What Is the Difference Between Front-End and Back-End Development?

Originally published February 9, 2017, updated Feb. 27, 2019.

Front-end developers work on what the user can see while back-end developers build the infrastructure that supports it.

Both are necessary components for a high-functioning application or website.

It’s not uncommon for companies to get tripped up by the “front-end versus back-end” divide when trying to navigate the development of new software.

After all, there are a growing number of tools on the market aimed at helping developers become more “full stack” oriented, so it’s easy for non-technicians to assume there isn’t a big difference between front-end and back-end specialists.

Front-end and back-end developers do work in tandem to create the systems necessary for an application or website to function properly. However, they have opposite concerns.

The term “front-end” refers to the user interface, while “back-end” means the server, application and database that work behind the scenes to deliver information to the user.

The user enters a request through the interface.

It’s then verified and communicated to the server, which pulls the necessary data from the database and sends it back to the user.

Here’s a closer look at the difference between front-end and back-end development.

What is Front-End Development?

The front-end is built using a combination of technologies such as Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), JavaScript and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).

Front-end developers design and construct the user experience elements on the web page or app including buttons, menus, pages, links, graphics and more.

HTML

Hypertext Markup Language is the core of a website, providing the overall design and functionality.

The most recent version was released in late 2017 and is known as HTML5.2.

The updated version includes more tools aimed at web application developers as well as adjustments made to improve interoperability.

CSS

Cascading style sheets give developers a flexible, precise way to create attractive, interactive website designs.

JavaScript

This event-based language is useful for creating dynamic elements on static HTML web pages.

It allows developers to access elements separate from the main HTML page, as well as respond to server-side events.

Front-end frameworks such as Angular, Ember, Backbone, and React are also popular.

These frameworks let developers keep up with the growing demand for enterprise software without sacrificing quality, so they’re earning their place as standard development tools.

One of the main challenges of front-end development – which also goes by the name “client-side development” – is the rapid pace of change in the tools, techniques and technologies used to create the user experience for applications and websites.

The seemingly simple goal of creating a clear, easy-to-follow user interface is difficult due to sometimes widely different mobile device and computer screen resolutions and sizes.

Things get even more complicated when the Internet of Things (IoT) is considered.

Screen size and network connection now have a wider variety, so developers have to balance those concerns when working on their user interfaces.

What is Back-End Development?

The back-end, also called the server side, consists of the server which provides data on request, the application which channels it, and the database which organizes the information.

For example, when a customer browses shoes on a website, they are interacting with the front end.

After they select the item they want, put it in the shopping cart, and authorize the purchase, the information is kept inside the database which resides on the server.

A few days later when the client checks on the status of their delivery, the server pulls the relevant information, updates it with tracking data, and presents it through the front-end.

Back-end Tools

The core concern of back-end developers is creating applications that can find and deliver data to the front end.

Many of them use reliable enterprise-level databases like Oracle, Teradata, Microsoft SQL Server, IBM DB2, EnterpriseDB and SAP Sybase ASE.

There’s also a number of other popular databases including MySQL, NoSQL and PostgreSQL.

There are a wide variety of frameworks and languages used to code the application, such as Ruby on Rails, Java, C++/C/C#, Python and PHP.

Over the last several years Backend-as-a-Service (BaaS) providers have been maturing into a viable alternative.

They’re especially useful when developing mobile apps and working within a tight schedule.

What is Full-Stack Development?

The development of both the back- and front-end systems has become so specialized, it’s most common for a developer to specialize in only one.

As a general rule, full-stack development by a single programmer isn’t a practical solution.

However, at times a custom software development company will have developers who are proficient with both sides, known as a full stack developer.

They powerful team players because they have the breadth of knowledge to see the big picture, letting them suggest ways to optimize the process or remove roadblocks that might be slowing down the system.

To find out which database and framework to use on your next project, read our article “What is the Best Front-End/Back-End Combo for an Enterprise App.”

If you’re ready to see how we can put our knowledge to work for you, set up a free consultation today!

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The CTO’s Guide to a Killer Discovery Process: Part 2

This is Part 2 of a two-part series on the discovery process. To explore the earlier stages of discovery, read The CTO’s Guide to a Killer Discovery Process: Part 1.

