Changing careers is a big deal. It’s not uncommon to have a few different jobs in your lifetime and want the next one to be better than the last. Software engineering and front-end developers are in high demand — but can you become a front-end developer without a degree? The answer is yes. And if you’re wondering whether front-end development is for you and how you might be able to upgrade your skills to make the switch, read on.
We’ll share with you what a front-end developer does and what skills you will need to succeed, both in terms of technical skills and softer skills that are still quite important. You’ll also get the steps you need to showcase your skills in a resume and a portfolio, as well as a few tips on how to ace your technical interview.
What does a front-end developer do?
There are three main types of developers: front-end engineers, back-end engineers, and full-stack engineers.
Back-end engineers are responsible for all the hidden systems and servers that host and support websites and applications. Front-end engineers are the ones that develop the aspects of the website that the customer or end-user sees and interacts with. Full-stack engineers are those who know a little bit of both front-end and back-end engineering, so they could theoretically complete a project on their own from start to finish.
Front-end developers get to use their knowledge of coding to create the user-facing elements of a website. They decide what color a button will be or how an interactive element will be displayed. They also get to interact with the customer to learn what they need. Front-end developers then create a solution using both their programming skills and some artistic or user experience skills.
“A front-end engineer is someone that likes being at the intersection of art and logic,” says John, a Software Engineer at Smartsheet. You can find out more from John about what a front-end developer does in the video interview below.
Front-end developers are problem-solvers. They get to use a variety of languages, tools, and their own experience and creativity to deliver a website or application. There are many ways to design a website or create a program, and that’s why being a front-end engineer is so exciting. These developers tend to enjoy working with a variety of people in their daily jobs.
What technical skills does a front-end developer need?
Being at the intersection of art and coding requires both hard and soft skills. Front-end developers need to know how to code in a few key programming languages, and they need to be able to harness their creativity in a dynamic work environment.
On top of the coding skills required of a front-end developer, there are a few key skills that all developers need to be successful:
- How to use text editors
- Understanding of application program interfaces (APIs)
- Knowledge of programming patterns
- Being comfortable with the command line
- Using Git
Front-end developers would also benefit from some experience with graphic design software and principles. But because they will work with clients — often in a team to deliver the best user experience possible — design knowledge is not essential. Many front-end developers will pick up these skills naturally and create user-focused, accessible, and beautiful web pages without formal instruction.
What soft skills should a front-end developer have?
Because of the need to interface with both the technical team and the client, front-end developers need to be excellent communicators. It's often necessary to use both written and verbal communication. Developing slide decks of proposals, wireframes, and the current progress are necessities for many projects. Conference calls to discuss the project are also a common occurrence.
But human-to-human communication is just one aspect. Front-end developers also need to be great communicators within their code. This skill could fall under either technical or soft skill categories. Even if you land a job without the need for teammates, it’s still important to take the time to comment within your code and write appropriate documentation. If you need to come back to something months or years later, you’ll be glad you took the time to explain your program.
Front-end developers also need to be meticulous in all aspects of their work. When they create web pages, they need to have a keen eye and attention to detail. Because what they work on is seen by the end-user, all of their work needs to be useful and precise. In other words, they need to have high standards for their work, which doesn’t just need to function as promised — it needs to look great, too.
Finally, developers must be lifelong learners. Websites continue to evolve, and expectations for responsiveness, accessibility, and appearance continue to demand more from developers. Front-end engineers need to stay on top of developments and will likely have to learn new code languages or libraries over the years. Being adaptable, creative, and enjoying the learning process are all skills that will make a front-end developer a true company asset.
How to write a front-end developer resume
After learning the skills you need for the career, it’s time to put it all down on paper. The purpose of a resume is to showcase who you are professionally so you can land an interview for a front-end developer job. Even if you are applying for a junior developer position, it’s important to capture the applicable skills on your resume.
You worked hard to take courses and practice your skills building websites. Maybe you even designed a few websites for friends and acquaintances so you could build up your portfolio. None of that will get seen unless you put it on your resume. Jot down the programming languages you learned, the courses you completed successfully, and any relevant prior work experience.
Even if your previous jobs weren’t in front-end development, you should note down where you used to work and your accomplishments. This will show your prospective employer that you are a great employee and know how to solve problems — a key skill for any developer.
The most important thing on your resume is to make sure the skills for your new job are highlighted. Make a bulleted list of the coding languages you know. Put your portfolio website link at the top of your resume with your contact details. List out all the courses and certificates you achieved on your way to preparing for your first front-end developer job.
How to interview for a front-end developer position
Keep in mind that every company and position will have a different set of requirements and steps for their technical interview process. Some may even ask you to take a technical skills test before they call you for the interview.
The great news here is that you can prepare for these skills tests and interview questions. The first way you can brush up on your code is to take an online course in the codes that your new job needs. For example, you could take a short course on HTML or CSS (or both). Built into the courses are small assignments and quizzes that will act as practice for the real deal in the interview.
