Back-End Engineer vs. Back-End Developer: What’s the Difference?

Back-end developers and back-end engineers carry many of the same responsibilities. Their unifying characteristic is a skill set related to the parts of development that occur on the server-side. Still, it’s important to be aware of the differences between a back-end engineer vs. a back-end developer. 

Now that information technology (IT) concerns can largely be addressed by no-code software and cloud infrastructure, it’s easy for well-meaning technical-adjacent parties to only have a vague comprehension of what development actually entails.  

However, it’s important to understand that the basics of front-end and back-end development are still integral to a truly successful software development project. 

Similarly, while the lines between back-end engineering vs. back-end development have been blurred as a result of vast miscomprehensions from outsiders to the industry, knowing the difference will help you in building a successful software development team

In order to understand the technical and professional distinctions between back-end engineers and back-end developers, it’s essential that you understand their unique scopes of work duties in the context of a development team. 

Keep reading to learn more!

What Is a Back-End Engineer?

A back-end engineer is generally responsible for building the structure of a software application. 

They’ll primarily spend time writing business logic, server scripts, and application programming interfaces (APIs) that will eventually be utilized by front-end engineers and UX designers.

Ultimately, their daily job functions consist of the following:

  • Optimizing servers for scalability, speed, and stability
  • Implementing security structures and its best practices
  • Generating reusable code libraries for future implementation
  • Generating data storage solutions

In addition to traditional back-end development responsibilities, the role of back-end engineers includes communicating with project managers, product managers, and other team members.  

What Does a Back-End Engineer Do?

According to Glassdoor, a sufficient technical description of a back-end engineer’s junior to senior level responsibilities includes:

  • Generating recyclable code libraries and frameworks
  • Attending regular meetings with UI/UX and other front-end teams to expose back-end weaknesses and problems
  • Implementing ongoing security systems
  • Routinely inspecting server-side code for speed optimization
  • Conceptualizing and implementing data storage solutions
  • Maintaining server stability with zero downtime
  • Preserving a backup library before any large changes to the server
  • Configuring the back-end usability of all front-end applications

Additionally, their senior-level qualifications generally include a culmination of experience and knowledge in several development languages and technologies.

Qualifications may look like the following:

  • 5+ years of experience in a related software engineering field
  • High capacity for precision and attention to detail
  • Ability to satisfy tight deadlines
  • Capable of prioritizing and simultaneously managing multiple projects in order to fulfill goals without oversight.
  • Sufficient knowledge of PHP, Python, Ruby, Java, .NET, etc.
  • Server-side development experience with SASS and LESS
  • Firm grasp of accessibility and server compliance
  • Good groundwork experience working with multiple platforms such as desktop, mobile, tablets, and debugging their respective software(s).
A back-end engineer is responsible for building the structure of a software application.

What Is a Back-End Developer?

In contrast to the broader responsibilities of a back-end engineer, back-end developers are more field-specific.

Back-end developers primarily program individual components of a server-side system. They must be able to analyze software requirements and determine how to construct specific functions of a given system. 

In the professional realm, back-end developers should have a firm grasp of agile development practices and/or other relevant test-driven development methodologies. 

As expected, back-end developers should also be adeptly familiar with the various technologies that are essential to back-end development from programming languages to APIs to servers. 

If anything, back-end developers and back-end engineers share many characteristics, but you will soon find out how their roles differ. 

What Does a Back-End Developer Do? 

On a software development team, back-end developers typically perform specific functions within the larger IT system, specializing in certain development languages and frameworks to fulfill that function. 

These specialties are ultimately reflected in career posts, with companies posting language-specific ads such as “Back-End Java Developer” or “Back-End PHP Developer”.

To that end, a back-end developer’s prerequisite skills and qualifications may look like the following:

  • Ability to draft clear and maintainable code with readability/documentation in mind
  • Expert familiarity with server-side languages such as PHP or Ruby
  • Understanding cross-browser and cross-platform functionality and compatibility of applications

Additionally, their role-specific responsibilities include:

  • Contribute to continual, iterative improvements of the UI back-end architecture
  • Explore and delve into cutting-edge front-end technologies to create new innovative features and components
  • Build tools that improve internal productivity
  • Participate in iterative prototyping with respect to project requirements
  • Cross-collaborate with designers, front-end engineers, PMs, and QA engineers to optimize and maintain a quality UX

For more information on what software development teams look for in a back-end developer check out this back-end developer job description and template

back-end-developer-and-languages.jpg
Back-end developers primarily program individual components of a server-side system. 

Related reading: Software Developers vs. Software Engineers - What’s the Difference?

Back-End Engineer vs. Back-End Developer: 4 Main Differences

Back-end engineers vs. back-end developers have similar technical skills, but different responsibilities.

To put it simply, if a back-end engineer is an architect, then the back-end developer is the carpenter. 

