Exactly What You Need to Know to Become a Front End Developer in 2021
By: Scott Morris
Have you ever looked at your favorite website and wondered why it looked like that, how the buttons worked, or thought, “I wonder how complicated that is?” or, “I wish I could do that“? While web design determines the way a website looks, front end development is how that design actually gets implemented on the web.
Everything you see on a website is built with front end development (sometimes also called “front end web development”) — and the people behind it have a name: front end developers.
But wait, are front end developers in demand in 2021?
Front end developer jobs (also sometimes called front end engineering jobs) are some of the most in-demand roles, and for good reason — we wouldn’t get to enjoy Internet black holes without them!
In a 2020 Stack Overflow survey, front end developers in the United States made an average of $110,000 per year. Currently, there are 14,000 open front end developer jobs across the United States on Indeed.com, compared to 11,600 for back end developers.
Is being a front end developer a good long-term career choice?
Becoming a front end developer is a good long-term career change.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of web developers in the US is projected to grow 8% from 2019 to 2029, which is much faster than the average for all occupations.
In the state of California alone, the number of web developers is expected to grow much faster than average growth rate for all occupations — jobs for web developers are expected to increase by 27.6 percent, or 13,210 jobs by 2028.
If this is sounding more and more like your dream job, we’ll break down all of the skills front end developers use and need so that you’ll know everything you need to know to get started in front end development.
So, how do you become a front end developer in 2021?
The first step is to start learning some of the fundamental skills that front end developers use on a day-to-day basis. Let’s take a look at what you need to learn.
Table of Contents: Skills You Need to Become a Front End Developer
- Key Front End Developers Skills
- Front End Frameworks
- CSS Preprocessors
- RESTful Services/APIs
- Responsive/Mobile Design
- Cross-Browser Development
- Content Management Systems
- Git/Version Control
- Problem Solving
Key Front End Developers Skills
Front end web developers use three primary coding languages to code the website and web app designs created by web designers:
The code front end developers write runs inside the user’s web browser (known as client-side, as opposed to a back end developer, whose code runs server-side using open source runtime environments like Node.js or with programming languages like Python). Full stack developers are comfortable programming with both front end and back end languages.
A back end developer is like the engineer who designs and creates the systems that make a city work (electricity, water and sewer, zoning, etc.), while the front end developer is the one who lays out the streets and makes sure everything is connected properly so people can live their lives.
A front end web developer is also in charge of making sure that there are no errors or bugs on the front end, as well as making sure that the design appears as it’s supposed to across various platforms and browsers. All of these tasks are important for a good user experience.
I’ve combed through dozens of front end web developer job listings to see which skills are the most in-demand. Master these skills below and you’re certain to land an awesome front end developer job!
HTML & CSS
HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language) and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) are the most basic building blocks of web coding. Without these two skills, you can’t create a website design — all you’d have is unformatted plain text on the screen. In fact, you can’t even add images to a page without HTML!
Before you get started on any web development career path, you’ll have to master coding with HTML and CSS. The good news is that getting a solid working knowledge of either of these can be done in just a few weeks.
The best part: HTML and CSS knowledge alone will let you build basic websites.
It’s also the most popular programming language in the world, so regardless of your developer career plans, it’s a super valuable thing to learn.
Front End Frameworks
Experience with CSS Preprocessors
Preprocessors are another element that a front end developer can use to speed up CSS coding. A CSS preprocessor adds extra functionality to CSS to keep our CSS scalable and easier to work with. It processes your code before you publish it to your website, and turns it into well-formatted and cross-browser friendly CSS. Sass and LESS are the two most in-demand preprocessors.
Experience with RESTful Services and APIs
Without getting too technical on this one, REST stands for Representational State Transfer. In basic terms, it’s a lightweight architecture that simplifies network communication on the web, and RESTful services and APIs are web services that adhere to REST architecture.
Let’s say you wanted to write an app that shows you all of your social media friends in the order in which you became friends. You could make calls to Facebook’s RESTful API to read your friends list and return that data. As a front end web developer, you could call Twitter’s API as well (Twitter also uses RESTful APIs). The general process is the same for any service that uses RESTful APIs, only the data returned will be different.
