Back-end developer skills: what to know to be in demand

By Robert Half on 29th February 2016

If you want to understand what a back-end developer does, think of developing a website like building a house. The back-end developer builds the structure — from framing to plumbing to wiring — and then maintains the structure’s inner workings.

A front-end developer, meanwhile, creates the finishing touches that you interact with, such as faucets and light switches.

In short, back-end developers make sure that websites are operationally robust, and can deliver information quickly and reliably while scaling under load. If you want to be a back-end developer, here are some of the skills you need to know to be in high demand:

General programming skills

A back-end developer primarily writes code in a general programming language. Two of the most popular for enterprise development are Java and C#. The open source, general-purpose scripting language PHP is also widely used. So, too is Visual Basic, although it has fallen somewhat out of favour due to both Microsoft and the .NET community putting emphasis on C#. Ruby, Python and JavaScript (in the Node.js environment) have also been rising in popularity in recent years — enough so that back-end developers with these skills are in growing demand.

Except for PHP, the programming languages just mentioned can be used for non-web development. PHP is deeply tied to the web development model and is not well suited to non-web projects. A back-end developer using C# or Visual Basic will need to learn how to code ASP.NET (the web development model for .NET), but Java developers have more options in terms of web development frameworks. Spring, Java Server Faces (JSF) and Apache Struts 2 are all systems worth investigating for the Java developer. Ruby developers will want to learn Ruby on Rails. Python developers usually use Django, and JavaScript is used within the Node.js web development system.

Database savvy

Almost all enterprise websites have databases, which makes database expertise a must-have skill for a back-end developer. The most common databases include Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, MySQL and PostgreSQL. C# and Visual Basic typically use Microsoft SQL Server, and Java is frequently paired up with Oracle. PHP, Ruby and Python projects are almost always connected to one of the open source database options. These relational database management systems all require knowledge of Structured Query Language (SQL).

Pay attention to NoSQL databases, such as MongoDB and CouchDB. They have gained attention as easy-to-use and simple-to-learn alternatives to traditional relational database management systems. More projects are using the NoSQL option, either exclusively or in conjunction with more traditional database systems. Back-end developers who want to maximise their career opportunities will add MongoDB or CouchDB to their skills set so that they don’t miss out on opportunities using these projects. Node.js development projects usually use a NoSQL database.

One of the major changes in back-end developer work has been the use of various database access systems. Tools like Hibernate for Java (and its .NET variant NHibernate) — as well as Microsoft’s Entity Framework for ASP.NET developers — have allowed IT pros to write less SQL code than before. PHP developers have a number of options for database access. Ruby on Rails and Django have built-in database access. They significantly improve code quality and development times by automating database programming and making it more consistent.

Web services knowledge

Modern web apps are highly integrated with other systems, such as payment processors and social media networks. Web services are used by many front-end technologies, such as mobile development platforms, single-page architecture (SPA) development systems and desktop applications, to communicate with shared logic on a back end. Back-end developers need to know how to use both SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) and REST (Representational State Transfer) web services, though the latter is favoured by many developers because it is generally considered to be easier to use (and learn).

Back-end development is a launch pad for new career opportunities. With study and experience, back-end developers can learn user interface skills and user experience literacy to transition into front-end developers. Generalists who cover both the front and back are known as “full stack” developers. Those who prefer to stay working on the back end can also explore career paths such as application architect and database developer.

For more information about web development and other IT roles, check out the latest Robert Half IT and Technology Salary Guide.

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