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Front of the frontend

Posted in CSS, Development and HTML

Frontend development use to be simple. First it was just HTML, then it was HTML, CSS and some JavaScript; then it exploded.

In its the early days, JavaScript (usually via jQuery) was used for things like link roll-over styling and animation, but CSS rightly stepped up and took these responsibilities, it being the de facto language for styling the web. JavaScript became about actions triggered by a button press, changing the order of items with drag and drop, that kind of thing.

This is JavaScript doing stuff in the browser; frontend development. But the line between frontend and backend (server-side stuff) started to blur when we started to fetched data dynamically from a server for things like live sports feeds. That’s JavaScript running in the browser but interacting with a server on the fly.

Then the frontend world dove head-first into APIs and single page apps, using JavaScript frameworks like backbone.js, AngularJS, and React. At this stage I completely lost interest. But this is where backend developers started to move to the frontend, and more logical-minded frontend developers found their comfort zone.

Me? I continued writing HTML and CSS, and got interested in static site generators and templating languages like Nunjucks. I still considered myself a frontend developer, but describing what I did required some extra explanation:

  • “I’m a frontend developer, but I don’t know any JavaScript frameworks”
  • “I’m a frontend developer, but I’m an HTML and CSS specialist”
  • “I’m a frontend developer, but I’m not really a programmer

My frontend identity crisis is very similar to how I remember explaining the type of designer I am to people before terms like ‘user experience design’ and ‘interaction design’ became industry-recognised:

  • “I’m a designer, but I’m not really all that creative”
  • “I’m a designer, but I focus on how things work, not how pretty they look”

So my ears pricked up when I began to read articles like The Great Divide, see job titles like Design Engineer, hear terms like ‘Front of the frontend’, and see tweets about Design Ops.

I’m glad I kept resolute on my path and wasn’t tempted to shift my career towards the back of the frontend:

  • CSS is getting more and more powerful, interesting, and can have a profound effect on the user
  • HTML is always going to be the output, regardless of any framework, and caring about it helps ensure a good, usable experience for everyone

The web is just over 25 years old, and if I look back at my life so far, that was the age I began to really settle into myself. I feel like after all these years of rapid change and evolution, with more specific definitions of roles like design engineer, the web is starting to come of age.

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