Requirements gathering lays a solid framework for a project. Once the initial set is gathered, the developer has a general feel for what their client needs.

The next step is to visualize the solution in a way that allows all stakeholders to understand what it could look like at release.

In other words, it’s time to build a prototype.

Visualizing A Solution

A prototype is an interactive example of the proposed solution. It serves to validate the assumptions gathered from the client and allows for quick feedback.

Reviewing the prototype also gives the developer a better idea of the project’s intended scope.

This phase is just as important as gathering requirements. A well-constructed prototype helps clients fine-tune their requirements earlier, which makes estimates much more accurate.

In fact, solid prototypes are the key to a more profitable development process in general.

Wireframes are useful intermediary steps, but they don’t make very exciting presentations when trying to win over clients.

Software like Invision & Indigo Studio are excellent tools for creating interactive, highly visual prototypes.

Highlight a specific user flow to model the product’s main functionality.

Clients should be able to approximate usage closely enough to determine if there are missing steps or features that need to be added.

Resist the urge to get too caught up in design before the client sees the prototype.

Focus on bare functions at first. Have strong visuals, but don’t spend days on custom art assets that may get cut out as requirements are refined.

Only bring the design team in to polish the graphics after the basic functionality is approved.

Allow time for back-and-forth discussion on the prototype. This is the least expensive time to make edits or alterations, so encourage the client to share any concerns.

It’s also a good point to demonstrate additional features or expansions that could improve the final product.

“Finalizing” Requirements

Once the prototype is approved, create a detailed requirements document. List and detail every feature according to the user story.

Don’t just create a sparse feature grid; using visuals to communicate will prevent misunderstandings later on.

After the details are documented, work with the development team to get time and cost estimates for each part of the solution.

Start with broad estimates and work inward. Leave room for flexibility and changing requirements, but don’t pad the estimate unfairly.

Come up with a range where the developer can confidently commit to delivering the project.

Be clear about what the initial estimate covers and how changes would affect the price. Consider including varied tiers to illustrate what can be added later.

Final Touches

All of this leads to the final presentation. This is where the client is given a document which allows them to fully understand what will be built.

Clarity is essential in the decision-making process to approve the project.

Provide full transparency on what it will take to deliver each feature of the final product, and outline details like cost, processes, and schedule.

Good communication gets the project started with a clear vision for what the end deliverable should be.

Earlier phases should have ironed out the majority of issues, so this is essentially a review of everything that came out of the requirements gathering and prototyping phases.

In other words, it’s “reading back the order”.

A final word of warning: don’t rush through the final presentation assuming everyone is on the same page.

This is a developer’s last chance to wow the client and build confidence in their ability to deliver a killer end product. It will either win the client over- or send them looking for another developer.

Concepta takes a detailed, collaborative approach to discovery that’s proven to deliver products that meet our clients’ most pressing business goals. To find out what we can do for you, schedule your free consultation today!

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The CTO’s Guide to a Killer Discovery Process: Part 1

discovery-process

A productive discovery process starts with thorough, collaborative requirements gathering.

Discovery lays the foundation for everything that happens during development.

Time spent productively in this phase has an exponential impact on a project’s chances of success – but it’s an unfortunate truth that discovery is often rushed.

Developers want to dig into an exciting project, or product owners are excited to start using a new tool.

Whatever the reason, a short discovery leads to a long road of misunderstandings and readjustments.

Running a killer discovery requires active listening and open communication.

The payoff is twofold: a smoother, more profitable development process and a better client-developer relationship that can lead to return business.

In this article, the first in a two-part series, explore the discovery process from initial interviews to preparing to create a prototype.

Why Discovery Matters

Discovery is a collaborative process that establishes the requirements necessary to build a specific piece of software.

By necessity it’s all about the client. Developers use interviews and probing questions to uncover the fundamental business problems or issues the client needs to solve.

When done correctly discovery:

  • Results in the highest quality final product
  • Prevents client-developer-stakeholder misalignment
  • Keeps the project on budget
  • Defines the product client needs and the way they need it done

This last point is a big one, and it’s the reason good discovery requires tact and insight.

