Frontend Developer? Web Designer?

I have an identity crisis.

Granted it was after I read this post that I found the words to describe my situation, the dilemma had stuck ever since I started working on the Web. As someone whose focus is on HTML and CSS, who knows a good amount of Javascript but not to the extent of calling myself an engineer, and who cares about UX and design, I often find myself in the middle of nowhere—neither in design nor engineering.

Like Brad said in the above post, we are the “people who often find themselves awkwardly siloed in one department or another”.

Confusion Abound.

In an earlier post, where I encouraged myself and other web designers to stay true to our passions and professions, I mentioned that a title is just a title. The thing is, your job title does not define your work. I think it’s worth repeating that again:

Your title does not define your work.

A web professional like myself can be called many things, from frontend developer to UI developer to web designer. Do you realize what that means? That means the companies that have a need for such professionals have a hard time deciding a) the job title, and b) the job scope of these professionals. “We need someone who can work closely with our designers and make our web app pretty. Someone who also knows Javascript frameworks, though he doesn’t need to be a programming wizard. He should also have a deep understanding of HTML and CSS. Everything else is a plus.” is an example of what someone from the hiring side can be thinking, and he will no doubt have a hard time thinking up the right job title for the position. (Engineer sounds wrong from the outset, and working closely with designers don’t necessarily make someone a designer either.)

In short, the confusion is on both ends. Both the professional and the company in need of her skill set are unsure about this “in-between” position, even if the need is unquestionable.

When It’s Impossible to Box Oneself.

Boxing things into categories is an inherently human thing. I suspect it arises from the need to use our feeble facilities to manage and understand things. When a company doesn’t know where to seat an employee, it becomes anxious. “How do we manage the employee’s benefits/performance/job function if we don’t know where she belongs?” Similarly, when a professional finds herself in the shoes of a frontend developer/web designer/whatever, it becomes hard for her to filter out the jobs that fit her. “This position wants someone who’s a pro at design software like Photoshop and Illustrator, so that’s not me. Then again, they want someone who’s proficient with HTML and CSS, so that sounds totally me. Should I or should I not apply?”

Half-filled Glasses.

When you’re in a position like myself, you are no longer trapped within the boundaries of common perceptions of what you should or shouldn’t be doing. Instead, you’re free to “brand” (to use a crude but widely understood term) yourself. You can look at your strengths and highlight them, then go out and tell the world, “These are the stuff that I’m good at. And if you’re impressed, then we can talk.” Who knows? An opportunity may come along, asking to harness your expertise on web accessibility or SVG animation.

Likewise, as the bridge between engineering and design, you’re (if your company is flexible enough for that) free to move around from engineering to design, to contribute where the company is currently lacking in. If the design team has a lack of hands-on knowledge on how designs translate to real life scenarios, then help them out by providing the expertise they need. If the engineering team has a clear lack of consideration for good UX, step in and make sure functionality doesn’t come at the expense of user experience.

For companies faced with the dilemma, they will probably need to ask themselves where they’re weaker in. A company that has a surplus of engineers over designers will want a frontender with good experience in design to step in and fill the gap. On the other hand, a company that is too designer-centric can do with a frontender who’s up to date with the latest technological innovation, so they can combine their strength in design with the latest framework.

That Being Said.

Companies don’t go out of their way to hire someone who’s “in-between”, because it’s hard to put an ad out there looking for someone who’s neither an engineer nor a designer. Chances are, they’ll first look for either one, then filter out the ones that “seem to fit our needs”. At the same time, it’s probably hard to promote someone like that too: since a frontender is not exactly a hardcore engineer, her performance in the engineering team will unlikely be spectacular enough to justify a promotion. And if the frontender is in the design team, too, it’s hard to imagine him rising up the ranks without actually designing the product interface. So yeah, even with all that positive thinking, in reality “in-betweens” are still bound to disadvantaged.

Oh well. C’est la vie.