While it all sounds really complicated and technical, it’s a simple set of guidelines and practices that sets expectations so you know how to communicate with a web service. It also makes a web service perform better, scale better, work more reliably, and be easier to modify or move.
Read more about REST and RESTful services here.
Responsive and Mobile Design
In the US alone, more people access the internet from their mobile device than from a desktop computer, so it’s no wonder that responsive and mobile design skills are super important to employers. Responsive design means that the site’s layout (and sometimes functionality and content) change based on the screen size and device someone is using.
For example, when you visit a website from a desktop computer with a big monitor, you’ll see multiple columns, big graphics, and interaction created specifically for mouse and keyboard users. On a mobile device, the same website would appear as a single column optimized for touch interaction, but using the same base files.
Mobile design can include responsive design, but can also mean creating separate mobile-specific designs. Sometimes the experience you want a user to have when visiting your site on a desktop computer is entirely different from what you want them to see when visiting from their smartphone.
In those cases, it makes sense for the mobile site to be completely different. A bank website with online banking would benefit from a separate mobile site that lets users view things like the closest bank location and a simplified account view (since mobile screens are smaller).
Modern browsers are getting pretty good at displaying websites consistently, but there are still differences in how they interpret code behind the scenes. Until all modern browsers work perfectly with web standards, knowing how to make each of them work the way you want them to is an important skill. That’s what cross-browser development is all about.
Read more about cross-browser compatibility here.
Content Management Systems and E-commerce Platforms
Almost every website out there is built on a content management system (CMS). (E-commerce platforms are a specific type of CMS.) The most popular CMS worldwide is WordPress, which is behind-the-scenes of millions of websites (including Skillcrush!). In fact, almost 60% of websites that use a CMS use WordPress.
Other popular CMSs include Joomla, Drupal, and Magento. While knowing these won’t put you in as much demand as being a WordPress expert, they can give you a niche that will be desirable among companies who use those systems (and there are plenty out there).
As an aspiring front end developer, CMS skills could potentially give you an edge when it comes to landing a job.
Testing and Debugging
It’s a fact of life for a front end web developer: bugs happen. Being familiar with testing and debugging processes is vital.
Unit testing is the process of testing individual blocks of source code (the instructions that tell a website how it should work), and unit testing frameworks provide a specific method and structure for doing so (there are different ones for each programming language).
Another common type of testing is UI testing (also called acceptance testing, browser testing, or functional testing), where you check to make sure that the website behaves as it should when a user is actually using the site.
You can write tests that will look for things like particular HTML on a page after an action is taken — like making sure that if a user forgets to fill out a required form field, your form error box pops up.
Debugging is simply taking all of the “bugs” (errors) those tests uncover (or your users uncover once your site is launched), putting on your detective hat to figure out why and how they’re happening, and fixing the problem. Different companies use slightly different processes for this, but if you’ve used one, you can adapt to others pretty easily.
Because testing and bugging contribute in large part to a positive user experience, they’re valuable skills for a front end developer to know.
Git and Version Control Systems
Version control systems let you keep track of changes that have been made to code over time. They also make it easy to revert back to an earlier version if you screw something up.
Let’s say you add a customized jQuery plugin and suddenly half of your other code breaks. Rather than having to scramble to manually undo it and fix all of the errors, you can roll back to a previous version and then try it again with a different solution — like hitting a reset button.
Git is the most widely used of these version control management systems and can be installed using the command line. Knowing how to use Git is going to be a requirement for virtually any development job, be it front end development, back end development, or full stack development. This is one of those vital job skills that developers need to have but few actually talk about.
Problem Solving Skills
If there’s one thing that all front end developers have to have, regardless of the job description or official title, it’s excellent problem solving skills. From figuring out how to best implement a design, to fixing bugs that crop up, to figuring out how to make your front end code work with the back end code another software engineer has written, development is all about creative problem solving.
For example: you’ve created a perfectly-functioning website front end and you hand it over to the back end developers for them to integrate it with the content management system (CMS). All of a sudden, half your awesome features stop working.
A good front end developer will view this as a puzzle to be solved rather than an absolute disaster. Of course, an excellent, senior-level front end developer will anticipate these problems and try to prevent them in the first place!