Clients may not be clear on what they want. Sometimes they need help to frame their needs.

Discovery helps nail down the specifics to lay the groundwork for a productive development.

Client Interviews

Requirements gathering starts with interviews between the developer, the client, and relevant stakeholders.

This shouldn’t be a single meeting. Set up a series of sessions with space between to research and discuss.

Dig deep to understand the client, their business, and their existing processes.

It may be necessary to help the client identify stakeholders who should be at the meetings.

Listen to the client’s initial request, then question further to identify the true source of their pain.

They may think their problem is “our website is outdated and not driving conversions, so we need a new one” when the problem can be better stated as “customers are having trouble finding and using order functions on our old website”.

Be sure to touch on important issues like:

  • What is the business problem?
  • What does an ideal solution look like?
  • What special concerns are relevant to their domain?
  • Where can the developer add value?

Before moving forward, come up with user stories that help articulate the typical user.

What experience would the client like to create for their own customers? Outline each step in the process.

This will help with the prototype as well as testing later in the process.

Competitive Analysis

Once the first set of requirements are in, it’s time to brainstorm solutions.

Start with what’s already working by researching the “best in class” solutions currently used in the real world.

Note what others in the client’s domain are doing. Evaluate how well or poorly those solutions have worked out.

The goal is not to copy others, but to incorporate the best thinking available into a better solution.

It’s like writing code- good developers build on previous work to start from a place of success.

It’s also a great idea to find inspiration outside the client’s direct competitors.

Look at companies who have similar challenges, then bring together the most elegant solutions to assemble a dynamic, enterprise-focused brief.

What comes next?

The bulk of the requirements are collected during these two stages, though the team should be responsive to change within reason as development proceeds.

Now that there’s a good idea of what the client needs, it’s time to visualize a solution by building a prototype of the projected software.

Learn more about how to build the most effective prototype in Part 2 of the Keys to A Killer Discovery series, coming soon. If you want to know more about discovery and how our client-centric development process can help your business, set up a complimentary appointment today!

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Why Less (Code) Is More

write-less-code

Writing less code helps developers build clean, functional software that’s easy to maintain over time.

Ask any industry expert what makes a good developer and they’ll offer a variety of answers.

Broad technical experience, good communication skills, and excellent time management head the list. Those are all useful characteristics.

However, there is one trait that usually gets overlooked, something that has an enormous impact on both the development process and final quality: the ability to write lean, concise code.

The best developers know how to get more mileage from less code.

It’s an especially important skill in this era of reusable code, when the availability of ready-made components provides so many shortcuts for busy developers.

Those components represent a huge step forward by cutting the amount of tedious programming required in the early stages of a project.

The downside is that these development tools make it easy for inexperienced developers to write bulky code.

By flipping the script – focusing on writing less code instead of faster code – developers can build reliable software with low technical debt.

What Do Developers Do (Really)?

Developers are subject matter experts with the technical skills to build and maintain software.

hey work to understand technology in order to create technology-based solutions for real world problems.

Nowhere in that description does it say, “write code”.

Code is obviously how the technology gets built, but it should be seen as a means to an end rather than the whole job description.

Developers need to combine business sense, problem-solving skills, and technical knowledge if they want to deliver the best value to their clients.

Too often, developers forget their true purpose.

They write code according to habit, personal style, or excitement over a new tool they’ve been hoping to use instead of prioritizing ease of maintenance and scalability.

The result is software with a huge code base and a shortened usable life.

The Code Economy Advantage

When it comes to code, more is actually less. The odds of project failure go up as the code size increases.

After all, more code translates into more chances for something to go wrong.

One area of concern is bugs that make it into the final software.  The industry average ranges from 15-50 errors per 1000 lines of code delivered.

Projects with sizable code bases are going to have more flaws as a flat statistical reality.

Denser code is less likely to be read thoroughly, too, which means the ratio of errors to code will fall towards the higher end of that scale.

Having more lines of code also leads to higher technical debt.

Future maintainers (and anyone trying to update the software) must navigate that code to fix bugs, add features, and integrate the software with future systems.

