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Owning the Role of the Front-End Developer

27 Feb. 2018 Posted by A List Apart in External

When I started working as a web developer in 2009, I spent most of my time crafting HTML/CSS layouts from design comps. My work was the final step of a linear process in which designers, clients, and other stakeholders made virtually all of the decisions.

Whether I was working for an agency or as a freelancer, there was no room for a developer’s input on client work other than when we were called to answer specific technical questions. Most of the time I would be asked to confirm whether it was possible to achieve a simple feature, such as adding a content slider or adapting an image loaded from a CMS.

In the ensuing years, as front-end development became increasingly challenging, developers’ skills began to evolve, leading to more frustration. Many organizations, including the ones I worked for, followed a traditional waterfall approach that kept us in the dark until the project was ready to be coded. Everything would fall into our laps, often behind schedule, with no room for us to add our two cents. Even though we were often highly esteemed by our teammates, there still wasn’t a chance for us to contribute to projects at the beginning of the process. Every time we shared an idea or flagged a problem, it was already too late.

Almost a decade later, we’ve come a long way as front-end developers. After years of putting in the hard work required to become better professionals and have a bigger impact on projects, many developers are now able to occupy a more fulfilling version of the role.

But there’s still work to be done: Unfortunately, some front-end developers with amazing skills are still limited to basic PSD-to-HTML work. Others find themselves in a better position within their team, but are still pushing for a more prominent role where their ideas can be fostered.

Although I’m proud to believe I’m part of the group that evolved with the role, I continue to fight for our seat at the table. I hope sharing my experience will help others fighting with me.

My road to earning a seat at the table

My role began to shift the day I watched an inspiring talk by Seth Godin, which helped me realize I had the power to start making changes to make my work more fulfilling. With his recommendation to demand responsibility whether you work for a boss or a client, Godin gave me the push I needed.

I wasn’t expecting to make any big leaps—just enough to feel like I was headed in the right direction.

Taking small steps within a small team

My first chance to test the waters was ideal. I had recently partnered with a small design studio and we were a team of five. Since I’d always been open about my soft spot for great design, it wasn’t hard to sell them on the idea of having me begin to get a bit more involved with the design process and start giving technical feedback before comps were presented to clients.

The results were surprisingly amazing and had a positive impact on everybody’s work. I started getting design hand-offs that I both approved of from a technical point of view and had a more personal connection with. For their part, the designers happily noticed that the websites we launched were more accurate representations of the comps they had handed off.

My next step was to get involved with every single project from day one. I started to tag along to initial client meetings, even before any contracts had been signed. I started flagging things that could turn the development phase into a nightmare; at the same time I was able to throw around some ideas about new technologies I’d been experimenting with.

After a few months, I started feeling that my skills were finally having an impact on my team’s projects. I was satisfied with my role within the team, but I knew it wouldn’t last forever. Eventually it was time for me to embark on a journey that would take me back to the classic role of the front-end developer, closer to the base of the waterfall.

Moving to the big stage

As my career started to take off, I found myself far away from that five-desk office where it had all started. I was now working with a much bigger team, and the challenges were quite different. At first I was amazed at how they were approaching the process: the whole team had a strong technical background, unlike any team I had ever worked with, which made collaboration very efficient. I had no complaints about the quality of the designs I was assigned to work with. In fact, during my first few months, I was constantly pushed out of my comfort zone, and my skills were challenged to the fullest.

After I started to feel more comfortable with my responsibilities, though, I soon found my next challenge: to help build a stronger connection between the design and development teams. Though we regularly collaborated to produce high-quality work, these teams didn’t always speak the same language. Luckily, the company was already making an effort to improve the conversation between creatives and developers, so I had all the support I needed.

As a development team, we had been shifting to modern JavaScript libraries that led us to work on our applications using a strictly component-based approach. But though we had slowly changed our mindset, we hadn’t changed the ways we collaborated with our creative colleagues. We had not properly shared our new vision; making that connection would become my new personal goal.

I was fascinated by Brad Frost’s “death to the waterfall” concept: the idea that UX, visual design, and development teams should work in parallel, allowing for a higher level of iteration during the project.