In noting the differences between a back-end engineer and back-end developer, you’ll notice the following variance in the occupational range of their roles:

  1. A back-end developer constructs the smaller parts of what the back-engineer engineer has planned to bring the solution to life. In other words, a back-end developer functions as a modular piece in the larger organization plan of a back-end engineer. 
  2. Back-end developers are generally not responsible for designing the whole system. Instead, they’ll discretely focus on a single project or component feature. The contribution of a back-end developer is small-scale, as opposed to a back-end engineer.
  3. Back-end engineers have to prove the viability of their design methods and methodologies via team meetings and oversight; developers are not bound to these obligations.
  4. The scope of a back-end engineer is typically overarching; it includes implementing designs, building collaborative working relationships, and generally overseeing the project. In contrast, the scope of a back-end developer is compact and rarely spans larger than an application or program. 

What Are the Skills Needed for Back-End Developers and Back-End Engineers?

Though you’ve already glimpsed a line-by-line list of what is expected from back-end developers and back-end engineers in terms of technical skills, these are far less important than you might think. 

Of course, having a back-end developer or back-end engineer who can fit the base requirements necessary to build back-end structures is imperative. 

But software development in general is truly a collaborative process and requires more than what you can find on a resume

This is why apart from well-known means of testing your potential hire’s skills like coding challenges, implementing the notorious talk interview is a crucial step of the hiring process. 

Getting to know job candidates should go farther than simply assessing whether or not they can meet the requirements of a project. 

Here are some invaluable soft skills to look out for when hiring a developer or engineer of any kind:

  • Excellent communication skills
  • Apt time and task management skills
  • Quick learning ability and the willingness to learn more
  • Deep and broad technical experience
  • Problem-solving skills 
  • A team-oriented mindset
  • Adaptability in stressful or uncertain situations 

The 4 Most Common Languages for Back-End Development

In the 21st-century, a comprehensive understanding of back-end web development is essential in order to build competitive, robust web applications

Whether you’re using PHP for secure server-side user login and registration pages or implementing Python web frameworks to optimize your development process, these are the top programming languages to know. 

1. PHP

The vast majority of small and large-scale websites integrate PHP as their back-end. 

In more traditional website use cases, PHP is typically used to fetch user information and securely store it. It is often the foundation of login and registration processes.

2. Python

Many emerging tech companies use Python web frameworks such as Django and Flask to power high-performing web apps. 

Python is a general-purpose language with high popularity ratings amongst developer communities, mostly because of its ease of use.

3. Ruby

Among its fans, Ruby is considered to be just as intuitive as Python. Its most popular framework is Ruby on Rails. 

For most developers, it’s hard to get through a conversation about web development without Ruby on Rails being mentioned at least once. 

4. Java

As a multipurpose programming language, Java has become a staple language in developing and employing cross-platform desktop, web, and Android applications. 

A lightweight Java-based framework called Spring has gained the most recognition in the Java community.

The 4 Most Common Languages for Back-End Development: PHP, Python, Ruby and Java

How To Hire a Back-End Developer or a Back-End Engineer

The process of hiring a back-end developer or back-end engineer is not a simple one. 

For both titles, you will have to have sufficient enough background knowledge to delineate to your candidate how exactly they will fulfill their role on your team. 

From afar, the essential steps of a hiring process may look simply like posting a job description on Indeed and moving on from there. In reality, the before, during, and after of the process is a bit more complicated. 

To post a job listing in the first place, you need to know the details of your project and which duties your back-end developer or back-end engineer will be responsible for. 

You also need to know where to find software developers and engineers in the wide range of job networks that exist. 

Frankly, most software professionals are taken, so to speak, and they don’t browse Glassdoor or ZipRecruiter regularly. You may even need to do recruitment outreach on social platforms like Reddit or LinkedIn. 

Make sure to weigh the costs of doing all this as well. On average, it takes over a month to find new hires and several thousands of dollars can be lost during the process.

Once you find someone or several persons with potential, you will have to narrow down your candidates using a series of intensive interviews, both technical and traditional, challenges related to software development, and screening and vetting procedures. 

Given this exhaustive workload, some companies choose to outsource the hiring process and overall development to outside agencies. This can be a low-budget solution for those who really need it. 

Conclusion

A back-end developer is proficient with back-end structures and works with them directly to complete a project. A back-end engineer does the same, but this role also involves a more supervisory context to the development cycle as a whole. 

At the fundamental level, back-end engineers serve their team with broad capabilities, architecting a system or application. 

However, a back-end developer is a committed team member who develops singular components/features and unifies them to make or break the product.

In the eyes of technical amateurs who don’t know better, a back-end engineer and a back-end developer are interchangeable terms. 

You know now that this is not the case and hopefully you’re better equipped to hire who you really need for your next project.  

Unfortunately, knowing the difference between a back-end developer vs. a back-end engineer is not all that’s needed to go about an entire hiring process. 

Learn more about hiring a back-end developer or back-end engineer!

Daniel Fleury

About

Daniel is a machine learning researcher and engineer at Johns Hopkins University

Frequently Asked Questions

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A back-end engineer is generally responsible for building the structure of a software application.

Back-end developers primarily program individual components of a server-side system.

The difference between a back-end engineer and a back-end developer is largely in the scope of their roles. To put it simply, if a back-end engineer is an architect, then the back-end developer is the carpenter.