Software development is a place where labor is a significant expense. When time spent on development and maintenance rises with a program’s size, it spurs an equal rise in IT spending.

There’s another increase in developer overhead from additional meetings and longer on-boarding processes when new team members are added.

Considering all of this, there are clear advantages to emphasizing concise code, both in cost and quality.

Code written efficiently and directly is:

  • Simple to maintain
  • Easy to understand
  • More flexible
  • Ages better
  • Easier to update and build onto
  • Reusable & elegant

Developers should work to write as much code as they need to get the job done correctly- and no more.

Why Developers Get “Code Happy”

If writing less code has such a powerful effect, why do developers continue to write far more code than is actually needed?

There are a few typical motivations:

Desire for Productivity

In some agencies, lines of code is used as a measure of productivity. The thinking goes that more lines of code – often abbreviated to LoC – equals more work done.

This is particularly common when running distributed teams who typically work without in-person direction.

The problem is that measuring productivity by LoC completed leads to sloppy writing and a focus on quantity over quality.

It’s like measuring a hotel’s success by how many towels they use; the fact has some bearing on success but can be very misleading.

Misaligned Priorities

Software development always involves trade-offs: simplicity versus feature richness, security versus performance, speed over space.

Sometimes the value of writing less code gets lost in the shuffle.

There’s no unimportant component of development.

Every project has different demands that require a tailored approach.

However, brevity is important enough that it should always be a high priority.

Personal Preference

Developers tend to be “code geeks”. They like to write a bunch of software and try new things purely for the sake of trying new things.

It’s a great quality when they’re learning or experimenting.

However, it’s not the best idea when working on enterprise software. The approach usually results in four times as many lines of code as needed for a task.

Developers need to direct their talent towards building software that meets the product owner’s goals even when that conflicts with their personal preferences.

Lack of Skill

Writing clean, concise code takes skill and practice.

Often less-experienced developers don’t know how to reduce LoC without cutting features or impacting performance.

Almost everyone does this in the beginning, but getting past it is part of honing developer skills.

Convention

Developers all learned their trade somewhere.

Every school of thought and development philosophy imposes certain ideas about how to make code more readable.

The issue arises when holding to convention comes at the expense of code economy.

As much as 54% of LoC are inspired by convention as opposed to utility.

Creating whitespace, intentionally skipping lines, and linguistic keywords are examples.

There are ways to improve readability without conventions that pad out the code base.

How to Write Less Code?

Making something complex look simple is hard, but it’s very easy to complicate simple things. Code economy is like that.

These are a few straightforward guidelines that can help developers get past complexity and write less code.

Build on an Existing Foundation

There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel. Use libraries instead of recreating what others have done well countless times.

Innovation should be saved for problems that don’t already have good solutions.

The Right Black Boxes are Good

Choose tools that enable code efficiency.

The Chrome V8 JavaScript Engine powers NodeJS, React Native, Electron, and Chrome Browser with 1,884,670 lines of code.

Be Careful Selecting Dependencies & Frameworks

Anything used should be mature, well-supported, and preferably have already proven its worth in practice.

Prioritize lean and simple frameworks whenever possible.

It’s also important to consider the size of the community and strength of company backing so future developers will have an easier time working with the code.

Reframe “LoC written” as “LoC spent”

Break down the connection between LoC and assumed productivity by changing the way it’s measured.

Instead of counting how many lines a developer was able to write, measure how many they needed to get the job done.

Compare it to a golf score: the fewer LoC that can be written while still delivering a good product and meeting sprint deadlines, the better.

Spend some time during the planning phase to brainstorm how less code can be written.

Planning ahead instead of charging in allows more opportunities for code economy.

The Code Economy Mindset

A huge part of writing less code is maintaining a direct, economical mindset.

Optimize code for correctness, simplicity, and brevity.

Don’t depend on assumptions that aren’t contained in the code, and never use three lines where one is just as readable and effective.

Make consistent style choices that are easy to understand. Avoid “run on coding sentences” by breaking different thoughts and concepts into separate LoC.

Only add code that will be used now, too.

There’s a tendency to try and prepare for the future by guessing what might be needed and adding in the foundations of those tools.

