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What does a Front-End Website Developer do?

The answer to this question varies from business to business and mainly depends on resources, budget, size, and how they communicate their website development needs.

I sometimes refer to myself as a “Front-End Web Developer” or “Front-End Engineer” so this is how I will explain it in this article.

One thing to realize is that front-end developers my have a variety of skill levels, and overall understanding of the web development process. You may find that if you are a small company that has limited resources, but try to find someone whom has mastered all of these skills, then you may be slightly disappointed, or may need to have a higher budget.

As your company grows, you may want to consider having a network of resources for other areas of website development that may fill in on a part-time to full time basis.

The keyword is “team work” when it comes to organizations that place a heavy emphasis on online marketing, sales, and e-commerce.

Now that we have some basic ideas of expectations and understanding that all projects may not have a SINGLE person that does design, programming, etc. let’s begin with the article.

Feel free to skip to any of the following skill explanations listed below. To start, these are some of the wide skills you should look for when hiring a front-end web developer for your company.



Some websites just work great

These are the websites that have a smooth flow, the user will encounter zero to minimal errors or dead-ends. Basically frontend developers create websites that LOOK GOOD because they are CODED GOOD. Elements on the page are aligned, and forms look great with a clear call to action.

When a great frontend developer is behind a website, things will just make sense. As a user you rarely need to think about what you are doing, and rarely hit errors. The website’s goal is usually achieved without a single mis-step.

When you come across these websites then you need to take notice because it is most likely the work of a skilled front-end developer, often times even some of his equally skilled friends that like to geek out on html, css, jquery, and user experience.

Many times what seem to be just “simple” websites have really been crafted by frontend developers who have spent many, many hours adjusting CSS, rearranging blocks of html, and adding javascript in just the right places.

The ninja front end developer will have spent many years sharpening his skills, yet will never be quite satisfied with their progress as the knowledge that can be gained is endless. There is a fine balance between exploring the craft from the surface and becoming a true master of each degree of skill.


Design

All front-end developers will be exposed to design at some point. Some even claim to be designers. Some are master designers. Yet, others have zero design skills at all, but can slice a Photoshop Design comp into a working wireframe within hours.

A great eye for design is something that front-end web developers should strive to have, yet it is NOT a required skill in order for the developer to perform his job. Often times if the resources are available it is better to have a combined team of a highly skilled graphic artist that works with a front-end developer.

If you are fortunate enough to land a front-end web developer that also has some good design skills then it is a great asset for you as your jobs can get done faster. Just realize that these are a very rare individual to find. If your marketing campaigns are very design heavy, it may be better suited for you to hire one person to create the artwork and one person to code that artwork into a working website.


Usability and Testing

All web developers, especially front-end web developers should care about Usability and testing. Since their work delivers the website experience to the end-users, all front-end web developers should take time to test their work. This includes cross browser testing, dead end links, 404 error pages, and more. Dedicated front-end developers will take this task into their own hands without be asked. Dead beat, or lazy front-end developers will leave it up to someone else… Unless they are instructed to pass it off to other specialized team members.


HTML/CSS

This is the lifeblood of the front-end developer.

If they fail to pass all other tests to prove their mastery of the craft, they should at least understand HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets).

HTML is the main markup for creating web pages so that it can be displayed in web browsers. This includes basic text styling such as paragraph and heading tags as well as forms, embedding videos or scripts, and identifying sections of the web page that require styling or displaying information.

Since most web pages would be quite boring if it not were for design, a front-end developer must learn to master CSS. Since CSS will be used to create a layout and design of a web page, a front-end developer should be comfortable writing and manipulating CSS properties. These CSS skills will allow the developer to tweak and bend web page layouts, colors, font-styles, backgrounds, gradients, and more to no end… The further along in their craft, the more Jedi web tricks they will be able to perform using CSS.

CSS is also a skill that shows the developer’s true dedication to mastering the craft because it is constantly being updated allowing for more impressive page effects, without the use of javascripts. However, a good front-end developer will know how to at least create a good html markup structure based off of standard photoshop design layouts.

