Front End Development Lite?
January 23, 2015 1:01 PM   Subscribe

A question in two parts. One, is there a market for front end developers who know just HTML, css and some javascript? And two, is there really a market for front end (html, css and javascript/jQuery) positions or is this skillset not a good long range career choice?

OK, so I have html and css skills along with knowing a bit about bootstrap 3.0. I have played around with jquery a bit as well and have design skills (in fact I'm a digital designer working in Sharepoint and online now).

So great, maybe I will update my skills for a Front End Dev role. However whenever I see job ads they always seem to want someone that has used full on js library like Angular or build systems like gulp, and all other kinds of libraries under the sun.

I don't have those skills currently. I know I could get make some projects and learn more but I am concerned that I put all this time and energy into learning more libraries, etc. (in fact just learning more and more about javascript) and the market turns to where there are less and less jobs available. I don't think I would ever want to become a back end dev. Can someone make a career out of front end skills? Would someone want to do that or eventually get bored, etc?

Please tell me your experiences.
posted by gregjunior to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I have worked on a variety of teams whose developers ranged from very specialized (database only, UI mockup only) to very generalized. On my current small team every person can design a database schema, write procs and C# code, and do all the css/javascript stuff.

However ... skill level at each thing varies and if I found someone who was the bomb at the front-end stuff but didn't know much else, I would hire that person in a heartbeat. But I'd want that person to be able to do the following other things ideally:

* good design sense and can provide overall UI advice
* Enough Photoshop/graphics skills to cobble together icons and things for the UI
* good development practices and attention to detail

In my experience the last one is the hardest. I've had too many front-end people who don't organize their code, don't comment, don't refactor, and don't value things like updating their tickets and other nuances. If I have to clean up one more "main.css" with 8 billion lines, no comments, and 100 unused badly-named styles ... GRAR!

So I guess I'd say, maybe try to learn at least enough about the other tiers (server, middle, database) that you understand the concerns. And be humble and willing to adapt to the practices used by cross-tier teams.

Oh and don't use a whole bunch of new UI libraries without telling anyone because you were reading some UI blog and they sounded cool :-) You can provide leadership ("Tell us why we should upgrade to Bootstrap 3") without being wild west. You might not be like that, but a lot of UI-only people seem to be.

Good luck!!
posted by freecellwizard at 1:23 PM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you're looking for a "dev" role, understand that typically means programming. Also understand that neither HTML nor CSS are programming languages. Calling someone whose chief skills are HTML and CSS a "web developer" is not accurate for the definition of "developer" that is most common.

Front-end developers are typically going to be expected to program. Usually Javascript but sometimes all the way down to the presentation layer of whatever framework is being used.

These days, it's pretty popular to have a heavy front-end stack and for the back-end to be mostly an API. In those cases, the "front end developer" will be doing a BUNCH of programming, almost always in javascript.

So if you want to be a front-end dev, you probably ought to start learning Javascript. Otherwise you probably want to look for designer roles instead.

Also: if you do find a "front-end dev" role that doesn't require you to program, understand that you either won't be making what you could be making with the full range of skill and/or you will be easily replaced.

Don't undersell your design skills -- those are valuable as well.
posted by toomuchpete at 1:38 PM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yes, you can make a career out of front end only skills. I currently have a team that's split about 33/33/33 - 1/3 of the team are rock solid back end devs, 1/3 are super talented front end devs, and 1/3 are "full stack" devs who are more jack of all trade generalists; good at a lot of things but master of none. My front end devs have absolutely made a career out of it, and like you at least tell me they have no desire to do back end work.

But... they know a ton more than just css/html/js. Some specialize in markup and styling and less on JS, but that means they know things like sass & less and responsive design and browser optimizations and all the tools that are needed to build the front end for a large scale web app like bower and grunt/gulp and compass and yeoman, in addition to photoshop. These guys are always learning about what's out there in terms of libraries and tools and whatnot. Others on my team are stronger with javascript, and know their framework of choice (like Angular for example) cold. They can also talk for days on why their favourite framework is better than X, Y & Z. They don't bother with jquery because they know vanilla javascript and pull in other smaller libraries that solve their specific problems instead.

I guess my TL;DR is that you can absolutely focus a career on front end dev, because there's so much more to it than just html and css, and that knowledge is what makes you a specialist. If you only know html and css, then to be honest you're not providing me anything more than my generalists do, and they can also do other things as well.
posted by cgg at 1:41 PM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Calling someone whose chief skills are HTML and CSS a "web developer" is not accurate for the definition of "developer" that is most common.

I don't think that's true at all.

I work almost exclusively as a back-end coder now but I started as a front-end coder knowing only HTML and CSS (and barely that). There are lots of tracks you can take from here. If you at least know what's possible with JavaScript/ jQuery you will learn them pretty quickly (focus on the JavaScript side-- jQuery is nice but it's less and less necessary or the trade-off of including the big library just to select two elements is becoming less attractive).

As a "purely front-end" developer you can be insanely valuable to a team if you learn the ins and outs of CSS and browser quirks. Truly understanding Responsive Design and how to implement it well (i.e., without burying the user in 5 megs of files) across browsers and devices is not an easy thing and someone who can do it well is always in demand. If you're also a competent designer, that's an even better combination.

The main point is to always be curious and always look for a better way to do things. If you do that, your frustration will lead you to learn JavaScript and learn some back-end language to reduce the repetitiveness of cutting and pasting HTML into multiple files or having to compress images by hand or whatever.

The best coders aren't the ones that know a lot of languages, they're the ones that get things done.
posted by yerfatma at 1:44 PM on January 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've been doing web development for over 15 years including hiring at a dozen different companies. In my experience, there are two very different types of jobs: web designer and front-end developer. There is overlap on HTML and CSS - which is where I think your confusion comes from - but that's where the similarities end.

