What Does a Backend Developer Do? The Complete Beginner’s Guide

Say you sign up for a website and build a profile, where does that information go? 

How does a site remember your preferences and process your data, showing exactly what you want to see? 

What about when you buy concert tickets and the website goes down, why does that happen?

Welcome to the field of backend development. Backend developers work behind the scenes to control everything you don’t see on a website. That is, the server-side functions like security, data storage and API design.

To jump directly to a specific section, go ahead and click on a heading below.

  1. What is a backend developer?
  2. What backend developer skills should I have?
  3. What backend tools do developers use?
  4. What is the average backend developer salary?
  5. How to become a backend developer
  6. Wrap-up

Are you ready to get started? Then let’s get into it!

1. What is a backend developer?

Backend development concerns the activities on a website not visible to the user.

A backend developer handles things on the data layer of an application. These include functions like looking up data, making calculations, and preparing information before it gets sent to the client-side (or frontend).

Say you do a search on a shop’s website for a specific product. A backend developer is the one who wrote the logic to find the items relevant to your search. You add some items to your cart. The calculations of the price, tax, shipping cost, etc. are also done on the backend.

We do these kinds of tasks everyday. Sharing photos or videos with friends, making bank transactions, and online shopping. You could say the backend developer is the unsung hero here. They’re in charge of your (hopefully) seamless user experience.

Now that we know what they are, let’s look at little closer at what they do.

What does a backend developer do?

Depending on the size and systems in place at a company, the tasks of a backend developer vary. 

The role may include creating, maintaining, testing, and debugging a website. This includes the core application logic, databases, data and application integration, APIs, and more.

The backend consists of three parts: the server, the application, and the database. These are always running in the background, even if the user doesn’t see or interact with it. 

When you fill out a form, create an online profile, save a file in the cloud or shop online, the data is being converted and returned to the frontend via the backend. A backend developer might be responsible for the following tasks:

  • Databases—creation and data structure, maintenance
  • Working with backend frameworks (i.e. Node.js)
  • Web server technologies (HTTP, REST, and SOAP)
  • Cloud computing integration (Amazon Web Services, Azure, etc.)
  • Server-side programming languages (Python, Ruby, etc)
  • API integration
  • Security settings—preventing hacks and data leaks
  • Reporting—generating analytics and statistics on website usage, errors, efficiency
  • Backing up and restoring website and user data

What’s the difference between the frontend and the backend?

We’ve talked a bit about the backend, i.e. the data layer of the website. But how does this compare to the frontend?

The frontend concerns the part of the website you interact with, i.e. the user interface. This includes your menus, buttons, and everything visual you see. 

Consider it a tag-team effort. The frontend makes a request, the backend fetches the data. Data in hand, the frontend takes that and decides how to display it for you.

Read more about the difference between frontend and backend development in this guide.

2. What backend developer skills should I have?

As a backend developer, there are certain skills unique to this field. 

You’ll want to be familiar with at least one backend programming language and its related frameworks. We’ll look at some of these in more detail in the next section.

Working with databases is also a big part of backend development.

Now, let’s break down the tools a backend developer is likely to use.

A backend developer sits in a home office looking at two screens of code.

3. What backend tools do developers use?

Like all coders, to carry out their work, these programmers have a wide range of tools and technologies at their disposal.

Considering the complex nature of working with databases and communicating across various pieces of tech infrastructure, it’s no surprise backend developers have their preferred coding languages. But don’t forget that they also use an oft-forgotten part of their toolkit—their soft skills.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the tools and tricks backend developers use to keep the server-side working smoothly.

Python, Java, PHP, and/or Ruby are common backend programming languages for web development. 

Due to its compatibility with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, Python is one of the most popular programming languages. 

Although it’s incredibly popular with data analysts and data scientists, there are a ton of advantages to learning Python for web development.

Basic knowledge of frontend languages HTML, CSS, and JavaScript are useful too. Even if these are frontend languages, your code will be working together with the frontend, so it’s good to know the basics.

