it a bit easier to spot errors or issues with the codebase than other languages.

APIs

An Application Programming Interface (API) defines interactions between multiple pieces of software. This is a critical skill for front end developers because you will do a lot of work connecting different technologies so it appears seamless on the client side. Learning APIs will also require learning certain popular query languages such as GraphQL. Another major part of API development is understanding headless and composable systems, which are API-first technologies built to connect with each other.

What a front end developer works on

Front end developers work on a wide variety of projects, all of which center around how a website looks and feels to end users.

Whole websites

A brand’s website is the face it shows to the world. Front end developers are tasked with making these sites intuitive and attractive using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

Landing pages

Purpose-built landing pages are common in the business world today and apply to a variety of tasks:

  • Paid advertising campaigns.
  • Niche marketing campaigns (e.g. a holiday-themed landing page).
  • Testing a new concept before it goes live on the main brand website.
  • Running contests or competitions.
  • Advertising a specific thing (e.g. a newsletter or webinar).

Front end developers will often build these pages, either coding from scratch or working with common landing page builders like Unbounce, Leadpages, or Instapage.

Content management systems (CMS)

From hosting a blog to making it easy to edit content on the home page, front end developers will often work with content management systems (CMS) to get them set up and working. Without a good CMS, brands will have to hard-code all the words on a website, which means even a single typo becomes a full ‘feature request’ to the development team.

Ecommerce pages

Similar to landing pages, front end developers may be tasked with designing beautiful ecommerce pages to sell a specific product or launch a new line of products. While many ecommerce brands might use a platform like Shopify, front end developers will still customize things with code in the background.

Conversion rate optimization (CRO)

Working with small details such as applying color theory or changing the size (and location) of a button, all in a series of tests to see what gets people to engage more.

Newsletter design and email drip campaigns

Newsletters are a popular way for brands to communicate directly with their audience. Further, newsletters (and email drip campaigns) are an increasingly popular method of selling. Front end developers might code an email or drip flow from scratch using HTML or customize email flows using tools such as Marketo or Hubspot.

Cross-browser development

Cross-browser development involves building web pages so they are compatible with multiple browsers. For instance, a company might build using Google Chrome, but front end developers will then work to ensure the page works on Mozilla Firefox, Safari, and Microsoft Edge.

Responsive design

Responsive design is similar to cross-browser design. However, instead of a site rendering properly on multiple browsers, responsive design thinks about user interfaces on multiple devices with multiple different screen sizes: a tablet, laptop, big screen monitor, and smartphone.

Web accessibility design

Many websites are difficult to use if you have vision difficulties, hearing difficulties, or limited mobility in your hands (meaning you can’t navigate a mouse or type quickly). Accessibility design is about retrofitting websites to ensure they are more accessible, including: easily navigable with keyboard or voice, easy to increase or decrease font size, and containing high contrast to make images and text easier to see.

Debugging

When things go wrong on a website, it’s usually front end developers who will tackle the debugging process: trying to recreate whatever action caused a problem so you can identify its root cause in the front end code (then fix it).

Characteristics of successful front end developers

Here’s what you need to know about the types of people best suited to be a front end developer.

Who can become a front end developer?

While developers in movies are commonly shown as young men, the reality is that any person—age, gender, race, or other characteristic—can become a front end developer. This is especially true now with the amount of resources available for front end developers.

Why would I want to be a front end developer?

There are a lot of reasons why someone might want to become a front end developer:

  • Money: The job pays well and has strong career prospects.
  • Challenge: You get to work on a variety of interesting things.
  • Impact: Front end development work is seen by everyone who interacts with a brand.
  • Progression: Starting in front end development is a great way to start your career before expanding into multiple different technology roles.

How long does it take to become a front end developer?

You can learn the basics of front end development—and even get a junior front end developer job—in a matter of weeks. Knowledge mastery takes significantly longer. Further, there is no official “done” point to front end development. The languages are always evolving and changing, so you’ll need ongoing professional development to keep your skills sharp.

Necessary soft skills

Front end development isn’t just about coding. You also need these soft skills:

  • Curiosity: The landscape is constantly evolving—you have to want to keep learning.
  • Grit: There are a lot of tough days and hard challenges that you need to push through.
  • Empathy: You’re building the visual image of a brand. You need to think about how others will perceive it as you work.
  • Problem-solving: When a challenge hits, you need to know a few frameworks to break down the problem and eventually find a solution.
  • Testing mindset: Front end developers run a lot of tests to see what works. You’ll need to embrace this mindset.
  • Collaboration: You’ll spend a lot of time collaborating either with colleagues or clients, depending on how you work and which organization you join.
  • Prioritization: There will always be things you don’t have time to fix. You need to know how to prioritize the most critical tasks - then accomplish them.

