The Front End Engineering Spectrum- The Three Generic Types of Front End Engineers

As both a hiring manager and as a potential employee, I’ve seen both sides of the interview/hiring process and have noticed some definite categories when it comes to the type of people filling the roles and the roles themselves. This post deals with the types of people. I’ll follow up with a post outlining the types of roles and who (of the following) you should be looking hire if you’re looking to fill one of those specific roles.

The Three Types of Front End Engineers

Clearly, there are people that fall somewhere in between these broad categories. Still, I think these are pretty solid as general buckets.

“The Creative”

This person isn’t really an “engineer” as their programming skills will be minimal. They can implement copy and paste javascript code and/or basic library code and plugins, but will not have any core JavaScript skills. Asking a question about scope or the this keyword in an interview will draw blank stares. They won’t be great at debugging server/browser interactions. They’ll probably be out of their element when questions of data format and structure arise.

What they can do is code HTML and CSS like a maniac.

Got a question about semantics? Need someone with a strong opinion about CSS methodology? Want a developer whose always got good insight into the best way to implement a particular design? The Creative is your go-to resource for all that and more.

They’ll have an excellent eye for layout and will pride themselves on being pixel perfect.

They’re also happy to do design work. If you need the design blanks filled in on a project, they’ll dive in and save the day. Often, they’ll have a design background and will have moved into CSS + HTML through the process of implementing their own designs as a freelancer or part of a small team.

“The Coder”

This person is a programmer whose main language just happens to be JavaScript. They’ll have a deep understanding of the quirks of the language and will have already formed opinions about ECMAScript 5 (ES5.) Interviewing them, you could ask something like “what do you think of Doug Crockford?” and get a 30 minute response. Doing whiteboard work or coding quizzes they’ll likely offer a couple different solutions to some problems.

They’ll also probably have a second (or more) language in which they have proficiency and can likely navigate the basic configuration and maintenance of a web server. They might have NodeJS up and running, just for kicks. They’ll be strong at CSS and HTML, but will get bored quickly if the work trends too much towards markup and style. The Coder is going to be happiest when the focus is on behavior.

What they’re not strong at is design. Whether it’s because of poor design sense or an intentional technical focus, “The Coder” isn’t going to win any design awards. They may be able to cut graphics and use Photoshop in a basic way, but that’s about the extent of their visual input on a project. If it’s not in the PSD or otherwise documented, don’t expect a Coder to fill in the blanks left by a designer. You’ll probably get something that exposes the functionality in a very basic way and nothing more.

“The Core”

Smack in the middle between the two previous extremes lies The Core. This person is focused on the core technologies and is basically happy doing any combination of markup, style or behavior.

They may not be super interested with the ins and out of ES5, and they may not be able to write much core JavaScript, but they will be able to write solid, original code in the context of one or more JavaScript libraries/frameworks. They’ll have a solid understanding of HTML and will have a great eye for CSS layouts.

Being able to bridge the gap from visual design to the server side at a very high level, The Core is invaluable in a well siloed team (one with clearly defined separation between interaction design, visual design, front end and server code.) They won’t have great design chops, but can work closely with designers to steer and develop a site’s visual grammar in way that’s both visually appealing and maintainable. On the other end they’ll have an understanding of the environment and system and will work with the server side team designing and implementing templates and data interchange points.

Next up we’ll take a look at the common roles and start plugging the above types into them to help you better match skills and interests with the roles in your organization.

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