Main image of article Web Developer Career Path: Key Points to Know

Of all the disciplines in tech, web development has the power to touch the most people daily. Many services and companies are web-based, and even interactions like using a credit card in your favorite store end up routing through the web.

Whether they focus on the front-end (i.e., what the user sees) or the back-end (i.e., the processes that keep everything running) or some combination of both, web developers are in constant demand. But what does it take to be a web developer? Should you become a front-end web developer or a back-end developer? What are the necessary skills, and how do those impact your eventual career progression?

What does a web developer do?

Plainly put, a web developer creates and maintains websites, primarily using the “big three” programming languages: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Wed developers build the layout and functionality of a website, often collaborating with a designer.

Some web developer roles also utilize scripting languages like PHP, Python, or Ruby to develop websites that interact with back-end databases. Depending on the size and complexity of the project, a web developer may also work with mobile app developers and other specialists to ensure that web content works across a variety of formats, including iOS and Android apps.  

What skills do web developers need?

In addition to technical skills, web developers must have strong problem-solving skills and a decent sense of proper web design and using common accessibility features. Great web developers understand the needs of their clients and people using their websites, and develop solutions to meet them. Troubleshooting problems and fixing bugs also take up much of the web developer's day.

How much does a web developer make?

According to the most recent Dice Tech Salary Report, the average web developer salary currently stands at $87,194 (having dipped 11.8 percent year-over-year). While that’s a little bit below the average tech salary of $111,348 (which increased 2.3 percent year-over-year), that’s not the complete story: with the right mix of skills, specialization and experience, web developers can earn a comfortable six-figure annual salary, especially if they work at a company known for high compensation.

How can you decide if front-end or back-end development is right for you?

“While historically there have been slightly higher salaries associated with back-end development, that’s changing as front-end development has evolved from simple visual implementation to full application work,” Josh Koenig, co-founder at Pantheon, tells Dice. “A solid ReactJS developer can command as much value as someone who writes in Python.

Koening adds: “For those looking to build a career, finding where there’s more intrinsic joy and passion is a good way to pick where to focus; going far will mean spending time learning and following the latest trends, which you’re much more likely to do if you enjoy the work. Front-end development has the appeal of a presentable final product and the opportunity to interact more directly with users. Back-end development is more abstract and offers opportunities to take on challenges of scale.”

What technical skills do you think front-end web developers need?

“Front-end web developers need technical skills in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, responsive design, frameworks/libraries like React and Angular, browser developer tools, version control, web performance optimization, and accessibility for users with disabilities,” says Darryl Stevens, CEO at Digitech Web Design.

Modern front-end developers must master JavaScript, HTML, and CSS, in addition to visual assets such as SUVs, Koenig says: “Understanding the NPM landscape and leading frameworks like ReactJS and its web-centric derivatives like NextJS is also key.”

Any front-end developer also needs to have mastered every stage of the front-end development lifecycle, from managing code and automating testing to running a deployment. On a larger web development team, you won’t necessarily participate in every part of this process; but if you’re working for a smaller company (or yourself), you’ll be expected to engage in the full cycle.

Konstantin Glumov, software engineer at Alfa-Bank, says front-end devs should branch out to mobile, too: “The role used to be limited only to the browser, and it was necessary to study CSS, HTML, and JavaScript. Now the main vector is shifting to mobile development. Programming languages are different for it. For Android, this is Java or Kotlin; for iOS - Swift or Objective-C. It is necessary to know the basic frameworks and be ready to change them at a new place of work since the frontend world is still very changeable. It can be React, Angular, Vue.js, or others.”

How about back-end developers? What skills do they need?

“Back-end development implies broader knowledge in the field of computer science,” Glumov adds. “The back end can be written in almost all programming languages. Remember that, to work on large applications, you must study statically typed languages such as Java, Kotlin, C#. If you're going to work on small projects, then dynamic languages—JavaScript and Python—are suitable.”

Back-end developers must also master database, which means learning SQL, the language used with relational databases. And that’s not all! A masterful back-end developer will know the nuances of caching, DevOps, microservices architecture, and the ability to build distributed systems. “It will not be superfluous to understand how application security is ensured and what types of authorization there are,” Glumov continues. “The ability to think big and build long logical chains in your head is an important skill of a backend developer. There is a possibility to choose an even deeper specialization, such as machine learning and data analysis.”

Learning server-side code is another priority, Koenig says: “Popular choices now are Python or Golang or even Javascript/NodeJS. That said, in the context of the web, 80 percent of sites still run on PHP, so there’s job security in having that skill for sure.”

What are four or five job titles front-end and back-end developers should target throughout their careers?

“Front-end web developers can progress through job titles such as Junior Front-End Developer, Front-End Developer, Senior Front-End Developer, Front-End Architect, and User Experience (UX) Designer,” notes Stevens. He says back-end developers should expect similar titles, with “Chief Technology Officer” replacing UX Designer for experienced pros.

Glumov says: “You can start a career in front-end development as a layout designer. Here you will understand the intricacies of HTML and CSS. You can also try your hand at freelance site design, but you shouldn't expect much progress in your skillset. When starting, it's best to look for a job as a junior developer. Even if this job does not pay well, you will be pumped the fastest and can apply for the middle position in a year or two.

For back-end developers, kicking off your career with freelancing gigs can prove difficult; if it involves a database and complicated back-end processes, many companies prefer it performed in-house. “The position of a junior specialist in a large company will help you sort out the mechanism of web applications in your head,” Glumov continues. “There will be no race for releases and endless deadlines. Working in a calm environment will help you to join the profession faster. You can also start a career as a database developer. Such specialists are always appreciated, and the acquired experience in SQL queries will be useful to you on future projects.”

For those who want to maximize their job opportunities and versatility, consider jumping into the web-development pool as a full-stack web developer. While you’ll need to master a dizzying variety of skills, including back- and front-end programming languages and tools, you’ll find lots of opportunities among companies that are looking for full-stack developers who can handle virtually every aspect of their web-development processes.

Finally, Koenig advises that job titles can rapidly fall in and out of popularity—but some roles never go out of style: “Front-end web development has emerged/risen as a career path and field over the past decade, so there’s still much sorting out going on with titles here. Starting, you could be as low as a web producer (HTML/CSS jockey), but as you move on, the titles should look like ‘JavaScript Programmer,’ ‘React Engineer,’ or ‘Front-end technical lead.’”

Stick with the profession for long enough, and you’ll assume titles such as senior UX engineer or principal front-end architect. “Back-end web development is a little more established and mature,” Koenig adds. “You should start with titles like ‘Back-end Developer’ or ‘Golang Developer’ and progress to titles like ‘PHP Engineer’ or ‘Senior Python Engineer’ and ultimately to ‘Principal Systems Engineer’ or ‘API Architect.’”

Whatever your title and career goals, always keep in mind that web development is a rapidly evolving field. You’ll always need to stay on top of the latest tools and techniques, and pay attention whenever a popular language introduces a new iteration. By dedicating yourself to continuous learning, you’ll ensure career longevity.