Computer Science

How to Become a Front-End Developer (So Much More Than Just a Well-Paid Coder)

How to Become a Front-End Developer (So Much More Than Just a Well-Paid Coder)
As a front-end developer, you could be making close to six figures with as little as three years of experience—and it's a flexible career because programmers can work from anywhere. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry October 1, 2019

If you can imagine ways to make software and web apps easier and more fun to use, consider becoming a front-end developer. You'll be responsible for coding all of the elements that users read, click, and engage with.

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Websites and web apps consist of many elements, but users typically only interact with one piece of any site. That piece is called the front end (because it’s user-facing), and it consists of the visual and interactive elements of an app or online destination. Designers create the look and feel of a site, back-end developers make it work, and front-end developers serve as a link between the user interface and the site functionality.

This means front-end developers must be tech-savvy and skilled in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript (the most basic elements of front-end development). But that’s not all. They also need creativity and an understanding of what makes the user experience intuitive and engaging.

There’s no prescribed pathway to become a front-end developer. Academic success and certification trainings can help, but they aren’t the only ways to succeed in this field.

In this article, we’ll discuss the other ways front-end developers can get ahead. We’ll also cover:

  • What is a front-end developer?
  • The qualities you’ll need to become a front-end developer
  • The educational commitment to become a front-end developer
  • The alternate path to becoming a front-end developer
  • The career outlook for front-end developers
  • Skills that will make you a good front-end developer
  • Is this the right career for you?

What is a front-end developer?

Front-end developers—once called client-side developers—turn web designs into fully functional websites using markup languages, scripts, and frameworks. While back-end developers program the behind-the-scenes elements of websites (like databases and content management systems), front-end developers code the structure, navigation, buttons, inputs, responsiveness, and user-facing functionality of a site. As a front-end developer, you will be responsible for coding everything that site visitors and users see and interact with.

An outstanding front-end developer has a knack for making websites and web apps that people love to use. As you learn about what it takes to become a front-end developer, you’ll discover that it’s about more than merely building fast, efficient, responsive, and bug-free sites.

Many people don’t think of front-end developers as creatives, but there are many ways to make sites search-friendly, many ways to program a button or form, and many things you can do to enhance a site’s UX without straying from the design.

When you become a front-end developer, your responsibilities will include:

  • Building mock-ups and prototypes
  • Writing, testing, and debugging code
  • Testing websites or portions of websites
  • Fixing bugs and usability issues
  • Building tools that make the UX better
  • Optimizing web applications for speed
  • Learning about technical SEO best practices
  • Working closely with back-end developers and web designers



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The qualities you’ll need to become a front-end developer

All successful front-end developers possess technical know-how; proficiency in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript are prerequisites of the job. However, it’s important to remember that a front-end developer is a lot more than a well-paid coder.

Other skills are just as essential:

  • Front-end developers often have client-facing responsibilities. Accordingly, they need good communication skills and customer service skills.
  • They also work closely with designers, other developers, and managers, so they need to be able to work effectively as part of a team.
  • They also need a lot of patience and solid problem-solving skills because, as any programmer knows, it’s very unusual for code to work perfectly in a first draft. Developers who enjoy—and excel at—troubleshooting have a distinct advantage over those who find bug testing overly frustrating. Front-end development is a daily exercise in problem-solving. If you love puzzles, this might be an excellent job for you.

To get a more thorough idea of what a front-end developer needs to succeed, check out job listings on sites like Indeed and Glassdoor. You’ll quickly discover that no two front-end developer jobs are alike. A surprising number of them ask that applicants have:

  • Knowledge of SEO principles and Google Analytics
  • Experience using graphics software like Adobe Suite and Photoshop
  • Experience using design tools like Adobe Creative Cloud
  • Knowledge of WML, W3C, and WAP standards

Browsing job listings is the best way to determine what skills you’ll need to succeed as a front-end developer.

Educational commitment to become a front-end developer

Most job listings for front-end developers require an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree in computer science or a comparable discipline. Some employers prefer to hire developers with master’s degrees, though few require job seekers to have advanced degrees.

Employers are often more interested in relevant work experience; it’s not entirely unusual for developers to start working without a degree. Even so, having a bachelor’s degree on your résumé can never hurt. If your goal is to work at a large corporation or for the government—or to enter management—you will eventually need to earn your degree.

So, which degree? The debate rages on. Peruse any programming forum and you’ll find people who recommend that aspiring front-end developers get a computer information systems degree instead of a computer science degree—and many others arguing the opposite just as vehemently.

What very few suggest is getting a degree in software engineering or computer programming. That’s because there are so many ways to learn the technical skills you need as a front-end developer for less than the cost of the degree, and in less time (more on this below).

The best degree for aspiring front-end developers is probably the Bachelor of Computer Information Systems. It’s a versatile degree that’s often offered by business schools at universities (of the best BS in CIS can be found at the Florida Institute of Technology College of Engineering and Computing). Students usually take business classes in addition to technical courses (which is great for entrepreneurially-minded programmers).

