Front-end, back-end, and full-stack development are distinct but essential disciplines of software development. And understanding the difference between the three is significant. In this post, we break down the difference between the three types of developers and how it affects developers, hiring managers, and recruiters.
Front-End vs Back-End Environments
When you load a website or application, the experience consists of two environments.
The back end is what you don’t see that underpins the digital experience, including servers, applications, and databases.
In contrast, the front end is everything that a user sees and interacts with in their browser. The front end includes buttons, text, links, design, and the overall user experience.
Think of it this way: If a website were a car, the front end would be the exterior, the wheel, the seating, and paint. The back end, on the other hand, is the engine, ignition, and transmission that make the car function.
What Does a Front-End Developer Do?
Front-end developers create everything the user sees and interacts with in their browser. On a more technical level, the core job responsibilities of front-end developers include:
- Coding in client-side programing languages
- Building tools that improve site interaction
- Ensuring high performance on every browser
- Troubleshooting, debugging, and optimizing performance
- Creating and implementing UI/UX design
- Designing information architecture
- Prototyping application interfaces with graphic design tools
- Integrating APIs
Front-end developers use a range of programming languages to build websites. These include:
Front-end developers also work with a number of programming frameworks, including:
- Tailwind CSS
What Does a Back-End Developer Do?
Back-end developers build the server-side infrastructure that users don’t see, also known as the back end or server side. On a more technical level, the core job responsibilities of back-end developers include:
- Working with web server technologies
- Coding in server-side programming languages
- Supporting the full application lifecycle
- Troubleshooting, debugging, and optimizing performance
- Building automation tools
- Developing and integrating APIs
Back-end developers use a range of programming languages to build applications. These include:
Out of the above languages, the most widely known are Java, C, and Python.
Back-end developers also use a number of programming frameworks, including:
- Ruby on Rails
Back-end developers may also have a number of competencies beyond programming languages. These include cloud platforms (AWS, Azure, GCP) and database tools (SQL Server, Oracle, MySQL)
What Does a Full-Stack Developer Do?
Full-stack developers have the unique ability to build both the visual and server environments that define the internet as we know it. Full-stack developers have an understanding of front-end design and interactivity, as well as back-end databases and architectures.
Full-stack developers have a combination of front-end and back-end responsibilities, and their specific tasks vary depending on the company and role. With competency in both environments, full-stack developers are able to work at multiple levels of the website development process.
Any company that’s building its own website or online applications will need to hire developers to build the front-end and back-end environments. Often, companies will hire developers who specialize in one of those two environments. However, companies will also hire full-stack developers who can work throughout the tech stack.
The demand for — and feasibility of — full-stack development has fluctuated throughout the history of software development. When development environments are relatively simple, the demand for full-stack developers increases. Under these conditions, it’s more efficient for companies to hire developers who can own the development of features from design to implementation.
But when application development is more complex, the need for full-stack developers decreases. That’s because it’s harder for one person to understand the full technology stack when it’s more complicated or going through periods of rapid iteration.
With the technology industry in the early stages of developing Web3, this trend may change, with the demand for full-stack developers continuing to grow. As developers introduce innovative new technologies to the technology stack — including machine learning, decentralization and the metaverse — full-stack developers who understand how all these pieces fit together will be invaluable. It’s possible that during this change the titles and roles of full-stack professionals may shift from development to integration.
It’s worth noting that an individual full-stack developer won’t necessarily use all of the front-end and back-end technologies we’ve listed. The number of technologies a developer knows — and the depth at which they know them — will vary on a case-by-case basis. Full-stack developers at the beginning of their careers won’t have complete mastery over both back-end and front-end, but they will increase the depth and breadth of their skills throughout their careers. Even a senior full-stack developer might have working knowledge of the entire stack, with true expertise in only a few layers.
What’s the Difference?
Depth of Expertise
Front-end and back-end developers both build deep expertise in a single development environment. Full-stack developers, in contrast, are defined by a combination of breadth and depth.
There are several different types of full-stack developers, each with varying levels of expertise in the two disciplines:
- Experts in front-end with an understanding of back-end
- Experts in back-end with an understanding of front-end
- Generalists with equal competency in both disciplines
- Experts in both disciplines
Lastly, these types of developers earn different salaries. Back-end developers typically earn the most, with an average base salary in the U.S. of $115,129. Front-end developers, in contrast, earn the least of the three with an average salary of $100,139. Average compensation for full-stack developers sits between the two at $106,167.
The important takeaway here is not specific compensation levels, as salary data can quickly change due to market conditions. Instead, it’s the relationship between these numbers and what it communicates about how the industry values certain developer skills. Back-end skills are priced at a premium. And having both back-end and front-end skills is priced slightly higher than front-end skills but lower than back-end skills.
Why Does the Difference Matter?
Having a clear understanding of the different specializations of developers is critical. However, the reason for its importance depends on your role.
For aspiring developers, understanding the different possible career paths is key to choosing a specialization and learning the right skills to succeed.
While hiring managers will be familiar with the particulars of front-end and back-end development, knowing when to hire generalists or specialists is less straightforward. Understanding the nuances of each role is key to making good hiring decisions and building teams with the right skill sets.
Lastly, for recruiters, having fluency over each discipline will make it easier to attract skilled candidates and sell the technical opportunities of the role.