9 Skills You Need to Become a Back End Developer in 2020

Circular list of back end developer skills

Back end developers are in hot demand, and there are some essential skills you’ll need to learn if you want to become one. But never fear — if you’ve ever peeked under the hood of your car for the fun of it or snuck backstage to get a firsthand look at what goes on behind a show’s curtain, you already have the curiosity that drives back end developers. With a little effort and training, you may just be able to use your natural inquisitiveness to build a rewarding career. 

While front end developers manage the visible parts of a website, such as the design or functionality of its display, back end programmers dedicate their time to designing, fixing, and altering the aspects of a software application or information system that a typical user never sees. They serve as the wizards to the tech sector’s Oz, crafting the core features and components of the programs that drive consumers’ digital experiences. 

When a user makes a request to the system through a front end (i.e., consumer-side) framework, it’s a back end developer’s responsibility to make sure that a program can deliver any requested data or information. These developers have other duties, too. They maintain core databases, manage application program interfaces (APIs), as well as test and debug back end processes to ensure that a program functions smoothly and effectively at all times.

Sound complicated? It is. But if the prospect of picking apart the nuts and bolts of an application and learning how to make it run better thrills you, there’s no better time to take on the challenge. With the world’s growing social and economic reliance on digital channels, employers have more need than ever for talented back end developers. 

Statistics compiled by the marketing software giant HubSpot indicate that the digital world is thriving; researchers predict that by 2021, global e-commerce retail sales will top $4.5 trillion. Today, nearly half of Americans pick up their smartphones before they even roll out of bed! We’re looking at the news, chatting with friends, checking our email, and visiting our favorite social media and brand websites. With all of this interest in online shopping and brand exploration, companies need to have functional, well-optimized websites and applications — and the developers to craft them.

Given these numbers, it’s not all that surprising that web developers have an excellent job outlook. In 2018, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) projected that the profession would grow a remarkable 13 percent by 2028 — much faster, they write, than the average for all other occupations, which stands at just 5 percent. Predictably, BLS researchers attributed the speedy growth to the skyrocketing popularity of mobile devices and e-commerce.

Web developers leading other occupations in change of employment

The tech sector’s need for talented developers won’t fade anytime soon. If you’re curious, tech-savvy, and want to understand how to make systems work from behind the metaphorical curtain, learning the essential skills for back end development can unlock an exciting career for you.

How to Learn These Skills

The majority of back end developers have at least some formal training, and many have bachelor’s degrees in computer science or advanced mathematics. As one writer for CareerExplorer explains, “Compared to front end developers, back end developers may have to do more abstraction — they could be data mining, writing abstract algorithms, and so forth.” 

Though requirements vary between jobs, back end developers will need to have a passing familiarity with, if not command of, several technical languages and programs. These essential back end developer skills include but are not limited to: Python, Java, SQL, NoSQL, and Git. 

There are countless routes an aspiring development professional can take to hone their skill set. As mentioned above, a four-year degree is a common option. However, if you’re unable to commit the time or funds necessary to complete an undergraduate study — or you already hold a degree in another field — you might want to consider alternative education solutions, such as coding boot camps, which can teach the technical skills that back end developers need in a short period and at a reasonable cost. 

At the end of the day, whichever educational route you take is less important than the technical and non-technical skills you acquire to build a career in back end development. Let’s highlight a few.

1. Python

If you’re going to be a back end developer, you need to develop your Python skills. While it has nothing to do with the snake that inspired its name, Python is one of the premier languages used in development today. In 2019, a study conducted by Stack Overflow deemed Python the “fastest-growing major programming language” in the world above Java, and second only to Rust in likeability rankings. A full 41.7 percent of the report’s 90,000 respondents said that they used Python in 2018. 

The language’s popularity is well-earned. It handles simple and complex web projects with equal ease and has been deployed across a variety of fields, from healthcare to finance to travel. Well-known industry giants such as Spotify, Instagram, Disqus, and Dropbox have all built their applications using Python’s syntax

The reason behind Python’s popularity is simple: It supports multiple programming styles and provides excellent data visualizations. With Python, developers can use procedural, functional, and object-oriented programming approaches with equal ease. The language’s support for expansive data libraries makes visualization easy and development speedy. Plus, Python is relatively easy to learn.