It seems like a smart approach, but in practice it causes problems, mainly:

  • Guesses about what may be useful in the future may be wrong.
  • Time spent writing code that won’t be used yet can delay the product’s launch.
  • Extra work translates into a higher investment before the product has even proven its worth or begun generating ROI.

Abstracting is another practice that should only be done according to present need. Do not abstract for the future.

Along these same lines, don’t add in comments or TODOs.

This messy habit encourages sloppy code that can’t be understood on its own.

Comments are more easily accessed when placed where everyone can read them using inline documentation.

Reusable code is a major asset, but make sure it’s fully understood instead of blindly copying and pasting to save time.

Try to choose options that follow good code economy guidelines.

Finally, don’t rush through development with the idea of refactoring later on.

The assumption that refactoring is “inevitable” leads to software that already needs work at launch.

It is possible to create a solid product with low technical debt by writing clean, concise code up front.

Keep A Hand on The Reins

Most importantly, don’t go too far by trying to use the absolute minimum LoC over more practical concerns.

As discussed earlier, a developer’s job is to solve problems.

When minimalist code is forced to override other needs, it becomes part of the problem instead of a solution.

Writing less code helps our developers create technology-based enterprise solutions with a long shelf life. Set up a free consultation to find out how we can solve your company’s most urgent business problems!

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Channeling Chaos into Better Software

chaos-theory

Chaos theory suggests small changes in initial conditions can result in vast differences in the future.

It implies that massive, unpredictable events can be directed with a few small early changes in the right place. While this is a simplification, it’s a useful one when it comes to enterprise software development.

Consider how many times a tiny decision has snowballed into a major situation.

It rarely seems like a significant decision when it’s made, but by the time developers spot the issue it’s an avalanche that threatens the entire project.

It seems impossible to avoid those random setbacks. After all, no developer can see the future.

In practice, though, developers can head off the majority of unpleasant surprises by embracing and preparing for chaos.

Why does Chaos happen?

The seeds of chaos are planted by dangerous mindsets that might seem like positives in the beginning: faith, optimism & bliss.

In this context faith refers to a belief that all initial assumptions were correct.

It’s an unrealistic confidence in one’s own skills, thinking experience means the team has all the answers and there’s no edge case they may be missing. The truth is that no one can foresee every potential problem.

Good developers are always open to learning and overcoming their limitations.

Optimism is general feeling that the easiest, most fluid path will cover 99% of situations. It’s a mistake to assume that a basic implementation is enough to cover most scenarios.

Operating under the belief that nothing too disruptive will happen removes the incentive give to create functional contingency plans.

If ignorance is bliss, the reverse is true as well. Bliss here describes a cheerful lack of understanding of the technology stack, the project’s scope, and business requirements.

Every tool has strengths and weaknesses. Developers have to know those weaknesses to compensate for them.

These mindsets invite chaos into the development process right from the start. Left unchecked, they increase the risk of a major oversight.

Embracing Chaos

There are ways for developers to stay on top of potential chaos without knowing exactly what form it will take. Start by prioritizing evidence over faith.

Turn the unknown into the known through a solid discovery. Best case scenarios are rare in software development industry; anything that can go wrong, will. It’s better to be over-prepared than caught off guard.

Don’t make assumptions without strong supporting evidence.

If no evidence is available, commit to a course of action as late as possible to allow room for change.

Practice “inversion thinking” during development. Game out the potential hazards ahead of time. What are all the negative things that can happen? How likely are they?

Brainstorming worst case scenarios provides the chance to create viable contingency plans.

It’s also a good idea to communicate thoroughly with the product owner about the impact of certain requirements.

Make sure everyone knows which options are riskiest. Provide a full risk-benefits analysis to guide product owners in making decisions about feature priorities and change orders.

Rolling with the Punches

Be alert for early signs of chaos and head them off at the pass.

Defensive programming is key. Test early and often. Every time a bug is found, write a test against that bug.

Knowledge is the currency of success. Have a clear understanding of the requirements before writing a single line of code.

Always understand one level below the level being worked on. Never stop learning. The technology steamroller is constantly moving, and it can roll over those who don’t keep up.

