Three times as hard

A front-ender as a specialist is not something you come across very often. By specialist I mean someone who writes custom CSS, HTML and JavaScript. These aces walk the line between design and development, however, I usually encounter someone like myself rooted in one of the adjacent disciplines. Maybe we should focus on the specialist and take a moment and consider where front-end is heading. I’m not convinced that the specialist is where the working groups are heading because it currently looks like the working groups are being driven by back-end developers. This is both a benefit and a pain because the front-end will be pushed out of reach for many designers, Stephen Hay does try to make the technology seem less alien in his fantastic book.

For better and for worse

CSS and JavaScript technologies have now gone well beyond their original vision. JavaScript adopted the concept of CSS selectors and has helped the technology take flight. The renewed interest in JavaScript has in turn pushed CSS into a world of operators, variables and mixins. Front-end development has shifted distinctly towards the realm of web development or rather, back-end development. Job listings are now as confused as ever and many front-enders are shut out. The specialist is simply a rare beast and maybe one front-enders should aspire to. Working with CSS and HTML only doesn’t cut it anymore. The sad thing is that HTML which has also come along in leaps and bounds still suffers because the skills amongst back-end developers is still shockingly poor, but that’s a whole other rant for another day.

Too much on our fork?

You would think that with all this progress front-enders would increasingly be adopting the new features, however, that is not what I’m seeing. Instead of acquiring additional skills some front-enders take a shortcut and defer to libraries and frameworks which are popping up at an alarming rate. The richer a web technology becomes the more specialised their authors need to be. So it’s not surprising that the web is becoming more library driven at the front-end level. On the positive side; jQuery, Zepto, Twitter Bootstrap, Foundation are populating both the consumer and enterprise space. The later is a new trend and a not so subtle change from the past. The traditional all in one libraries like Sencha, Dojo Toolkit and YUI you see less customisation and more skinning. To me these feel like technology silos of the past. The newer, smaller libraries seem to be doing the opposite and are driving UI customisation, not intentionally but as a side effect of their inherit flexibility and open nature. Customisation and open technology is what has been driving the emergence of the front-ender, so, reliance on any of the all-in-one libraries is not a place you want to be.

Recently I’ve been writing a lot of production ready JavaScript which is really pushing me against the world of web development a world that is increasingly using JavaScript for models and controllers. It also underlines what front-end development is and what it isn’t as it only pertains to the view, the part users can ‘touch’. MVC conveniently defines this separation. Walking the line between design and development doesn’t mean it’s all hands off but you shouldn’t overreach either. A front-ender needs to reach into both fields far enough to understand what these disciplines need without acquiring the skills to do it themselves. If you come from development or design background letting go can be difficult, as I have found. If you’re lucky, you may not have to.

Applying back-end technology to CSS is placing many at a crossroads, despite the benefits this brings. Building things is the only way to move forward. So understand what it is you’re making, how it’s going to work and how the user will experience it. Being a front-end is getting tougher but what hasn’t changed is that a front-ender is always in the thick of it. Sounds pretty good to me.