Another way to prepare is simply to Google what types of questions you might be expected to answer in your technical interview. You’ll find resources and lists of possible questions to answer. Here are a few examples you can use to practice:
- How would you approach a new project using the principles of user-centered design?
- If you had to continue a project using someone else’s code, how would you proceed?
- Which browser do you find most challenging to work with? Why?
- What do you love most about HTML5? Have you used it recently in a project?
- What are the most important aspects of a website?
- What skills have you learned recently to help you stay up to speed as a front-end developer?
- Can you explain the CSS box model?
- What are HTML meta tags?
- What is a CSS rule?
Our advice is to spend an hour each night before your interview practicing the answers to these questions, or ones that might be more specific to the job you are applying for. Another way to stay sharp and have the answers on the tip of your tongue is to stay current with your reading. Subscribe to a couple of good blogs or participate in conversations on coding forums. Keeping your finger on the pulse of what’s new and having discussions with other developers will help you in the technical interview.
Lastly, continue practicing your front-end development skills. Build the website you’ve been thinking about for a while. Update those few pages that you know you could optimize. Try using a new CSS library to challenge yourself and learn along the way. The best way to solidify learning is to put it to good use. You’ll remember the lessons you learn from mistakes and new challenges far easier this way than you will if you just read or research.
Check out the following articles to learn more:
- Technical and behavioral interview tips
- 7 top CSS interview questions to practice
- 7 HTML interview questions to practice
- Acing the technical interview: A complete guide
Building a front-end developer portfolio
Building your portfolio is a way to easily prove that you know what you are doing as a front-end developer. If you’re just getting started on your learning journey as a front-end developer, you don’t need to have every piece of your portfolio be a client project. You can take the reins and get creative. Try using new tools and libraries to design something amazing. As you get further into your career, you can highlight more projects that you've worked on.
When we spoke with John, the front-end developer at Smartsheet, he gave us an easy way to start our portfolio. A personal website can be both a framework for highlighting future work and a display of your skills.
“One way to get started is just building your own personal website. Your website can be an expression of who you are and what you want to do. Once you’re done, it’s a great way to market yourself, saying, “Hey look, I built this awesome website. Imagine what I can build for you next!”
You can also check out your fellow front-end developers’ portfolios online to see what you do and do not like. Then create your own website knowing what you’d like to show the world. You can also have your friends and community members critique and test your site to make sure everything looks good.
Don’t forget that all the words you use on your site should be helping you land a great job. You don’t want it to be wordy or boring. Building copywriting skills by going through this design process will also make you an even more prepared front-end developer.
How long does it take to become a front-end developer?
That’s the million-dollar question, really. The answer is — it depends. Some people start their learning with a base knowledge of coding, perhaps in a different language or in a different setting. They will be able to pick up concepts a little bit quicker.
Other people are starting from square one with their coding, so it’ll take them a bit longer to master the skills required to become a front-end developer. Similarly, some people are devoting their full-time working hours to learning new coding skills, while others are learning in the small windows of time they have between work and life commitments.
The point here is to not compare yourself to anyone else. Set some time aside each week or day to learn, try your best to stick with that, and then celebrate. But don't fret — we’re not going to leave you without an estimated timeline.
It’s completely reasonable to build the skills, portfolio, and experience you need to become a front-end developer in less than a year. Some people who have the time and baselines skill set can prepare for and get their first job in six months. The important thing is to go at a pace that you can sustain for the long haul. You want to have fun learning your new coding skills and not feel rushed. If you enjoy the process, you’ll be in a better headspace to learn.
How to become a front-end developer without a degree
In the past, having a computer science or software engineering degree was a must for all developers. Today, things have changed. If you have the skills, it doesn’t matter where you learned them.
We touched on many of the steps you need to take to become a front-end developer without a degree, but we’ll give you the exact run-down here so you can form your own checklist:
- Practice using your new skills by building websites and taking courses.
- Draft your front-end developer resume.
- Build a portfolio.
- Join a community of developers to stay current.
- Learn any additional skills or code libraries required for your desired job.
- Prepare for the technical interview.
- Start applying to the jobs you want.
There are many ways to learn the skills and code you need for front-end development. You could do research on what the companies you want to work for use. You could talk to people who have front-end development jobs and learn what they’d suggest. You could even look for a course that’s specific to what you need, eliminating the guesswork.
Our Career Path for front-end developers will take you through everything you need to know to land an entry level job as a front-end developer, including learning the code, prepping for your interview, understanding advanced libraries, and learning about the back-end processes and data structures you’ll need to work with. Plus, you'll create your own portfolio projects that you can use when you start applying for jobs and get a certificate upon completion, which you could add to your resume.
As you can see, becoming a front-end developer without a degree isn't just possible — it's achievable. We wish you all the best on your career journey!