Look for programs that include classes in front-end and back-end development, data science, database design and administration, web design, project management, and hands-on learning experiences. You may also be able to take web development classes and/or graphic design as part of a minor.

Your education won’t end when you earn your bachelor’s degree, however. Technology is evolving faster than ever, and to succeed as a developer, you will need to evolve with it. Throughout your career, you may need to learn new object-oriented programming languages, take courses to prepare and test for new certifications, complete certificate programs, and attend conferences.

The alternate path to becoming a front-end developer

It is possible to learn almost all the technical skills you need to become a front-end developer from online resources.

The job requires proficiency in:

  • HTML
  • CSS
  • JavaScript (which is how sliders, pop-ups, collapse buttons, and other responsive and interactive elements are built)
  • JavaScript libraries like jQuery and frameworks like Bootstrap

Here’s where you can learn these skills online:

  • LinkedIn Learning—Become a Front-End Developer: In this course, students learn everything they need to know to develop user-facing code: HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and jQuery; version control with Git and GitHub; and responsive design.
  • Web Design for Everybody: Basics of Web Development & Coding Specialization: This course is offered by the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor; financial aid is available. Over three months, students build a web portfolio using HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript.
  • The Web Developer Bootcamp: This course teaches languages like HTML, CSS, JS, Node, and MongoDB, which are used to make web applications and browser-based games. No experience is required to enroll in this course. When students are done, they have a portfolio to share.
  • The Complete Web Developer in 2019 : Zero to Mastery: Students code using HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, React, Node.js, and Machine Learning in this course, which includes a detailed module on Node and Express JS. At the end of the course, students have built their own sites and applications.
  • Skills Brief: Front End Development: Students learn CSS frameworks and technologies such as Vue, Angular, HTML, CSS, and more to create websites and web apps. There are multiple learning pathways made up of numerous projects and assignments.
  • Programming Foundations with JavaScript, HTML and CSS: Offered by Duke University, this course teaches programming concepts, problem solving, and web development. By the end of the course, students have created a web page where people can upload images and apply filters created by the students themselves.
  • Front-End Web Developer Nanodegree Program: Over four months, students learn to construct responsive websites using CSS, Flexbox, and CSS Grid, develop interactive websites and UI (User Interface) applications using JavaScript and HTML, and connect a web application to back-end server data using JavaScript.
  • Harvard Extension Front-End Web Development Certificate: Students in this Harvard University course master the foundational languages that power each website, such as HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript, and jQuery, as well as universal building tools, like GitHub, and Sublime Text. No application is required, but it’s important to note that it takes one and a half years to complete this deep-dive course.

After you’ve mastered the technical skills front-end developers need, it’s essential to work on a few projects to create your professional portfolio. Some courses help students build a portfolio, but many do not. You can create your own by building websites, working on UI elements, or creating a web app.

The career outlook for front-end developers

Tech experts predict that there will be one million more job openings for programmers than qualified programmers in the United States by 2020. Given that, the career outlook for front-end developers is excellent.

While the US Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t distinguish between front-end developers and other types of web developers, it has predicted that all web developers can expect 13 percent job growth between now and 2028. Again, the numbers are promising.

If you do become a front-end developer, you can expect to make over $70,000 per year, according to PayScale. You can increase your chances of earning more than that—again, according to PayScale—by learning React and Angular.

The skills that will make you stand out

To succeed as a front-end developer, learn the basics and stay on top of changes to the tech front-end developers use. To make yourself as marketable as possible—and potentially earn more than other front-end developers—you should also learn the following:

  • More JavaScript frameworks: jQuery and React are the most common frameworks students learn, but if you also know Angular, Backbone, Ember, and others, you may find more doors are open to you.
  • JSON: This JavaScript syntax is particularly useful for structuring data for transmission between web apps and servers. With the growth of APIs and frameworks, it’s an excellent tool to have in your kit.
  • UX skills: If you can create a smoother navigation experience, a better-looking site, or a more intuitive experience for site visitors, you’ll be extremely valuable to employers.
  • Server-side languages like Python or Ruby: As a front-end developer, you’ll be working closely with back-end developers, so it’s helpful to know what they’re doing when you’re trying to integrate front-end code with server-side tech.

Is becoming a front-end developer the right career for you?

There are pros and cons to becoming a front-end developer. The pros are compelling. As noted above, front-end developers are in demand, and chances are good that demand is going to increase in coming years. It’s also a lucrative career. You could be making close to six figures with as little as three years of experience. And it’s a flexible career because programmers can work from anywhere. A wide variety of companies use web developers, so you’ll have a lot of options when it comes to employers.

We touched on one of the biggest potential cons above, which is that pursuing continuing education is an absolute must when you become a front-end developer. If you love to learn, it’s not a con, but if you’d like to leave school behind when you leave school, this may not be the job for you. Front-end web development is an evolving field, and learning is part of the job.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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