As designs and expectations get more complex, so do the requirements of a front-end developers use of CSS and Javascripts…


JQuery and Javascripts

So now that we know that HTML and CSS are the one main super power that all front-end web developers should have, and master, we can now talk about ninja and jedi levels of front-end web development.

Once a front-end web developer has become quite comfortable with their ability to create a web page from either a photoshop design or from their own creative ideas, then they can begin to explore JQuery or Javascript.

Knowing every script off the top of our head would be virtually impossible to remember, but these are what make complex interactivity occur on pages. Try to think of those fancy drop down menus, beautiful tabbed data display, pop up image galleries, page sliders, maps, and more.

Often times really good front-end developers will seek out these scripts to implement in their pages. If they have also studied the javascript language then some amazing applications can be built using a single front-end developer.

Least often, are common front-end developers likely to have mastered writing javascript from scratch. But if they have also mastered writing javascript and are good designers, then you have a great addition to add to your team, probably a very rare find.

But, if your frontend developer does not have extensive javascript experience, then no worries. Sometimes the skill-sets of a javascript master should be hired simply for implementing these elements of your website.

True Javascript developers are web warriors in a class of their own. They are not really dark, anti-social freaks that never leave their desk. They just make really awesome stuff that requires intense interpretation of code.


Server Performance

While a front-end developer may need to, or be instructed to, use a variety of scripts or features to make a web page look and react in really neat’o ways, they should also have an idea of what those scripts will do to a server’s load time.

If the front-end developer does not understand how to optimize their markup and scripts to maximize performance, then this should be communicated to clients so that the end-user experience is not affected.

Sometimes the use of extra heavy javascripts can cause strain on server load times that can only be fixed by either
(a) not using the script, or
(b) by adjusting the memory and cache on the server

This is so that pages continue to load and be served quickly to the end user.

The result of pages that have NOT been optimized for performance will result in slow loading pages or even CRASHED websites.

I bet as a business owner that you would hate to pay big bucks for an ad campaign, only to have your site crash!

Optimizing from a server side is typically a server administrator’s job, but if you are a small business then you should understand that your front-end web developer should know that in events where you will be experiencing higher traffic to your website that it can slow down or crash.

Keep in mind that the result of higher trafficked websites, or websites that make use of many scripts is usually a higher hosting cost because of the amount of server resources that are required… such as more memory or bandwidth.

A front-end web developer should be able to help you plan accordingly with your web hosting company.


Php, Ruby on Rails, and other programming languages – Bonus

Just like web developers, the websites that are made by them come in many different shapes, styles, designs, and abilities. Some websites are meant simply for the purpose of sharing basic information such as company contact details, or blog posts, while others require collecting visitor information or serving database information.

Front-end web developers typically do not perform heavy programming tasks such as creating database and object-oriented applications from scratch. However, a good front end developer SHOULD be able to implement CSS styles for forms, placement of buttons, etc.

They should be able to work with the people that can perform the required programming tasks to make applications a reality. The Front-End Web Developer will usually be the part of the formula that gives the application some life by using their HTML and CSS skills and even their ninja javascript skills.

Those Front-End Developers whom have also spent the many years it takes to master object oriented programming and that are also able to create beautiful web interfaces are a very rare breed indeed. Just be sure to pay them well and feed them lots of coffee so that they work until the wee hours of dawn performing unit tests, refactoring code, and tweaking on CSS as their brains will be firing on all cylinders including both creative and technical.

A really great web development team would most likely include not only a front-end developer, but also someone who is able to work with a php programmer, a Ruby on Rails developer, an ASP.net programmer, etc. The frontend developers job is to make the interface look good.


Marketing Concepts – Bonus

Depending on the type of websites that are being designed, a front end web-developer may be able to sharpen their team work skills by understanding marketing concepts and the reasons WHY things should be done a certain way. Web page elements such as call-to-action buttons, lead-capture forms, ad spaces, check out forms, color, and more can all be greatly improved if a front-end developer understands these concepts.

Or if they will be working with a marketing and design team then a strong frontend developer should at least be able to provide their technical expertise on what can and can not be done within the browser. Again, the range of skills required from a front-end developer really just depends on the size and budget of your company or project.

