What does a front-end web developer do?

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Front-end web developers, the “artists” formerly known as web designers are the bunch of people in the company that make sure that the data coming from the backend gets displayed on the browser. They also make sure it looks as closely as possible as the design, that , CED came up with, and that the user can navigate through it, accessing the data.

They don’t need to know about complex OO programming, tricky database structures or how a path is done in Illustrator. They get data from the backend people and an example how the result looks like from CED. All they need to do is to hack some HTML or XSLT together and link the different documents. Piece of cake.

Web developers don’t have it as easy as it sounds though. True enough, markup languages are easy to learn and scripting languages are not much harder, but there is an aspect of uncertainty, that has to be taken into consideration, when judging their skills.

As a web developer you work in an uncertain environment. What looks good and works on your computer can be a popup hell and dire to look at on the machine next to you or on the machine of a customer. The first is not much of a problem, just ask your colleague to upgrade his browser, the second, however, is a problem.

As a web developer, your work can be wrecked by users and customers in many ways:

They can

  • use a browser that is completely outdated
  • set his browser font to “very small” or “very large”
  • use a video card that displays 16 colours only
  • run a resolution of 640×480 pixels and still have the large font setting
  • run a resolution of 1024×768 but still keep his window as large as 200×200
  • use loads of toolbars to make the area of the screen available for your site pitifully small
  • turn off any scripting support for safety reasons
  • turn off images to load the pages faster
  • use a modem with the speed of two tins connected through a wire
  • use a PDA
  • use a text-only browser

and if the site does not work with that, they’ll blame you for it.

In other words, you never know what is going to be the mean of display at the other end.

What to do about that? Don’t fret, there are standards that the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) defined a long time ago. Just follow these standards and you are safe.

The only problem is that the browser industry keeps telling their products follow these standards, but, in reality, they don’t.

So by doing the right thing, you do the wrong thing. By following the standards, you make sure that your site will perform fine in future browsers and display units. On nowadays and yesterdays browsers though, there might be loads of issues.

What you do need to do is to make sure your site is following the standards and still looks OK on older browsers. This is the perfect option. Another would be to define a certain browser and platform environment. This is possible when we are talking about Intranets and B2B sites, but B2C means you are in trouble.

You are really in trouble, when the design you got was done by a designer who is not firm in web design. The web is a media, not a sheet of paper. Designs that look really nice on paper (and impress customers) might not work on the web. Same as screen layouts do not work on television or game consoles.

Users are able to resize the text part of your page, or, in newer browsers even add own rules of display onto your site (through own stylesheets). This means that every layout, that relies on fixed font-sizes, and text, that can only use up a certain area, is doomed to fail.

You can go the other extreme and keep everything flexible, which may result in really ugly texts, with lines too long to be readable. This is a minor issue though, as, when the user has a problem with that, he can simply resize his browser window.

In any case a good web developer needs to know a lot about the media he works in.

He needs to know

  • what browser/platform configuration breaks your page when you use which technology
  • which technology or elements to use to create the navigation in
  • what to do to avoid wrong display on browsers
  • how to keep the size of the final document small
  • how to convert graphics so that they are small in file size and yet good looking
  • how to deal with data coming from the customer in various and sometimes rather exotic formats
  • how to keep his work from stalling when there is no data coming in that he can use.
  • How to communicate to colleagues or customers that the amount of final data in the product does not really fit the design (which is a case of bad planning to begin with, but it does happen)
  • How to keep up with the rapid web development market and techniques.

These are the most obvious bits. Another obstacle a web developer has to tackle all the time is the media and software market hype.

At every computer fair and in magazines software companies advertise products, that help you do a web site in 20 minutes without knowing anything about code. For good measure you can also add all the multimedia you want and connect it to the database, you don’t know anything about either.

When looking at these ads one starts to wonder why people care about hacking in their HTML. Front-end development is considered a task that can be fulfilled by any application or even the export filter of a graphics development program.

True, these applications do put out HTML and Javascript. True, the results look good. Wrong, they can replace a web developer. They can replace a “web designer”, someone who hand-codes “HTML designs”. When talking about HTML designs, I mean web sites without any other purpose but being eye candy. Standalone, plain HTML documents, a few links, some rollovers, but no back end connections or interactvity. Sites that are nothing but an ad can be safely done with them. As soon as you need the site to fulfil a specific task, be really optimised and fit the other components in your development framework, these WYSIWYG editors (like Dreamweaver, Frontpage, Adobe Pagemill and so forth) stop being that handy.

The worst nightmare for a front-end developer is to be confronted with markup code generated by these programs. A script or application can never optimise like a human being can, the code is bloated, unreadable and not logically structured in most of the cases. Keeping in mind that the outcome was meant to look great for 20 minutes work, why would it? The user never sees the source code. The developer does, and it’s his job to keep it as small, fast and readable as possible. Especially when you remember, that he might have to hand it over to another developer for changes.

The availability of web content is amazing and great, but also has a downside to it. Content and code can be published immediately and is available to everybody. This is very nice and actually one of the main reasons to make people start web developing. After all it’s easier to create your first web site than to try and get some time on TV or radio. The downside of it is that content gets published without any quality testing. Any enthusiastic developer, with more drive than skill. creates some new, cool design or effect, and publishes it on his web site. As it is cool and new, other developers see it, and implement it as well, to stand out from the crowd. Looking at this effect closely makes it obvious that it only makes sense in a very restricted browser environment and only for some content. Sometimes it might not even make sense at all. Nevertheless it becomes more and more spread and used, and sooner or later customers will see it and want it as well. Or colleagues see it, don’t realise the flaws it might have (as it works on their browser) and offer it to the customer.

Then the web developer gets asked to implement it, and gets blamed when it does fail in the quality test.

There is no such thing as free lunch. Also there is no such thing as a perfect web site that you assemble from free content from the web without knowing what you do. Script libraries and personal developer sites advertise their content much like software companies. They claim their products have perfect output. Truth is, you can find anything on the web, and that is great, but make sure you test it thoroughly before you even think about using it in a product someone pays you for.

To conclude, the web developer is the developer on the project that has it all: A very unstable display environment, a skill set that needs to range from code to design and usability, and the blame when the end product does not look the way it should.

It’s a hybrid position, you are someone that paints with code. Programmers don’t accept your work as real code, and designers don’t consider it design.

Now you might be at the point where you ask yourself: If that is such a horrid position in the development circle why bother taking it?

Well, the love for the media I suppose. The challenge to make things visible to users and not exclude a lot of them. The hybrid position in between programmers and designers and dealing with both. The satisfaction of seeing things you have done online and realising that people use it. The immediate satisfaction of hacking in some funny words with brackets around them and controlling the layout of a text by doing so.

It is a position that needs constant improvement, and interest in the media you work for. The days of front-end developers that attend a 2 day course and make a lot of money the week after are over. Now it is the job to clean up the mess those “web designers” left behind. To work with design and backend and project managers to make sure the customer gets something that is looking good and works fast and reliable.

So next time you think about smiling about those tag coders or HTML monkeys (I saw that as an official title in a work contract) you are welcome to try it yourself.