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Differences Between Frontend vs Backend Developers

| June 30, 2021

Distinguishing the differences between frontend and backend development is extremely important for those looking to build a digital product, especially when you’re piecing together talent to do the work on your own. Even when working with a digital product agency that will supply such talent, understanding the “what” and “where” things happen in your app will provide a deeper understanding of your product as well as instill a bit more respect for the process.

Your app has two primary places where code runs to make things happen and each requires a specific set of skills to develop. There’s some overlap in skillsets between frontend and backend developers, however, you typically want to assign teams or individuals to work exclusively on either portion as this is most efficient. With that in mind, we’re going to run through the meaning of your app’s “front and back end” as well as take a look at the kind of talent that makes either tick.

The frontend vs the backend

The app (i.e., the “client”) running on a smartphone, computer, or browser is what we refer to as the “frontend” of your app. Here, various user interface (UI) design components come to life through code that arranges the layout for any given device and makes the elements interactive. Frontend code makes use of various tools such as APIs that allow the app to exchange data from other systems like your backend servers, databases, and third-party connections. A very simple way of defining the front end is that it’s simply the visible UI part of an app.

Most processing and logic as well as data storage and retrieval are handled on the backend which is sometimes referred to as the “server-side” of a digital product. You’ll typically have several virtual machines (VMs) that host various elements of your backend, like your databases, APIs, web servers, and so on.

A familiar example is Netflix: the app on your tablet, TV, PlayStation, etc., is the frontend that basically behaves as just a viewer for what’s going on in the backend where the content is actually being “played.” For the sake of brevity, the Netflix backend is responsible for finding the media file on its file system, then “playing” the content (think like iTunes or Windows Media Player) by streaming the contents of that media file back to the front end where it is displayed to the user.

One other thing to note is that there is sometimes a need for additional flavors of talent such as DevOps, among others. These individuals or teams align nicely with most agile models by acting as a kind of extension for backend developers by creating and connecting as well as managing the systems and infrastructure running the backend code, such as CI/CD pipelines, content delivery networks (CDNs), and virtual machines. 

Frontend vs backend developers

Now that we have a gist of what happens at the front and back ends of an app, let’s take a look at the skills of the people who support them.

The frontend developer

These individuals or teams primarily deal with what we refer to as the “presentation” layer – essentially, the visual portion of an app – that sits between the “session and application” layers of what’s known as the OSI model. This framework that’s been used for quite some time, explains how an app runs in a networked environment so for more info, check out the link above as this is a good starting point to understand the baseline of what’s going on under the hood of an app.

The frontend developers are responsible for knowing how to use different frameworks to create the UI from visual elements supplied by the design team such as: React Native for cross-platform, mobile apps; Swift or Kotlin (and a couple of different variations of C) for native iOS or Android apps, respectively; JavaScript, HTML, and CSS for web pages or hybrid apps. Each of these frameworks and their underlying languages are used to create functionality for any given design element, thus translating user actions to proper app behavior.

Today, most frontend development teams should be well-versed in building custom solutions for headless architecture, meaning the ability to effectively create an interface for any given channel using languages such as Javascript which have become lingua franca for the development of UIs across any number of device types. Individual skillsets can vary dramatically as some might specialize in purely Android or iOS development while others might be able to build for anything you can imagine, be it a smart TV, some kind of wearable tech, or even more obscure IoT devices.

As a digital product agency, our expertise extends far and wide as do most strictly design/development labs. A firm can handle the finer details of delegating the workload among its pool of engineers but if you’re looking to build your own team by hiring individual developers, designers, and management, you’ll need to be able to understand which skill sets are needed to meet your goals.

The backend developer

Though not as flashy as a role, backend developers are responsible for developing the underlying features that run behind the UI. People in these roles are responsible for developing the logic that makes certain behaviors possible. At the risk of angering legions of frontend developers, if you think of frontend development as the visual look and feel of an app, backend development involves the creation of the “brains” of the app.

Going back to the Netflix example, the backend developers would be responsible for building components such as the media player that “plays” the movie as well as designing and configuring the database that hosts the metadata for every piece of content. Further, they need to be able to efficiently build the APIs that are responsible for pushing and pulling data between backend systems (e.g., different servers, relational and non-relational databases, etc.), third-party services, and the frontend. 

These roles are often highly mathematical as some apps require a comprehensive understanding of what various functions accomplish to be able to translate such things into workable code algorithms. In a simpler example, you could take a look at an app we just completed called Solo Fan which allows users at sporting venues to easily connect with, order from, and pay vendors directly from their seats. The backend developers here were responsible for building functionality like the databases for the menu system (as well as the portal interface for businesses to modify items), the payment system that allows users to securely make digital payments, and more.

The most useful backend developers are proficient in the following languages: C#, JAVA, JavaScript, Ruby, or Python. These are generally used within frameworks such as .NET Core (C#), NodeJS (JavaScript), Spring (JAVA), Django (Python), Rails (Ruby), and so on to build what is essentially the “brains” of a digital product. Note that some of these languages are now used in frontend development (e.g., React Native which uses JavaScript) which does allow for some interplay between frontend and backend development however, seasoned “full-stack” developers tend to be hard to come by and pricey as a result.

One final thing to understand is that many apps today now use sophisticated machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) to accomplish any number of tasks. For example, we used the computer vision portion of Azure Cognitive Services to develop a feature in the Sol LeWitt app that allows users to scan one of his installations from anywhere in the world with their camera to unlock more content. As such, backend developers today often need to know how to use and implement these systems effectively as well as have a working understanding of data science and modeling. Finally, the term ‘backend developer’ is not a one-size-fits-all type of skillset as there are many different subsets of backend development that require specialized resources such as database programming and the aforementioned AI/ML development.

Blue Label Labs provides all the design and development talent you’ll need

We are the summation of decades of experience and talent from around the world that, when combined, delivers an awesome app development experience. Moreover, we also supply business strategy through market research, user testing, and feedback loops that help businesses on their way to success. Not only does our process help provide deep insight for the businesses we serve, it gives our designers and developers the tools they need to continually improve the overall UX of a digital product. For more information on our process or to discuss your app idea, get in touch!

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