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

By: Scott Morris

Category: Blog

I used to think that you were either a web designer or a web developer — you either worked on the site’s design or the code that made it work. Then I started seeing all of these job listings asking for front end developers or back end developers, and even full stack developers. What the heck is a full stack developer and what is the difference between front end, back end, and full stack development?

As the Internet has grown more complex, developers have become more specialized. That means that web development now means a lot of different things depending on what a web developer specializes in. Here are the three main categories:

  • Front end development (the visible parts of a website, webpage, or app)
  • Back end development (the “under the hood” databases and infrastructure)
  • Full stack development (a hybrid of both). Full stack can apply to a web stack, mobile stack, or a native application stack (i.e. software programs for specific devices)

To understand what each of the web developer specialties are, we’ve created a guide breaking them all down, along with the skills you need to learn to become a full stack developer — if that’s your thing.

Read on for more insight into what front end, back end, and full stack developers do (and why the lines between them are getting really blurry).

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Table of Contents

1. What is a front end developer?

2. What is a back end developer?

3. What is a full stack developer, and what is full stack development?

6. How to start learning web development

What is a front end developer?

Front end developers build the visible parts of websites (like web pages and user interfaces) that users see and interact with from their web browsers.

The front end of a website (or web or mobile application) is the part a user sees and directly interacts with. The front end is built with languages like:

HTML (HyperText Markup Language) is the backbone of the Web. Every website you visit is built with HTML. It takes care of all of 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 (re)arrange the HTML elements on a page however you want, even if it differs from the order they’re arranged in in the HTML file). CSS3 is the current iteration of CSS on the Web, and it adds a ton of features for things like basic interactivity and animations.

While you can create a website with just HTML and CSS, JavaScript is the game changer (it’s also causing the lines to be blurred among the different specializations).

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, 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.

There have been advances in JavaScript itself (including the creation of frameworks like AngularJs, jQuery, React, and Node.js). In short, what we mean by “front end” development has radically changed in just a few short years.

It’s the Internet — what can we say!

TL;DR: 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 while others have more code hidden away in the site’s back end to augment or enhance the site’s front end.

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What is a back end developer?

Back end developers build the “under the hood” parts of websites that users don’t interact with directly.

So what does this mean for front end vs. back end development? While front end development concerns everything the user interacts with directly (client-side), back end development is much more behind-the-scenes (server-side) and can have some advantages over front end technologies for specific projects. Back end programming languages include:

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 (or Ruby on Rails) developers, Java 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 programming 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 or app design (or to tweak that design when necessary) and front end.

This finally brings us to full stack development.

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What is a full stack developer?

A full stack developer is a web developer or engineer who works with both the front and back ends of a website or application — meaning they can tackle projects that involve databases, APIs, build user-facing websites, or even work with clients during the planning phase of projects — they work both client-side and server-side.

Full stack web developers:

  • Are familiar with HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and one or more back end languages.
  • 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.
  • Some full stack developers also learn either project management, visual design, web design, or user experience skills — to complete their “stack,” if you will.

As the line between what can be done on the front end versus back end developers increasingly blurs, more developers are becoming what we call full stack developers. A lot of employers (especially agencies who work on different kinds of sites) are looking for developers who know how to work on all of 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.” Hence the rise in companies listing full stack development on job requirements.

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

The point is that they know enough about the code across the entire stack that they can dive in anywhere if needed. 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.

What is full stack web development?

Full stack development gets even more confusing because of the way it shows up in job listings. Sometimes, you’ll see positions calling for full stack developers, sometimes full stack web developers, (if you see “full stack web developer” in a job listing, it’s referring to a full stack developer still), and sometimes full stack engineers.

In a second, we’ll explain the difference between full stack developers and engineers, but first, let’s go ahead and define full stack development as well.

Full stack development includes pretty much any project where you’re working on (or building) both the front and back end of a site or app at the same time.

Essentially, it’s any web development project that would normally require both a front end developer and back end developer — but instead, a full stack developer fills the role of both.

The difference between a full stack developer and full stack engineer

A full stack engineer is a senior level role for someone with the skills of a full stack developer (as described above), but with project management experience in things like systems administration (configuring, managing, and maintaining computer networks and systems).

If you look at the examples of full stack engineer jobs listed on sites like Indeed, you’ll see that these positions typically ask for at least 3-5 years of full stack web development experience.

Since Skillcrush is focused on helping people learn skills to break into tech, we usually focus more on developer-level positions, but full stack engineer jobs are the kind of roles you can look forward to after spending some time in the industry.

What skills do I need to become a full stack developer?

You’ll typically see a mix of front and back end skills listed on full stack web developer job listings, including:

  • HTML, CSS, JavaScript
  • Ideally, one or more third-party library like React or Angular
  • Programming languages and libraries like Ruby, PHP, Python
  • Experience with databases, like MongoDB, Oracle, SQL, MySQL
  • Version control like Git
  • Knowledge of security concerns and best practices
  • Ideally, some knowledge of web or visual design, plus user experience best practices

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Should I become a full stack developer?

Since being a full stack developer (or full stack engineer) means you can work on both the front AND back ends of the web development process, does that mean going full stack should be your primary objective?

Not necessarily.

If working for a major tech company (think Facebook or Google) is your dream, full stack developer jobs are a path for getting there. However, not everyone is best served by learning how to become a full stack developer, moving to a major tech hub, and working for a company like Facebook.

If you’re looking to transition back into the workforce after time away, or you want to start a part-time side hustle on top of your day job, you probably don’t need to learn full stack development. General web development jobs, especially front end web developer jobs, pay well — and there are plenty to go around (see Section #5 below).

This isn’t to say you can’t learn back end languages and get closer to a full stack skill set as you progress with your tech career — the main point here is simply not letting the pressure to learn everything at once keep you paralyzed from getting started.

Note: If you are determined to go full stack, though, give our article on How to Become a Full Stack Developer in 90 Days a read.

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What does a full stack developer salary look like?(Who gets paid more: full stack vs. back end developer?)

The average full stack developer salary in the United States is $112,000 per year, according to the 2020 Stack Overflow survey. That’s compared to $120,000 per year for back end developers and $110,000 for front end developers.

Meanwhile, Indeed says that on average full stack engineers make between $90,000-$130,000, so there’s plenty of room to increase your salary as you gain experience.

It’s important to note, though, that while a site like Indeed lists over 16,000 full stack web developer jobs, it also currently lists over 13,000 front end positions and an average salary of $95,000 — meaning you’re not limiting your options by focusing on front end skills to start with.

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How to learn front end, back end, OR full stack development

Regardless of what specific tech skills you choose to learn, you have to take your first step. Knowing what that first step is is sometimes harder than learning the actual skills themselves. The good news is, we can help! Here’s a list of resources to get you on the path to front end, back end, and full stack web development skills:

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Scott Morris

Scott Morris is Skillcrush's staff writer and content producer. Like all the members of Skillcrush's team, he works remotely (in his case from Napa, CA). He believes that content that's worth reading (and that your audience can find!) creates brands that people follow. He's experienced writing on topics including jobs and technology, digital marketing, career pivots, gender equity, parenting, and popular culture. Before starting his career as a writer and content marketer, he spent 10 years as a full-time parent to his daughters Veronica and Athena.