The Evolving Role of the Front-End Developer

Posted by Taylor Haney on Tue, Sep 10, 2013

As we move into September we are changing our blog theme over to User Experience and Design. To kick of this guest blogging topic we have a great post from Bill Peña, Vice President of Technology Services at 89 Degrees. Bill discusses the transformation of website experiences and the ever changing role of the web designers. If you are interested in guest blogging please e-mail me at taylor [at] mitx [dot] org.

Bill PeñaBill Peña oversees 89 Degrees’ technology and infrastructure teams, and brings a depth of web, e-mail and technology experience to the company. He is a highly regarded expert who looks at technology in human terms, translating applications and content into data-driven insights and customer engagement. Bill was most recently executive director and chief architect at IMN, a SaaS digital marketing company, where he led the development of innovative, data-driven email marketing products for the automotive, banking, franchise, and direct selling industries. He also has experience in enterprise-scale e-commerce, having worked at World Travel Holdings creating user interfaces to big data consumer applications, and helping launch cruise portals for clients like Orbitz, Yahoo and Cheaptickets.


The evolution of JavaScript into a viable programming language, and the co-evolution of web browsers into application platforms, have people previously known as “web designers” in a variety of new roles. Front-End Developers, concerned as much with business logic and data as they are with user interfaces, are enabling a new generation of rich user experiences on the web. We are now in an exciting fourth generation of website experiences where Front-End Developers are the leading the vanguard.

Generation 1: Web Pages

When the Web began, it was a collection of documents, hyperlinked together, but otherwise carrying on the conventions of print media. We still referred to web pages, which were by and large an HTML file on a disk, and HTML was strictly a way of marking up documents for semantics and style. JavaScript didn’t exist, CSS didn’t exist, and web designers were analogous to print designers, with markup and image compression concerns replacing pre-press plates and Pantone colors.

Generation 2: Dynamic HTML

When I began at O’Reilly Media as a Web/Information Designer in 2000, Dynamic HTML was popular. The idea that a web page could change and “behavior” could be injected into previously static documents with JavaScript and CSS made people stop thinking about “pages” and start thinking about “interfaces.” For example, in Designing with JavaScript [Heinle & Peña, O’Reilly & Associates, 2001] we covered topics like rollovers, collapsible menus, and hierarchical navigation, user interface elements that are now conventional. “Web Designers” were now programmers taking their first baby steps into business logic, working with objects and events as well as pages and styles.

Generation 3: AJAX & JavaScript Libraries

Frustration with incompatible browser implementations and fractured standards lead quickly to the development of JavaScript libraries that would smooth out the rough edges. Libraries like jQuery, MooTools and Prototype made developing sophisticated user interfaces across browsers much easier, and freed up web developers (née web designers) to apply their creativity to new forms of interaction. The parallel development and popularization of AJAX meant web applications could change not just based on user interaction with a static document, but with evolving data. Now instant search, modal dialog boxes, and the loading spinner became conventional.

Generation 4: HTML5 & JavaScript Application Frameworks

We are now well into an era of rich client-side web applications enabled by fast JavaScript engines in browser like Firefox and Chrome, HTML5, and JavaScript application frameworks like Backbone.js, Knockout.js, Sencha ExtJS, and many many more. The pace of innovation in web experiences is rapid and accelerating, and is creating a specialization of Front-End Developers who are sophisticated at design patterns like MVC and MVVM, event-driven programming, and RESTful APIs, and who are constantly prototyping and learning to stay ahead of the curve.

At 89 Degrees, we recently launched Hyundai Rewards, a points-based loyalty program for Hyundai owners, requiring integration with multiple data sources and web applications. The program is built upon Modernizr and Knockout.js, RESTful APIs transferring data in JSON (JavaScript Object Notation), and browser-based local data storage. These innovations create a system that is responsive and extensible, and notably, was built as much by Front-End Developers flexing their data muscles as it was by traditional “back-end” software engineers.

The Future

JavaScript is expanding into areas beyond the web, even beyond the “front-end.” Phonegap allows you to build native mobile applications, node.js allows you to build web servers, Windows 8 allows you to build desktop apps. So now Front-End Developers are evolving as well into a myriad of “JavaScript Developers” (see Simon St. Laurent’s excellent blog series, starting with What Kind of JavaScript Developer Are You?) who are translating their skills into a variety of devices and platforms.

Through it all, what has remained the same is a league of professionals focused on great user experiences enabled, but not dictated, by technology. And as the number and variety of connected devices in our lives explodes, it is those who marry user experience and technology who will lead the innovations of the future.

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