Front-End Development: The Emerging Role PDF Print E-mail
Written by Josh Cummings   
Thursday, 27 August 2009

Over the years, front-end developers have been called several things to reflect the value that various organizations assigned it, but the most memorable for me is "HTML Monkey." The name reflects the "conventional wisdom" that many organizations have gradually come to accept: that the front-end developer is largely an entry-level position and a career-minded engineer will eventually evolve into either a real designer or a real engineer. This view has led to a production gap that neither real designers nor real engineers want to fill.

For several reasons, though, this cannot continue to be the case for organizations and career-minded engineers who want to compete in the world of the future. Whether through skill set transition or acquisition, the market is demanding the emergence of front-end developers.

First, the rote projection of the request/response architecture onto the user's experience is slowly dissipating with the advent of AJAX libraries, resulting in increased user demand for highly interactive applications. Galbraith and Almaer, AJAX experts and speakers at SORT 2008, explained that "users today really to expect a 'wow' factor." From lazily-loaded elements that decrease initial page weight and increase perceived performance to intense one-page versions of traditional multi-page experiences, developers and project managers alike are learning the advantages of partial-page updates, rich interaction, and maintaining state on the client.

This movement is evidenced by the scores of JavaScript frameworks that are cropping up everywhere in the application development landscape. The costs of developing such rich applications are consequently dropping as more organizations make the paradigm shift without the large time and talent investment required by server-side technologies or proprietary offerings. Even now, many organizations are leveraging these frameworks to quickly specialize in front-end skill sets such as page weight and optimization, cross-browser compatibility, and user experience, just to name a few. Organizations and career-minded engineers should get involved now to assimilate the fast-enriching semantics of front-end design into their process or skill set before competitors get too far ahead.

Second, the traditional MVC paradigm is being transitioned to the client as technologies like cloud platforms--which naturally precipitate multi-threading-friendly SOUI/Sofea architectures--gain more and more steam. Such a transition will enable the streamlining of front- and back-end development, reducing delivery times and leaving back-end development to handle only the stateless, largely idempotent portions of the business and persistence layers.  David Chappell, ICS guest speaker on cloud-computing in January of this year, underscored that while "the old [client/server] world doesn't go away, a new approach [such as cloud platforms] can quickly become the center of attention for new applications."

This transition period has already placed many unprepared back-end developers in a sea of JavaScript architecture and design decisions.  Instead of allowing developers to dip in their toe in and run away, though, organizations and career-minded engineers should embrace the code's progression to the front-end before serious market pressure is applied.  Otherwise, many organizations will see their architectures take huge steps backwards as pigeon-holed or otherwise unseasoned developers regress to anti-patterns and other code smelly ways of developing whilst in uncharted waters.

Third, the anticipation by leading organizations and engineers of the above market forces will result in a higher return on investment for other skill sets often left in the wake of production: SEO, accessibility, semantic HTML, and so on. Skilled engineers who begin to place focus today on the front-end of the application will inevitably develop these skill sets to a degree of cost-effectiveness which will add to their overall marketability. As competition goes, these organizations and engineers will find themselves a step ahead of those who are still doing things the old way.

With so much to worry about, the newly emerged front-end developer won't have much time to think about brushing up on Photoshop or Java in the hopes of finally moving up the food chain, nor will leading organizations be scraping for someone to do a job that back-end developers and interaction designers are trying to hand off to each other. Instead, the front-end developer will synthesize portions of each role into a level of expertise that competes with the best of back-end developers and interaction designers, and the strongest organizations will be those that have provided the scaffolding to facilitate it.

Josh Cummings is a senior engineer for the Church.

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