Front end developers are responsible for the look and feel of a website or application, working with designers and back-end developers to produce a product that meets the needs of the client. For anyone interested in how to become a front end developer, the role requires extensive knowledge in areas such as web performance, system building processes, CSS layout engines, and the fundamentals of computer science.
What skills do I need to become a front end developer?
According to Lightcast (formerly Emsi Burning Glass), which collects and analyzes millions of job postings from across the country, the technical front end developer skills most often solicited by employers include:
- Front-End Development
- Software Engineering
- Software Development
- Web Application Development
In addition, many job postings list the following “soft skills”:
- Communication skills
- Problem solving
All of which makes sense—front end developers need to communicate progress and other details to stakeholders throughout an organization (including clients), and collaborate closely with back end developers and other technology professionals on the project’s details.
How much can front end developers make?
Lightcast estimates that demand for front end developers will grow 12.1 percent over the next 10 years. Over the past 12 months, employers have posted roughly 42,504 postings for front-end developers, suggesting a strong level of demand. The median salary is $97,052, but that can drift considerably higher with experience and skills mastery.
What does a developer career path look like?
Shadi Rostami, senior vice president of engineering at Amplitude, says her path started when she recognized what she didn’t want to do. “In Iran, in the ninth grade, you pick your path. Whether that be in medicine, art, or engineering—that is when you decide your future,” she says. “I chose the path of medicine—the path my father wanted me to take and the one my brother did—and about a year and a half in, I decided it was not the path for me.”
Instead, she ended up being the first girl in Iran to go to the Informatic Olympiad, a yearly competition for high school students competing in one of these topics: math, physics, and chemistry.
That led her to pursue engineering at Sharif University of Technology in Iran and later a Ph.D. in computer engineering at the University of British Columbia in Canada. After that, Rostami worked for startups for a few years and then made her way to Palo Alto Networks, where she spent more than a decade furthering her experience in development and became a VP responsible for development, QA, DevOps, and data science.
This all led her to become the SVP of Engineering at Amplitude. “I kept asking myself, how else can I grow? What else is there to learn?” she says. “I saw that opportunity for growth at Amplitude as their SVP of Engineering and took it.”
Besides her formal schooling, she’s learned by working with teams to build new products. “Experience is often the best teacher,” she adds. “When I decided to go into the management path, I also took several classes on manager training.”
If you’re interested in how to become a front-end developer, keep in mind that there are many different pathways to get there. John Rood, senior software developer at Codecademy, says at the very start of my career, he wasn’t necessarily focused on front-end development.
“I’m a self-taught developer, and for years, learning how to program was just a hobby of mine,” he says. “I spent time one summer going through a free course on C++ that was available through MIT. I put it on my resume, but hardly dreamt that it would help me land a developer job.”
After graduating from college, he landed his first tech job at a nonprofit. He had applied for an IT help desk position, but they hired him as a developer because they really needed programming support. “Once I started working, I really dove into learning about front-end development for the first time,” Rood explains. “I used tools like Knockout JS and Twitter Bootstrap, and learned from other developers via pair programming. For example, my knowledge of C# comes almost entirely from sitting alongside other developers and learning from them.”
Become a front end developer by building your knowledge base
“For someone just starting out as a developer, attending these conferences is a great way to network with other programmers and learn about what’s happening in the space,” he explains.
Contributing to open-source projects is another great way to build up your experience and get involved in the developer community. “Even if it’s just a small fix to documentation, people are really appreciative of open source contributions, and it’s a great way to showcase your work,” he says.
When it comes to landing your first front end developer job, it’s also okay to start small. Staying patient and looking out for those opportunities can eventually lead to the more serious developer gigs.
“There are plenty of organizations that desperately need programming talent, which is a great way for someone less experienced to get their foot in the door,” Root says. “Even though I wasn’t making a ton of money at the nonprofit, I was able to gain real programming experience and build up my resume and portfolio.”
Don’t forget to focus on skills development
“With front-end development, there’s some overlap with design,” he adds. “So, it can be really valuable to understand different design systems.”
For example, Google has Material Design; IBM has Carbon; at Codecademy, they use Gamut. “As a developer, those systems will help you build frontends with intentionality around layout, color, typography, and animation,” Root explains.
Rostami says the technical skills that have helped her the most throughout her career stem from having a deep understanding of computer science, computer engineering, and software engineering. “Being familiar with these disciplines is key to becoming a successful developer,” she says. “But the ability to code isn’t the only important technical skill developers should acquire.”
Understand the customer experience
Rostami says soft skills are often overlooked, but they are critical if you want to succeed as any kind of developer. “The role of development and engineering is to help your company win,” she explains. “To do so requires many soft skills including collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking.”
From her perspective, one of the most important skills that marks a successful developer is empathy. “You must have the ability to deeply understand the customer experience in order to effectively identify their frustrations and then problem-solve to address their needs,” she says. “Without empathy, you end up building for the sake of building, which not only hurts the customer experience but also hurts the business.”
She adds that Amplitude hires developers who think about the larger business impact and not just their own coding perfection: “Another important skill is having a high agency and ability to problem solve… Whether you are deciding to debug a production issue under a lot of stress or you are figuring out how to unblock yourself while you are stuck in setting up an environment or developing a new product, you have to be able to problem-solve.”
When it comes to programming, teams can grow faster than individuals. “In my own career, I’ve definitely grown the most by being part of a team and working alongside other developers via pair programming, as they’re ultimately trying to grow their careers too,” Root adds. As a front-end developer, it’s always important to follow the market and pay attention to trends.
Beware of imposter syndrome
“Being a woman in a male-dominated field, it’s easy to succumb to impostor syndrome,” Rostami adds. “Having a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset is key to being successful in any career you choose. Successful people adopt a growth mindset—they try new things, achieve, and go out of their comfort zone.”
With a growth mindset, you won’t allow people to limit your development or your ability to learn new things. “Be your true authentic self, say yes to any opportunity to learn, and the technical skills will follow,” Rostami says. “If I could give advice to my younger self, I would say always act like you belong.”
In that spirit, seek out mentors who can help strengthen skill sets and says it’s important to always be curious. “Today I may be the head of our engineering team at Amplitude, but I wasn’t always,” Rostami adds. “And that doesn’t mean I know everything about engineering or know every answer in every meeting.”
As part of a team, it’s key to allow people to step forward and demonstrate their own expertise. “We need to make space for others, even when we can do things or know things ourselves,” Rostami says. “We should always be in a state of constant learning.”