Frontend Developers: the Newest New Kingmakers

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In recent years the frontend has undergone a renaissance. Frontend developers—individuals that have traditionally focused on writing HTML, CSS, and JavaScript code, but increasingly work on everything touching the UI, which includes APIs, build tools, interaction, GraphQL, accessibility, design, and QA—are seeing new frameworks, services, and tools revolutionize both the ways they work, and the apps they build. Today, the proliferation of JS frameworks offers developers a veritable cornucopia of options, while a wave of managed services caters to their need for backend infrastructure. Vercel’s branding as “the Frontend Cloud” acknowledges this subset of developers’ power as both consumers and industry movers. I have also written about several BaaS companies targeting frontend devs. Illustratively, Paul Copplestone, CEO of Supabase, does not skip a beat when identifying the specific market he hopes to nail down:

Definitely JAMstack… Eventually we’ll target more established full stack developers, even people who really enjoy Postgres already.

All of this hype and attention has done wonders for the perception and identity of frontend practitioners. These developers are no longer ashamed of the title, or unilaterally hung up on questions of whether “frontend web developers have a bad reputation for having poor abilities?.” Although some stigma persists, frontend engineers are in ascendence and therefore increasingly disinclined to hide behind the label “full-stack.” In 2024, it would seem that developers working at the top of the stack, and the vendors that serve them, are thriving.

In that spirit, I argue it is time we at RedMonk expand on Stephen O’Grady’s now canonical 2013 concept of The New Kingmakers by formally acknowledging the role of frontend developers. Software engineers possess a tremendous amount of power and influence in organizations, but those working at the top of the stack are largely absent from O’Grady’s book. Recent trends in the platform and developer tooling space suggest that this segment of the developer population can no longer be ignored. Of course, the frontend-developer-as-Kingmaker is not, in fact, novel, as I will explain in a follow-up post, but the history of sidelining is real.

This blog-based coronation acknowledges the frontend developer’s elevated status. Although the desktop isn’t going anywhere fast, as IoT and mobile devices improve and evolve (this is Apple Vision Pro’s release month, after all), the frontend will continue to be where innovation happens. Moreover, API-driven development enables top of the stack developers to leverage backend services easily and affordably. New solutions in the data management and compute space are addressing significant unresolved problems. Solutions and protocols like GraphQL, WebAssembly, and WebSockets all look to disrupt business-as-usual for data fetching, storage, and use.

The frontend developer’s image and popular appeal has also undergone a makeover. These engineers have a hand in the design sphere, needing to be able to navigate the Adobe suite and Figma to ensure the design and UX team’s mocks-ups are translated into pixel perfect code for desktop and mobile devices. For this reason it is no great wonder that in the popular imagination the frontend developer is closely aligned with designers. The stereotype persists that frontend engineers carry themselves accordingly, with fashionable haircuts and clothes. Vercel has made this hipster aesthetic core to its branding. At Render ATL last year you could see the Vercel folks a mile away in their uniformly sleek black tee shirts. Among others, Supabase—who works with Vercel—has joked repeatedly about this curated lewk. Far from the frumpy developer stereotype of yore, frontend developers have an identity all their own, and they won’t be diminished or ignored.

I date this frontend renaissance to the 2019 publication of Chris Coyier’s “The Great Divide.” In this influential CSSTricks post, Coyier surveys the state of frontend and speaks about this domain’s plasticity. The label frontend is diffuse: while some focus on “HTML, CSS, design, interaction, patterns, accessibility, etc.” others specialize in JavaScript: “modern frameworks, fancy build tools, and interesting data layer strategies… React as a UI library, Apollo GraphQL for data, Cypress for integration testing, and webpack as a build tool.” Part of this separation came out of the web’s snowballing complexity, and particularly the Server/Client Two-Step which seeks to harness client-side interactivity with server rendering’s recognized performance. But what Coyier’s post makes crystal clear is that the frontend is enough. Developers don’t need to feel bad about working at the top of the stack or else claim membership within the full-stack guild in order to demonstrate their ability. Frontend engineers not only perform serious, necessary work, their domain is evolving rapidly and involves some of today’s most exciting and disruptive tech.

The result of frontend engineering’s renewed respectability in the tech space has been significant. Instead of a dirty word, devs now wear the profession of “Frontend Engineer” with pride. I’ve made the case that in 2024 the frontend developer deserves space beside more canonical Kingmakers from the backend and IT operations spheres, but how did this transition come about and what does it mean for the future of the software industry? This post is the first in a series on this subject. The second will historicize the frontend Kingmaker and assess the relevance and persistence of the term “full-stack engineer.” Next, I will examine the future of frontend by situating this domain within a larger conversation concerning cloud, the rise of abstractions, and exercises in software packaging versus primitives. There is still a lot to say about the importance and evolution of the frontend, and this necessary conversation is far from settled.

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