CareerFoundry’s free 5-day coding short course will introduce you to these three languages as you build the frontend of a website. It’s a handy way to learn how the frontend works before adding in backend functionality.

You can check out the first tutorial in this video:

Common backend technologies 

Frameworks are libraries that solve common problems so that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. 

Node.js is a common framework, which allows JavaScript to be used on the backend. Check out our beginner’s guide to Node to learn more.

For Python, you might use Flask or the powerful Django framework.

Database management systems

The database stores and organizes the customer or client’s data for your website.

As a backend developer, you’ll need to understand how to organize and request data from databases. You should use the basics and relational and non-relational databases.

Familiarity with SQL database systems (MySQL, PostgreSQL) and/or MongoDB, GraphQL is really useful too.

Data Structures and Algorithms

You could be in charge of defining the data structure and schemas for data at your company. 

Similarly, for coming up with the most efficient way to handle data-heavy requests. This may also involve API design

API design refers to the process of developing application programming interfaces (APIs) that expose data and application functionality for use by developers and users. 

Version Control

Any backend developer should be proficient in Git and GitHub and setting up your deployment flow. 

Git is a version-control system that lets you keep track of your code. GitHub hosts your project in the cloud and provides a set of tools to help your team collaborate better.

Learn more in our beginner’s guide to Git vs. Github.

Web Hosting Platforms

As the name suggests, this is where your website is hosted, i.e. stored.

This will most likely be a cloud service provider, so that your website can be accessed via the internet. Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud Platform (GCP), Microsoft Azure, and Heroic are popular players here.

You can also learn how to host a website for free in this guide.

Security

Securing your databases and servers may also be the role of a backend developer. 

Tasks you’ll have to carry out include protecting your API routes, handling and checking authentication when a user logs in or requests data, and more. 

Backend developer soft skills

As a backend developer also works on a team, non-technical skills like problem-solving, critical thinking, and clear communication are important.

Like a lot of developer jobs, you’ll need to work both as part of a team, and independently, so it helps to work on your soft skills.

4. What is the average backend developer salary?

The average backend developer salary varies depending on seniority, location and company. We’ll summarize a bit below though, to give you an idea of what to expect.

According to job site Glassdoor, the average yearly salary for the title “Backend Developer” in the US is US$79,611 (source). For the title “Backend Engineer,” it’s US$131,023

As you progress through your backend developer career and gain more experience and approach senior positions, the average salaries rise quite a bit. For the title “Senior Backend Developer,” the average yearly salary is US$115,017. The title “Senior Backend Engineer,” on the other hand, has an average salary of US$169,532, according to Glassdoor.

To give an idea of the difference based on location, the average backend developer salary in California is US$92,549. In comparison, in Ohio it is US$72,306 (Glassdoor).

You can get a more complete view of web developer salaries around the world in our full guide to web developer salaries.

A backend developer sits in a coworking space with two computer screens in front of him.

5. How to become a backend developer

There isn’t one specific path to become a backend developer. What’s most important is you build up the skills to prepare you for the job. 

A formal route like university, teaching yourself online, or participating in a more structured coding bootcamp are all valid options.

It’s a good idea to learn at least the basics of the frontend, so learning full-stack development skills to start with is not a bad idea. You can always specialize more in the backend as you deepen your knowledge and determine your interests. There are many full-stack programming courses and development bootcamps out there, such as the CareerFoundry Full-Stack Development Program.

To dip your toes in, you may start with freeCodeCamp’s backend development and APIs certification. This is a free online program where you’ll learn how to write backend apps with Node.js and npm (Node Package Manager), build web applications with the Express framework, and get familiar with MongoDB and its mongoose framework.

6. Wrap-up

By now you’re familiar with the basics of all things backend developer. Great!

Backend development is a great field with lots of interesting problems to solve, not to mention good salaries and benefits. 

If working behind the scenes on the server-side of an application is intriguing to you, backend development is certainly worth looking into.

If you’d like to learn more about the world of web development, check out these articles:

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