Finally, remember this: developers aren’t paid to write code (although they do). Developers are paid to think and solve problems. Don’t just patch based on assumptions.

Work through the actual problem to create a solution aligned with the products owner’s business requirements and stack technology.

A problem half stated is a problem half solved, so understand the actual problem from its roots before taking action.

Stay Alert, Stay on Schedule

Pessimism in development allows optimism in production.

Controlling for the mindsets that feed chaos leads to fewer and more manageable disruptions later in the game.

There’s always an element of chaos in software development, but the best teams know how to channel it into better software. Schedule your free consultation to hear our plan for your next project!

Keeping Decentralized Teams on Track

Decentralized-Teams

Outsourcing helps developers keep costs down, but working with decentralized teams can be difficult.

Get around these challenges with a combination of technology, targeted communication, and distance-optimized leadership strategies.

Decentralized teams – sometimes called distributed teams – are becoming a mainstay of software development.

They hit the sweet spot between value and quality, allowing companies to combine skilled offshore tech talent with dependable domestic development companies.

Working with decentralized teams comes with some unique challenges, though.

Here’s how to keep developers productive and motivated, no matter how far apart they are.

Choose the right project management and coordination software

Technology can bridge the physical gap between widespread team members. Productivity tools, task trackers, and communication programs create a shared virtual space where everyone has access to information on project status, upcoming milestones, and what is expected of them personally.

Tools only work when they’re used, though. Make software familiarization part of onboarding. Hold periodic refreshers, and have training resources available for employees to reference as needed.

Also, be sure there is a clear help and tech support process in place when the resources aren’t quite enough.

Clearly define goals and stick to them

Lay out the project overview and set specific objectives for each sprint. This should include daily, weekly, and full sprint targets.

Have a solid quality control process in place to make sure quality stays as high as productivity.

With distributed teams, sometimes the “chain of command” gets a little murky. During the earliest stages of a project, lay out the roles of the team as far as authority and regular duties.

Everyone should be able to answer questions like:

  • What are they responsible for?
  • Who do they turn to help if they finish early?
  • Who has authority to make changes and decisions?

Workers becoming overwhelmed or falling behind is another risk. Monitor progress checkpoints and keep an eye on team members who are at risk of missing targets. Offer extra resources when practical.

Remember to be realistic about workloads. Adjust future tasks if it’s necessary, but don’t keep moving the goalposts without a good reason.

Communication is key

When team members don’t see each other every day, things fall between the cracks. It’s easy for misunderstandings to arise.

Distance presents a barrier to asking for clarification. Workers have to wait on an email response or find a good time for a live chat or phone call.

If the team is in different time zones (which is common as budget pressures fuel the rise of international outsourcing) then trying to communicate in real time is especially frustrating.

This lag means that too often, problems get big before they are noticed. By that time, they’re more expensive and time-consuming to fix than if they were addressed right away.

Always err on the side of too much communication rather than too little. Have clear lines of communication set up between all team members.

Foster a culture of collaboration and free interaction; don’t criticize or penalize workers for reaching out for help from a team member when they can’t get a fast leadership response.

Don’t overlook the human element

Workers are more productive and motivated when they feel connected to the company, so keep the human element in mind.

Hold regular video chats and phone calls instead of relying entirely on text-based communication. Don’t discourage inter-company friendships or social side-chat as long as work is still getting done

It’s also important to relay praise as well as constructive criticism.

Workers need to hear when they’re doing a good job instead of only getting feedback on mistakes.

Stay in touch – but don’t micromanage

Last – but not least – keep in mind that communication doesn’t mean micromanagement. Stay on top of the team, but don’t get in the way of their productivity.

That is less of a contradiction than it seems when technology is considered. If communication is emphasized and team members are reliably using the task tracker, it’s easy to see where they are at any given moment.

Avoid interrupting a productive day with questions that can be answered by the task tracker or another collaboration tool.

Assign tasks and priorities, but whenever possible let team members decide how to do things. They were hired for a reason; trust their expertise until given a reason not to.

Concepta has over a decade of experience working with decentralized team around the world. Our combination of local and distributed teams lets us offer competitive prices without sacrificing quality. Find out how your company can benefit from our system today!

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