Developer working on a project with coworker

What’s the best way to become a developer in tech? The answer hinges on the kind of developer you want to become—the skills necessary to solidify a career as a front-end developer, for example, differ considerably from what you need to work as a full-stack developer.

There’s also a significant difference between a software developer and a software engineer. With their focus on broadly designing and implementing apps and systems, software engineers work at a broader scale than software developers, who are more tactically focused on coding and testing a product.

In other words, “developer” is a term with some nuance. Let’s explore further!

Software Developer

“Software developer” is necessarily a broad term. Some software developers might focus on the development of mobile apps, for example, while others might devote their careers to building out web infrastructure. But whatever the specialization, the core fact is that software developers write and iterate code.

While some software developers finish a formal education program, such as a four-year degree in computer science, others are entirely self-taught. Although many employers previously demanded all job applicants have a degree, the low unemployment rate in tech has led many to drop their formal education requirements—so long as the developer can prove they have the skills necessary to succeed.

But which skills do you need? In addition to mastering programming languages, frameworks, and tools, software developers must also have the right mix of “soft skills” such as empathy and communication. While some software developers work largely alone (particularly contractors), many are integrated into teams, and they must effectively communicate their progress and secure buy-in from team members, managers, and other stakeholders (such as clients).

When it comes to learning programming languages, much hinges on the types of software you want to build. But with that in mind, it never hurts to absorb some of the world’s most popular and ubiquitous programming languages, including Python, Java, and C++. It may also pay off in the long term to keep an eye on up-and-coming languages such as Kotlin, Swift, and Golang, which many developers prefer when executing specialized tasks such as building Android and iOS apps.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for software developers is $110,140, making it one of the higher-paying roles in tech. (The latest Dice Tech Salary Report placed the average technologist salary at $104,566, up 6.9 percent between 2020 and 2021.)

Full-Stack Developer

A full-stack developer generally approaches the creation and maintenance of a website in a holistic way, with equal focus on the front- and back-ends. Roughly 55 percent of working developers consider themselves to be full-stack developers, according to a recent Stack Overflow Developer Survey, which translates into lots of opportunity for jobs.

According to Glassdoor, full-stack developers are among the highest-paid workers in development, making a total average compensation of $108,803 per year—noticeably more than back-end developers (who average $92,963 per year) and front-end developers (who average $102,308).

Want to learn full-stack development and build out a career? Start by mastering the programming languages and skills involved in front-end development, including CSS, HTML and JavaScript (there are lots of free courses online that cover these languages; check out W3Schools’ collection of tutorials). Mastering Swift, Objective-C, Kotlin and Java will allow you to develop in a mobile context.

From there, it’s time to learn the back-end—specifically, server-side programming languages and web frameworks such as C# and .NET, Python and Django, PHP and Laravel, and JavaScript and Express.

As with other kinds of software development, you don’t necessarily need formal education to land a job as a full-stack developer, but you should expect any prospective employers to fully test you on your skills.

Back- and Front-End Developers

Back- and front-end developers choose to focus on either the user-facing portions of a web property (the front end) or the underlying infrastructure (the back end). As with other types of developers, back- and front-end developers can gain their skills via formal education or through self-teaching; the important thing is to always keep your skills as up-to-date as possible at all times, as this segment of the tech industry tends to evolve quickly.

According to Lightcast, which collects and analyzes millions of job postings from across the country, the front-end developer skills that pop up most often in job postings include:

  • JavaScript
  • Front-End Development
  • Software Engineering
  • React JavaScript
  • TypeScript
  • Software Development
  • Web Application Development

In addition, many job postings list the following “soft skills”:

  • Teamwork/collaboration
  • Communication skills
  • Writing
  • Problem solving
  • Creativity
  • Troubleshooting
  • Planning

Many front-end developers find it helpful to learn a little bit about graphic design, since they interact frequently with graphic and UX/UI designers who provide a website’s look and feel. Front-end developers earn a median salary is $97,052, but that number can drift much higher for those who master their arts.

Meanwhile, back-end developers with the following skills have a higher likelihood of landing jobs (again, this data comes from Lightcast):

  • Java
  • PHP
  • SQL
  • Git
  • CSS
  • HTML
  • JavaScript
  • Python
  • Cloud platforms (AWS, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure)

Working knowledge of databases and server-side applications is always helpful for back-end developers, particularly SQL. For those who choose this career path, the pay is often similar to what front-end developers earn.

Whatever path you choose, keep in mind that organizations across all industries have a constant need for experts who can build software. Make sure you know what you want out of a job and that your resume puts your skills in the best possible light before you start applying.


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