Front end developer career prospects

There’s more to a job than what it pays. If you’re thinking about becoming a front end developer, you should also consider how the role progresses and what work opportunities open up in the future.

Do front end developers get paid well?

Front end developers are typically paid very well and have great career prospects.

Front end developers in the United States earn an average salary of around $50,000 per year, with the range going from around $40,000 for junior front end developers to $105,000 for more experienced front end devs.

It’s worth noting that many front end devs get paid more than this range. It depends on factors like years of experience, the specific company, and location.

If you choose to go freelance, you could earn more than these average salaries. According to CodeMentor, the average rate for a freelance front end developer is $61-80 per hour. To earn the average US salary, a freelancer would only have to work 16 hours per week.

Are front end developers paid less than back end developers?

Back end developers tend to make slightly more than front end developers. In the United States the average back end developer salary can rise well into the six figures.

Freelancers, on the other hand, earn the same: the average is $61-80 per hour.

Career path for a front end developer

Once you’ve mastered the skills of a front end developer, there are a lot of opportunities open to you.

Specialization: You can focus on one area of front end development, build deep subject matter expertise, and remain an individual contributor for years to come. This could involve a promotion to a senior front end developer role or switching companies to one that heavily leans on your skill set, thus giving you higher salary opportunities.

Management: If you like the coaching and planning element of front end development, you can move into leadership and management. You won’t code as often in this role, but you can scale your impact by leading teams.

Consulting: If you have deep subject matter expertise but don’t like the day-to-day coding element of front end development, you can move into a consulting role. As a consultant, you’ll be available to advise either more junior developers (if you’re an employee) or tech leadership clients (as a freelancer). While most consultants are typically freelancers or independent contractors, you can still do internal consulting as an employee.

Founding a startup: If you have an entrepreneurial mindset and think you have found a problem worth solving, use your front end development skills to build a tech startup. You may need to find a co-founder with additional skills depending on the scale of the project, but either way you can leverage your valuable skill set to work for yourself.

The seven step process to become a front end developer

Becoming a front end developer is fairly straightforward. After learning relevant programming languages and getting your portfolio ready, it’s about finding the right opportunities and acing the pitch or interview. Here are some tips on how to successfully accomplish the seven necessary steps.

1. Learn front end programming languages

Learning the various programming languages in front end development can be tricky. However, there are multiple different ways to build the skill set.

Take a coding bootcamp course

Coding bootcamps add value by providing a great deal of one-on-one interaction, coaching, and occasionally even career mentorship. They’re also usually quite fast (you complete them in a matter of weeks).

Self-teach with online courses

There are a lot of online courses for front end developers that can take you from zero to mastery (or to help you fine-tune your skill if you already have a foundation). Online courses tend to be relatively cheap compared to bootcamps or university programs. Sometimes they are even free. And you can work at your own pace, making it ideal if you’re building this skill set while working in another role.

Take a university or college program

Whether it’s full degree programs or continuing education, universities and colleges offer a variety of opportunities to learn front end development. A university or college program is likely to teach as much theory as it does practice, making it a good option for people who want to understand how programming languages are created and how to use them.

Learn from your current employer

Many companies offer professional development bursaries or stipends to employees. If yours does, check if the company will sponsor you to learn front end development. Alternatively, some companies have mentorship or job shadowing programs where you can learn front end development from the existing dev team.

2. Validate your experience

Once you’ve learned some front end development skills, the next step is to prove it.

Coding challenges

Coding challenges are a fantastic way to validate your experience. Not only do front end coding challenges objectively test if you can code, but they will also give you feedback on where to get better next time.

Build your own projects

If you can’t find a coding challenge you like or want to express your passions or interests, build your own projects. These can serve as a portfolio (see step 4 below!) but also help a potential client or employer learn more about you: why you built that specific project, what frameworks you leveraged or shortcuts you took, and how you overcame obstacles in the building process.

3. Choosing between freelancing and employment

Front end developers are in demand, both as employees and freelancers. So it’s likely that you’ll have work opportunities regardless of the path you choose. However, being an employee is very different than being a freelancer.

Two frameworks to help you choose are the worst-days framework and the day-to-day framework.

1. Worst-Days Framework: The worst days of being an employee mean dealing with work politics, bullying, irrelevant work, and someone owning your time. The worst days of being a freelancer mean having no clients (or horrible clients), feeling completely alone, and having to manage all your own business admin work.