Sometimes full-time front-end developers will partner with other front-end developers for a short period of time to develop new parts of a site and pick up the slack in areas they are weak, or they may team up with a marketing advisor or highly skilled graphic designer to improve webpage conversions.

Again, the keyword is teamwork. The larger your company, the more likely you will have multiple people on your team.


Project Management

If you recall, earlier in this article I mentioned that team work is one of the most important components of the web development process. Everyone from the client to the copywriter, to the design team, to the development team are often involved in web projects. The smaller the team, the less communication barriers there may be but the more responsibilities there may be as well. In larger teams, there are more moving parts of the communication flow, but maybe less responsibilities per person.

Because of this, a great freelance front-end web developer should have a good discipline when it comes to managing their projects. This includes everything from planning site maps, collecting media assets, scheduling a timeline of events, and keeping the client or employer up to date on the progress or road blocks that may occur.

Often times being a good Project Manager includes being flexible when it comes to communicating information with clients and managers. Front-End Web Developers may have their own proven project management tools such asBasecamp, but they must also understand that many clients with have their own methods (or lack thereof) keeping organized.

The best Front-End Web Developers will also be able to take charge of their end of the job by having good project management skills. Often times both their clients and managers will either be too busy, not know how, or not care enough to manage the web project so it becomes the developer’s job to make sure tasks get scheduled and things get done.


Social Media

Don’t encourage your front-end developer to be a “jack of all trades and master of none”.

Front-end developers will know how to link up viral buttons to Social networks, connect feeds, and possibly build some custom features or application etc.

But they may not, or should not be the person doing the Community management aspect of Social Media. Personally speaking, I myself am somewhat of an introverted person. So, as far as understanding the power of social media I get it. However I would be the first to say that if I were supposed to be actively promoting a website on social media that it would best be left to an up-beat and extroverted type individual that loves to interact with other people.


Pay Range

The pay range for a front-end developer can vary depending on skills and areas of expertise. As mentioned in several areas above, those developers that can offer a range of skills and still be at the top of their game should be appreciated because even though it is a competitive industry, very few individuals possess a wide variety of well practiced skills. For example if you are a small company that needs someone who can also manage your online marketing, then front end development skills may be a good skill to require, but also keep in mind the typical salary range for someone who only does online marketing but needs to outsource much of the technical work to another person. If you find someone like this then it is probably best to offer them a salary that is a blend of the two distinct jobs.

The pay range will also depend on the Geographic location. For example, Front-End Web Developers in Orange County I would say charge anywhere from $40 – $125+ per hour. It just depends on what type of projects they would be working on.

Sometimes you may find US based individuals with an understanding of HTML/CSS that charge $25/hr but I would not really expect them to accommodate you strongly in other areas such as design, marketing, or programming.

Hiring someone in house can also make sense if you have enough work to keep them busy doing front-end development full time, but sometimes it’s best not to surprise front-end developers with a range of too much work that you think “may be related”. They are best kept focused on the job of building out a well designed and functioning website.

Oversees developers are also an option but many times you will sacrifice quality in areas such as communication, work ethics, and differences in culture which may make managing your project difficult. While there are many quality individuals working in all corners of the globe, it is always nice to work with people that can quickly get on the same page as you because they speak and read the same language. Hiring and managing foreign oversees workers for a small temporary job can be very time consuming because usually the best working relationships are forged through ongoing and continuing communication.


Conclusion

The bottom line is that a front-end web developer will usually manage the html and css markup of a site but as their skills grow they may tend to specialize in one or more advanced areas.

Some front-end developers are conversion experts, some have mastered CSS animations, some know how to program applications in addition to (or before) being a front-end coder. It is a job that requires a lot of patience and dedication to continually learn more to master the trade.

While oftentimes the more experienced object oriented programmers will look at things like HTML and CSS as an annoyance, or something that is real “basic”, it is the front-end developers that make websites look and feel great – no matter how complex the programming code is behind the application.

Please leave me a comment if you have any questions. I hope you have enjoyed reading this article as much as I enjoyed writing it. – Nathan Bray