Let’s say there is a divide happening in front-end development. I feel it, but it’s not just in my bones. Based on an awful lot of written developer sentiment, interviews Dave Rupert and I have done on ShopTalk, and in-person discussion, it’s, as they say… a thing.
The divide is between people who self-identify as a (or have the job title of) front-end developer, yet have divergent skill sets.
On the other, an army of developers whose interests, responsibilities, and skill sets are focused on other areas of the front end, like HTML, CSS, design, interaction, patterns, accessibility, etc.
Let’s hear from people who are feeling this divide.
This schism isn’t happening under our feet. We’re asking for it.
This rings true for me. I enjoy working with and reading about modern frameworks, fancy build tools, and interesting data layer strategies. Right now, I’m enjoying working with React as a UI library, Apollo GraphQL for data, Cypress for integration testing, and webpack as a build tool. I am constantly eying up CSS-in-JS libraries. Yet, while I do consider those things a part of front-end development, they feel cosmically far away from the articles and conversations around accessibility, semantic markup, CSS possibilities, UX considerations, and UI polish, among others. It feels like two different worlds.
My hope is that the solution is writing more descriptive job postings. If clearly defined and agreed upon job titles are too much of an ask for the industry at large (and I fear that it is), we can still use our words. Corey Ginnivan put it well:
I’d love more job descriptions to be more vulnerable and open — let people know what you want to achieve, specify what they’ll be working on, but open it as a growth opportunity for both parties.
“Front-end developer” is still a useful term. Like Mina Markham described to us recently, it’s who people that primarily work with browsers and people using those browsers are. But it’s a generic shorthand, says Miriam Suzanne:
Front-end developer is shorthand for when the details don’t matter. Like being in an indie-rock band — who knows what that is, but I say it all the time. Shorthand is great until you’re posting a job description. When the details matter, we already have more detailed language — we just have to use it.
That’s OK. You can still be a front-end developer. 🙏
You might be exploring layout possibilities, architecting a CSS or design system, getting deep into UX, building interesting animations, digging into accessibility, or any other number of firmly front-end development jobs. There’s more than enough to go around.
Remember just last last year how Frank Chimero, who builds incredibly great websites for himself and clients, was totally bewildered with where front-end development had gone? To summarize:
… other people’s toolchains are absolutely inscrutable from the outside. Even getting started is touchy. Last month, I had to install a package manager to install a package manager. That’s when I closed my laptop and slowly backed away from it. We’re a long way from the CSS Zen Garden where I started.
A long way indeed. I might argue that you don’t have to care. If you’ve been and continue to be successful building websites any way you know how for yourself and clients, hallelujah! Consider all this new toolchain stuff entirely as an opt-in deal that solves different problems than you have.
And yet, this toolchain opaqueness prods at even the people necessarily embedded in it. Dave Rupert documents a real bug with a solution buried so deep that it’s a miracle it was rooted out. Then he laments:
As toolchains grow and become more complex, unless you are expertly familiar with them, it’s very unclear what transformations are happening in our code. Tracking the differences between the input and output and the processes that code underwent can be overwhelming.
Who needs these big toolchains? Generally, it’s the big sites. It’s a bit tricky to pin down what big means, but I bet you have a good feel for it. Ironically, while heaps of tooling add complexity, the reason they are used is for battling complexity. Sometimes it feels like releasing cougars into the forest to handle your snake problem. Now you have a cougar problem.
The most visible discussions around all of this are dominated by people at the companies that are working on these big and complex sites. Bastian Allgeier wrote:
Big team needs “x” that’s why “x” is the best solution for everyone. I think this is highly toxic for smaller teams with different requirements and definitions of what’s “maintainable” or “sustainable”. I get in touch with a lot of smaller agencies and freelancers from all over the world and it’s interesting how their work is often completely detached from the web’s VIP circus.
What is going on here? What happened? Where did this divide come from? The answer is pretty clear to me:
Through all the possibilities that swirl around the idea of serverless combined with prepackaged UI frameworks, a front-end developer can build just about anything without needing much, if any, help from other disciplines. I find that exciting and enticing, but also worthy of pause. It’s certainly possible that you become so framework-driven going down this path that your wider problem-solving skills suffer. I heard that sentiment from Estelle Weyl who goes so far as to say she thinks of developers more as “framework implementers,” reserving the title of engineer for tool-agnostic problem solvers.
This front-end empowerment is very real. Particularly in the last few years, front-end developers have gotten especially powerful. So powerful that Michael Scharnagl says he’s seen companies shift their hiring in that direction:
And Jay Freestone takes a stab at why:
I am a designer and I think I’m pretty good at HTML and CSS, but that’s not enough anymore to be a front-end developer.
Robin himself gave himself the job title, Adult Boy That Cares Too Much About Accessibility and CSS and Component Design but Doesn’t Care One Bit About GraphQL or Rails or Redux but I Feel Really Bad About Not Caring About This Other Stuff Though.
It feels like an alternate universe some days.
Two “front-end web developers” can be standing right next to each other and have little, if any, skill sets in common. That’s downright bizarre to me for a job title so specific and ubiquitous. I’m sure that’s already the case with a job title like designer, but front-end web developer is a niche within a niche already.
What I don’t understand is why it’s okay if you can “just write JS”, but somehow you’re not good enough if you “just write HTML and CSS”.
When every new website on the internet has perfect, semantic, accessible HTML and exceptionally executed, accessible CSS that works on every device and browser, then you can tell me that these languages are not valuable on their own. Until then we need to stop devaluing CSS and HTML.
Mandy uses her post for peacemaking. She’s telling us, yes, there is a divide, but no, neither side is any more valuable than the other.
In my experience, “full-stack developers” always translates to “programmers who can do front-end code because they have to and it’s ‘easy’.” It’s never the other way around. The term “full-stack developer” implies that a developer is equally adept at both frontend code and backend code, but I’ve never in my personal experience witnessed anyone who truly fits that description.
… one of the most glaring issues with making Full Stack Developers the gatekeepers of all-things-code is the pitiful quality of the HTML output. Most come from a computer science background, and document structure is simply not taught alongside control structure. It’s not their competency, but we still make it their job.
Just like it may not be my job to configure our deployment pipeline and handle our database scaling (I’d do a terrible job if that task fell to me), perhaps it’s best to leave the job of HTML and CSS to do those who do it well. Maybe it’s easier to say: Even if there is a divide, that doesn’t absolve any of us from doing a good job.
Just as architecture and developer ergonomics are all our jobs, we should view performance, accessibility, and user experience among our line of work. If we can’t do a good job with any particular part of it, make sure there’s someone else who can do that part. Nobody is allowed to do a bad job.
It’s worth mentioning that there are plenty of developers with skill sets that cross the divide and do so gracefully. I think of our own Sarah Drasner who is known as an incredible animator, SVG expert, and a core team member of Vue who also works at Microsoft on Azure. Full stack, indeed.
I expand upon a lot of these topics in another recent conference talk I gave at WordCamp US:
Is there any solution to these problems of suffering craftsmanship and skill devaluation? Are the problems systemic and deeply rooted, or are they surface level and without severe consequence? Is the divide real, or a temporary rift? Is the friction settling down or heating up? Will the front-end developer skill set widen or narrow as the years pass? Let’s keep talking about this!