By pushing to progressively move toward a collaborative workflow, everyone on my team began to share more responsibilities and exchange more feedback throughout every project. Developers started to get involved in projects during the design phase, flagging any technical issues we could anticipate. Designers made sure they provided input and guidance after the projects started coming to life during development. Once we got the ball rolling, we quickly began seeing positive results and producing rewarding (and award-winning) work.

Even though it might sound like it was a smooth transition, it required a great amount of hard work and commitment from everybody on the team. Not only did we all want to produce better work but we also needed to be willing to take a big leap away from our comfort zones and our old processes.

How you can push for a seat at the table

In my experience, making real progress required a combination of sharpening my skills as a front-end developer and pushing the team to improve our processes.

What follows are more details about what worked for me—and could also work for you.

Making changes as a developer

Even though the real change in your role may depend on your organization, sometimes your individual actions can help jump-start the shift:

  • Speak up. In multidisciplinary teams, developers are known as highly analytical, critical, and logical, but not always the most communicative of the pack. I’ve seen many who quietly complain and claim to have better ideas on how things should be handled, but bottle up those thoughts and move on to a different job. After I started voicing my concerns, proposing new ideas, and seeing small changes within my team, I experienced an unexpected boost in my motivation and noticed others begin to see my role differently.
  • Always be aware of what the rest of the team is up to. One of the most common mistakes we tend to make is to focus only on our craft. To connect with our team and improve in our role, we need to understand our organization’s goals, our teammates’ skill sets, our customers, and basically every other aspect of our industry that we used to think wasn’t worth a developer’s time. Once I started having a better understanding of the design process, communication with my team started to improve. The same applied to designers who started learning more about the processes we use as front-end developers.
  • Keep core skills sharp. Today our responsibilities are broader and we’re constantly tasked with leading our teams into undiscovered technologies. As a front-end developer, it’s not uncommon to be required to research technologies like WebGL or VR, and introduce them to the rest of the team. We must stay current with the latest practices in our technical areas of focus. Our credibility is at stake every time our input is needed, so we must always strive to be the best developers in the business.

Rethinking practices within the company

In order to make the most of your role as a developer, you’ll have to persuade your organization to make key changes. This might be hard to achieve, since it tends to require taking all members of your team out of their comfort zones.

For me, what worked was long talks with my colleagues, including designers, management, and fellow developers. It’s hard for a manager to turn you down when you propose an idea to improve the quality of your work and only ask for small changes. Once the rest of the team is on board, you have to work hard and start implementing these changes to keep the ball rolling:

  • Involve developers in projects from the beginning. Many companies have high standards when it comes to hiring developers but don’t take full advantage of their talent. We tend to be logical thinkers, so it’s usually a good idea to involve developers in many aspects of the projects we work on. I often had to take the first step to be invited to project kickoffs. But once I started making an effort to provide valuable input, my team started automatically involving me and other developers during the creative phase of new projects.
  • Schedule team reviews. Problems frequently arise when teams present to clients without having looped in everyone working on the project. Once the client signs off on something, it can be risky to introduce new ideas, even if they add value. Developers, designers, and other key players must come together for team reviews before handing off any work. As a developer, sometimes you might need to raise your hand and invest some of your time to help your teammates review their work before they present it.
  • Get people to work together. Whenever possible, get people in the same room. We tend to rely on technology and push to communicate only by chat and email, but there is real value in face time. It’s always a good idea to have different teammates sit together, or at least in close enough proximity for regular in-person conversation, so they can share feedback more easily during projects. If your team works remotely, you have to look for alternatives to achieve the same effect. Occasional video chats and screen sharing can help teams share feedback and interact in real time.
  • Make time for education. Of all the teams I’ve worked on, those that foster a knowledge-sharing culture tend to work most efficiently. Simple and casual presentations among colleagues from different disciplines can be vital to creating a seamless variety of skills across the team. So it’s important to encourage members of the team to teach and learn from each other.



    When we made the decision to use only a component-based architecture, we prepared a simple presentation for the design team that gave them an overview of how we all would benefit from the change to our process. Shortly after, the team began delivering design comps that were aligned with our new approach.

It’s fair to say that the modern developer can’t simply hide behind a keyboard and expect the rest of the team to handle all of the important decisions that define our workflow. Our role requires us to go beyond code, share our ideas, and fight hard to improve the processes we’re involved in.