When you look for front-end developer jobs, you are expected to know HTML and CSS as the first 20% of your job but then you are expected to know javascript and all those other things you mentioned as the other 80%. When you look for web designer jobs on the other hand, you are expected to know web/UI design as the first 40% of your job, advanced Photoshop as the next 40%, and then HTML and CSS as the other 20%. From the interview perspective, developer jobs entail a technical interview with lots of programming questions while designer jobs entail a review of your portfolio and cursory verification that you know basics as far as HTML and CSS go. Both have good employment prospects but the more you grow into the front-end developer territory the "hotter" you are, both in terms of the number of opportunities and the salary.

You will absolutely not waste your time learning javascript. It's the lingua franca of the web and mobile so you couldn't go wrong! I recommend spending some time going through fundamentals on After that, pick any two libraries - Angular is as good as any - and complete tutorials on those, followed by a couple simple projects. As long as you have general javascript and a couple libraries under you belt, you will be eminently hireable. People don't really care which JS libraries you know, as long as you demonstrate general ability.
posted by rada at 2:06 PM on January 23, 2015 [7 favorites]

the bad news is that the entire web development ecosystem has been upended by the very rapid ascent of javascript as the primary tool for web programming and what is expected for front end work has become much more complicated.

the good news is companies will pay you for understanding it.
posted by lescour at 2:35 PM on January 23, 2015

A designer that understands CSS and JS (for functionality), who understands that the web is not like print, and can execute, is very valuable, if you can find a company that appreciates that. To many companies want an individual to do "CSS, Design, JS, jQuery, PHP, some PHP framework, a CSS framework, SQL, etc."

I try to stay away from those situations and companies. A good programmer should be handling the programming but be able to work with others for the output which will be marked up and styled appropriately. The challenge is to find a good set of people to work with.

I will say learning to use a CMS and how to integrate your CSS/JS into templates is very valuable. MODX (personal current favourite for it's flexibility), WordPress (riddled with PHP the last time I used it), Drupal (haven't looked at in years but I know it's still going strong), Joomla (the worst of the bunch IMO), and OctoberCMS looks promising for a newer one that's based on the Laravel PHP framework.
posted by juiceCake at 2:41 PM on January 23, 2015

I recently had this discussion with a friend/former colleague. Our consensus was that just knowing HTML/CSS is not enough.

The reason behind this is that, with frameworks like Bootstrap, it's super-easy to set up the presentation of a web site without much work. Grid layout, widget styling, etc... those are pretty much baked-in. Granted, your site will initially look like any other site, so you do need some HTML/CSS knowledge to customize things. But it's nowhere near the level of coding up from scratch. This allows you to concentrate on the behavior of the site; looking nice doesn't accomplish anything if the site works like shit.

Javascript, on the other hand, isn't something you can just find a template and slap on, simply because the behavior of each web site varies so widely.

I was in the same boat as you: HTML/CSS guru, with some Javascript sprinkled in somewhere, and I was prized for the former. This was five years ago. Nowadays, you have to be skilled in Javascript if you want a great job. That's not to say that HTML/CSS by themselves can't get you a good job, but their "must be a ninja" days are numbered. (Do people even still say "code ninja"?)

Now... getting into Javascript can be intimidating, I know. But it really doesn't matter which library you use. rada has the right idea: what's important is not what languages you can code in, but understanding core programming concepts. I know plenty of people who only ever touched one programming language, but were hired by companies that uses a different language, because they understand core concepts.

If you do dive deeper into Javascript, I highly suggest learning more about Javascript and not so much jQuery. I've interviewed candidates who knew how to use jQuery but couldn't figure out core concepts. It's like the difference between managing your finances by hand, and hiring some planner to do it all for you.

When you look for front-end developer jobs, you are expected to know HTML and CSS as the first 20% of your job but then you are expected to know javascript and all those other things you mentioned as the other 80%..

In my previous company, "web developers" were what rada described, and "front-end engineers" were the HTML/CSS gurus who knew JS on the side. Many newer startups have these two roles combined into "front-end developer", however.
posted by curagea at 8:51 PM on January 23, 2015

For your second question: The market for that here in Baltimore is very very good, especially at digital agencies and in-house positions. If you understand responsive design as a few other responses mentioned, your job outlook is great.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 1:47 AM on January 24, 2015

I am in the same exact boat as you. Thanks to everyone else in here for answering. Definitely saving this to come back to it. I would LOVE to be able to get a job using some of my design sensibility + my HTML/CSS/JS skills. I am lacking in the same areas (tons of frameworks, etc)
posted by kup0 at 2:34 AM on January 24, 2015

A colleague just passed this along a day or so ago: The Shifting Definition of “Front-End Developer”
posted by limeonaire at 8:18 AM on January 24, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks so much for all replies. I have a tendency to want to mark most if not all as best so I will just leave it alone.

ImproviseOrDie, thanks for the local outlook for your area, I appreciate it.

kup0, I think there are probably tons of people like us. That is why I am a bit hesitant to break into the field. I know that competition is really fierce in my market (Phoenix) for designers and worried that could translate into people transitioning into front end work.

I am always up for a move though as I think other markets have better tech outlooks.
posted by gregjunior at 10:32 AM on January 24, 2015

The role you're talking about is usually called a Web Designer, not a Developer, unless you're fully proficient in JavaScript. If you add CS theory courses to the JavaScript proficiency, you get to Frontend Software Engineer.

Designer generally pays less and has fewer options than Developer or Engineer in Silicon Valley. However, nationwide, Designer pays well and has quite a few openings, but usually at design/advertising firms as often as at software companies.
posted by talldean at 11:57 AM on January 24, 2015

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