2. Day-to-Day Framework: On a given day, employees are having team meetings, planning the next sprint, and coding. Freelancers, on the other hand, might be doing all the same tasks as an employee plus sending invoices or handling their own marketing to find new clients.

When choosing between the two paths, consider which bad days you’re more willing to handle and which average day you’re more likely to enjoy. Also keep in mind that you aren’t stuck with one path for life. You can start with one and move to the other—or even do both, holding a full time job while freelancing on the side.

4. Create a portfolio and build a front end developer resume

Validation of your skill set is a great start, but a portfolio and front end developer resume makes it easy for prospective clients or employers to get to know your work.

Create a front end developer resume

Make a document that clearly outlines the front end development skills you have. You can apply a range to each skill set, letting potential employers know what you are beginner, intermediate, and advanced in. This document is a solid high-level way to vet career and freelance opportunities. Some companies leverage different programming languages, so knowing what you’re good at will help place you in the right role.

Build a portfolio

Compile all the challenges, projects, and previous work you’ve done into one easy to skim portfolio. In your portfolio, aim for comprehensiveness to show all the skills you want to be hired for:

  • A clone site: Rebuild a popular website from scratch using your front end development skills.
  • A CRUD web app: A CRUD app is a rudimentary web application that demonstrates you know how to code the four basic functions of front end development: “Create, Read, Update, Delete.”
  • API-connected website: Build two individual sites and connect them with an API to demonstrate that you can build seamless data flows.

5. Identify work opportunities

Armed with your portfolio, it’s time to find opportunities, whether employment or freelancing.

Talent marketplaces

Professional networks like LinkedIn (or freelance marketplaces like Upwork or Fiverr) are great places to find freelance or full-time front end development work. If going the freelance route, you can also sign up for managed services like TopTal that find work for you and manage a lot of the client relationship.

Job boards

There are a lot of niche job boards just for front end developers and other tech roles including:

Your network

People you already know (or are connected with on social media) can be a wonderful source of work. Make sure you’re set up to get referrals from your network including updating your LinkedIn, being present online, and having all the professional things like business banking and automatic invoicing ready to go.

6. Ace the pitch or interview

Did you find an opportunity you like, apply, and get invited to an interview? Awesome! Here’s how you can show up prepared.

Do your research on the organization

Whether for a job interview or freelance client, do some diligence on the company. Check out their website, in particular noting any front end tasks done well or areas for improvement. If there’s any news coverage about them, read that too.

The goal here is to get a better sense of the organization as a whole: its goals, its vision, and how it serves customers. Front end development is critical to how a company appears to the world, so you need this additional context.

Know your 'why'

A strong candidate isn’t just someone with high quality skills, but someone who actually wants to work for the company. As you prepare for your interview, think about why you value front end development and why you think this opportunity in specific could be a good fit. You don’t have to get too sappy here and pretend they are the only company for you. However, you should be able to clearly articulate why you care about the work they are doing.

Customize your portfolio

Tweak your portfolio to focus on the skills or experiences you think are most relevant to the specific role you’re interviewing for. This is especially important if you have a big or widely varying portfolio. Companies hiring will want to see relevant examples first—then showcase all your cool work later.

7. Learn about your client or employer

After you get the gig, success comes both from delivering great work and delivering it in a way that provides value. Here’s what you should learn about so you’re ready to rock on day one.

Their ways of work

Ask about their regular meeting cadences (especially if you have to join them), their decision making processes, and what the general hierarchy of the organization is. When in doubt you can look up the company on LinkedIn, but sometimes the real process isn’t shown in an org chart.

The tools and technologies they use

Are you joining a Slack operation? Or do they use Microsoft Teams, Google Drive, and Basecamp? Do they brainstorm on Hangouts, Zoom, or Miro? Whatever it is, make sure you’re aware of the tools you’ll need to use. Of course, this is on top of the development tools they use such as Atlassian or GitHub.

How you can communicate with them

If you’re an employee, chances are you’ll be put onto their chat system (like Slack). But if you’re a freelancer, that could look different. Regardless, make sure you check this ahead of time so your work (and questions) aren’t lost in digital space.

What success looks like

Check how the company defines success—both for projects and in general as a company. Get specific metrics where possible. If you can’t get metrics, then ask about how they understand, visualize, or define success in concrete terms so you know what you’re working towards.

Setting up for success as a front end developer

Front end development is an in-demand career that gives you direct control over how a company looks to the outside world. It’s an incredible challenge, but also has significant rewards both financial and otherwise. As you think about becoming a front end developer, take the time to make sure it’s the right path for you. From there, build the right skill set to set yourself up for success.

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