Front-end, back-end, or full-stack developer: Which makes sense for your project?

Ever wonder whether you need a front-end or a back-end developer? And what’s a full-stack developer? In this article, we’ll look at some key differences between front-end, back-end, and full-stack developers to help you decide which is right for your project.

Front-end vs. Back-end—What’s the Difference?

This delineation is typically aligned with that of interface and infrastructure, respectively. The “front-end” refers to the interface - in the context of a website or web application, this is the part that runs in the browser. The “back-end”, on the other hand, refers to the logic and data services operating behind the scenes - this typically runs on some server or in “the cloud”.

Consider an e-commerce site. Its front-end interface would include the visual components that a visitor interacts with when browsing your products. The back-end infrastructure components would include the product database and all the operations necessary to sell those products.

Front-end vs. back-end - Interface vs. infrastructure: developer roles often correspond to these two areas. Front-end devs make sure the user interface and visual design elements conform to your style guide and work together to create a pleasing and functional user experience. Back-end specialists rig up all of the logical bits behind the scenes, connecting the shopping cart to payment collection, inventory databases, and customer relationship management software. Of course these are just a few of many incarnations that front-end and back-end development can encompass.

Front and back-end typically leverage different technologies. A web-based front-end, for example is almost exclusively HTML, CSS, and JavaScript/Typescript), while the back-end may be built using a combination of JavaScript/TypeScript, Python, PHP, Ruby, Java, or numerous other languages.

Imagine a small business that needs a new website. In this case, it’s for a nonprofit that accepts online donations. Here, the front-end might consist of the site’s menu items that provide background info and showcase their nonprofit’s accomplishments. It may also include the donation funnel. Designing this part is important because such a business should want to instill a sense of trust and integrity throughout the donation process. So far, we’ve been in front-end territory. But in addition to attracting new donors with a great interface, this website also needs to accept recurring donations. Simply including a PayPal link likely won’t cut it. To support this functionality, a back-end developer would need to design a system to manage donation payment processing, customer records, and other financial data. Ultimately, these two systems—front-end and back-end—need to work together seamlessly for such a website or app to function properly.

What Kind of Developer Should You Hire?

Should you hire a front-end or back-end developer? Or both? A website like the one described above typically requires work on both fronts, so a team with one of each would work well. A good front-end developer can create an attractive visual interface, while a back-end programmer can make sure the donation system provides all the necessary business functionality. For many use cases that involve development of both UI and business infrastructure, such a front-end/back-end duo can be a powerhouse.

If a project focuses exclusively on either interface or business logic, you can often get away with a single specialist. For instance, if you already have a polished user-interface and just want to add some behind-the-scenes business functionality, a single back-end developer might be all that’s required. Conversely, if you’re only looking to modify an application’s appearance, a solo front-end dev could do the trick. In sum: craft your team based on your needs.

Full-stack Developers—Best of Both Worlds?

In cases that require both front and back-end work but a somewhat limited scope, a full-stack developer is often a great choice. Full-stack developers are usually highly versatile programmers who, without exception, are well-versed in front-end tech and at least one back-end ecosystem. They can execute on both user experience elements and the business infrastructure. In many ways, when you work with a full-stack developer, you get the best of both worlds.

There are some downsides to splitting front and back-end responsibilities between multiple developers. Any feature that involves both front and back elements will require a front and back-end developer to work together in a coordinated effort. This naturally brings logistical challenges. Communication becomes paramount as both developers design and implement disconnected components that need to fit together seamlessly in a final build. Full-stack developers can avoid these challenges, as they build entire features front-to-back. Less coordination means less room for error and an overall more efficient execution.

So why not simply hire full-stack devs for everything? The answer is that specialization matters. Full-stack developers’ knowledge is by definition broader—they must work with multiple languages and frameworks—but it’s not necessarily deeper. We shouldn’t expect a full-stack dev to know absolutely everything about both the front-end and back-end. A specialist in either area can sometimes go further where needed.

For example, if you’ll be working with heavy data analytics or a lot of integrations, a dedicated back-end developer is probably a good choice. Or, if you’re looking for an over-the-top user experience with unique and fancy animations, a front-end specialist may be the way to go. Conversely, if your project involves a mostly straightforward user experience and common back-end functionality, then a full-stack developer could be just the ticket

Where do Mobile Developers fit in?

Mobile apps are technically “front-end” applications, but when it comes to development talent the mobile skillset often falls outside a traditional front-end developer’s wheelhouse. Native mobile applications are developed using technologies that are very specific to the mobile space and often contend with unique challenges that aren’t applicable to traditional web-based applications. While it’s not uncommon for front-end or full-stack developers to also be accomplished mobile developers, it’s usually best to view mobile development as a separate paradigm altogether.

Getting it Right from Front to Back-end to Full-stack

Though we tend to generalize developers into these front-end/back-end categories, in reality each developer is an individual with unique skills and experiences. There really is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to building a solid technical team, but getting your dev team right is absolutely crucial. Whether you’re looking to revamp an existing application or design something new, the key is to consider the specific needs and challenges of your project and form a team of applicable and complementary skills. And if you’re still not sure what you need or can’t find a full-stack dev ready to work with all your weird tech, Restless Labs is here to help.

Brad Bisinger Principal Consultant