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Front End, Back End, Full Stack—What Does it All Mean?

front end vs back end vs full stack web development
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I used to think that you were either a web designer or a web developer. Or maybe you were one of those rare unicorns who did both. But either way, you either worked on the design of the site, or the code that made it work.

And then I started seeing all these job listings asking for “front end developers” or “back end developers” and even “full stack developers.” What the heck did that mean?

After a little research, I found out that as the Web has grown more complex and as more becomes possible on the Internet, developers have gotten more specialized. And that means instead of developers who do it all, many focus on specific parts of development, whether that’s a specific programming language, framework, or other technical area of expertise.

Still not sure what that means? Read on for more insight into what front end, back end, and full stack developers each do (and why the lines between them are getting really blurry).

Front End

The front end of a website is the part a user sees and directly interacts with. It’s built with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

HTML (HyperText Markup Language) is the backbone of the Web. Every website you visit is built with HTML. It takes care of all the structure and content. HTML5 is the current iteration of HTML on the Web, although sites built with older versions still run fine in your browser.

CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) is what controls the way the HTML looks on the page. CSS sets the colors, fonts, background images, and even the way the page is laid out (you can use CSS to arrange the HTML elements on a page however you want, even if it’s different than the order they’re arranged in the HTML file). CSS3 is the current iteration of CSS on the Web, and adds a ton of features for things like basic interactivity and animations.

Now, you can create a website with just HTML and CSS, but it’s JavaScript that’s really the gamechanger (plus, it’s what’s causing all the aforementioned blurriness). To put it simply, JavaScript lets you add in interactivity, more complex animations, and even makes it possible to build fully featured Web applications.

Back in the day (like 2012), web browsers used to be really bad at interpreting a lot of JavaScript, so adding complex functionality with JS wasn’t always a good idea. But browsers have gotten much more powerful, making it possible to do with JavaScript what used to be reserved for “back end” programming languages. And there have been advances in JavaScript itself (including the creation of frameworks like AngularJs, jQuery, and Node.js). In short, what happened is that what we mean by “front end” development has radically changed in just a few short years.

It’s the Internet, what can we say!

In short, front end developers use HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to code up websites. They’re the ones who take the design and create a functioning website from it. Some sites are only built with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Other sites, however, have more code hidden away in the back end of the site, to augment or enhance the front end of the site.

Back End

While the front end is everything the user interacts with directly, the back end is much more behind-the-scenes and can have some advantages over front end technologies for specific projects. Back end programming languages include PHP, Ruby, Python, and more.

One thing to note: You’re probably not going to see many job listings that say a company is looking for a “back end developer.” Instead, you’ll find listings looking for Ruby developers or PHP developers, etc., because the actual programming language a developer knows is key to being the right fit for a particular job.

As far as what you can do with a back end language that you can’t do with JavaScript, the list is much more limited today than it used to be. One key difference: Most content management systems are built on a back end programming language, as are many large, complex web applications. JavaScript can suffer from performance issues (i.e., it gets slow or even buggy) in some cases, so while it’s now possible to use JS to build just about anything you can think of, sometimes there are still better solutions out there. Learning to code will teach you to find the best solution for your specific problem, and sometimes that means using a back end language.

Back end developers generally work with a front end developer to make their code work within the site’s design (or to tweak that design when necessary) and front end.

Full Stack

Full stack developers work with both the front and back end of a website. They’re familiar with HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and one or more back end languages.

As the line between what can be done on the front end vs the back end becomes more and more similar, and as things that were previously only possible on the back end become possible on the front end, more developers are becoming what we call “full stack.” A lot of employers (especially agencies who work on different kinds of sites) are looking for developers who know how to work on all the parts of a site, so they can use the best tools for the job regardless of whether it’s technically “front end” or “back end.”

Now, contrary to what a lot of people think, “full stack” doesn’t necessarily mean a developer is actually writing all of a site’s code themselves. Many full stack developers spend the majority of their time in either the front or back end code of a site.

But the point is that they know enough about the code across the entire stack that they can dive in anywhere if needed. And some full stack developers do code entire websites, including both the front and back ends, but usually only if they are working freelance or are the only developer working on a project.

Most full stack developers specialize in a particular back end programming language, like Ruby or PHP or Python, although some, especially if they’ve been working as a developer for a while, work with more than one. In job listings, you’ll generally see openings for “full stack Ruby developer” or the like.

The great thing about learning Web development is that it’s always changing, so even if you do choose an area, chances are that within a few years what it means to be a “front end” or “back end” developer will radically change. Learning both front and back end languages is a great way to make yourself a more valuable, forward-thinking, and versatile developer, because it’s not likely that you’ll actually be able to focus exclusively on one or the other.

Not sure where to start? Check out the free Ultimate Guide to Coding for Beginners for a roadmap to learning tech skills.

Get Our <span>FREE</span> Ultimate Guide to Coding for Beginners

Get Our FREE Ultimate Guide to Coding for Beginners

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You can unsubscribe from our mailing list at any time. We won't use your email address for anything else, promise!

Cameron Chapman

Cameron is a staff writer here at Skillcrush, and spends most of her time writing and editing blog posts and Ultimate Guides. She's been a freelance writer, editor, and author for going on a decade, writing for some of the world's leading web design and tech blogs. When she's not writing about design, she spends her time writing screenplays and making films (and music videos for rock and metal bands!) in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom.

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