As a tech writer for Django Stars noted on the subject: “The simplicity of the syntax allows you to deal with intricate systems and ensure that all the elements have a clear relationship with each other. Thanks to this, more newbie coders can learn the language.”

Of all the skills that back end developers must have, Python tops the list. 

2. Java

First, let’s get one thing out of the way: Java is not JavaScript. While the two have similar names — and did, during the Netscape era, briefly intersect — they are incredibly different. In fact, to borrow a quote from tech journalist David Diehl, “The evolution of the two languages took such wildly different paths from [Netscape] that the common joke is that Java is to JavaScript as ham is to a hamster.”

Simply put, Java is a general-purpose programming language for application development, while JavaScript is applied primarily to incorporate animation and interactivity into websites. The two do have similarities; both can run on a browser or server, for example. However, they are vastly different in their capabilities and execution. 

Java is primarily intended for back end development. A more robust system, Java is typically written in an Integrated Development Environment (IDE) before being compiled in bytecode, or low-level code that can be read by a software interpreter, rather than human developers. JavaScript, in contrast, can typically be executed in its original syntax via a JavaScript engine. Generally, Java is capable of handling more robust programming tasks than its front end counterpart. 

Java is an incredibly useful skill for back end developers; it’s a high-performance language that supports object-oriented programming and can run in any system that supports a Java Virtual machine.

3. PHP

PHP, or Hypertext Preprocessor, is one of the most common and usable server-side languages in the development sector. Unlike Python or Java, PHP is a scripting language, which means that it interprets scripts — i.e., programming instructions — at runtime to automate routine processes or improve performance for an application. 

According to statistics shared by Guru99, over 20 million websites and applications have been developed via PHP. This is for good reason: PHP is open-source, has a gentle learning curve, and is cost-effective because most web hosting servers already support the language by default. As a bonus, it also offers built-in support for the popular relational database MySQL (see below). 

While PHP might not be a critical skill for back end developers if they know other major programming languages, having familiarity with it would certainly make an aspiring programmer more marketable. 

4. SQL

Technology might get outmoded quickly, but SQL seems to be an exception to the rule. Since being ruled an industry-standard language by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) in 1986, SQL, or Structured Query Language, has empowered back end developers to access and manipulate relational databases as needed. SQL allows programmers to insert and delete records easily, file queries against a database, create new tables and store procedures in a database, and even establish permissions on those tables and procedures. If you ever need to deal with relational databases — and if you’re a back end developer, there’s little doubt that you will — you need to know SQL. 

If you want to familiarize yourself with the language, try an open-source platform like MySQL. Named for creator Mondy Widenius’s daughter My and offered by Oracle, MySQL provides free access to SQL database source code. It’s also reasonably easy to use, as it can be installed on desktops and servers. It also runs on platforms including but not limited to Linux, Windows, and UNIX. 

That said, SQL isn’t the only type of language used to manipulate databases. In 1998, developer Carl Strozz introduced the concept of a NoSQL language. NoSQL’s name is a point of contention for programmers. While some believe that the term stands for non-SQL, others insist that it means not only SQL. In any case, a NoSQL language communicates with databases that store information through means other than a relational table. 

The decision to use SQL or NoSQL depends entirely on a developer’s needs. Both work well; as programmers for MongoDB explain in an overview on the subject, “A common misconception is that NoSQL databases or non-relational databases don’t store relationship data well. NoSQL databases can store relationship data — they just store it differently than relational databases do.” 

As such, back end developers would do well to have both skills in their repertoire. 

5. Git 

If you’re looking for a widely used modern version control system to fit your needs, Git is a great option. It is actively maintained and open-sourced, created by the same founder of the Linux operating system. Each developer with a working copy of the code can easily access the full history of what changes have been made, making it easy to edit and restore the code. Among any back end developer skills list, Git is one of the most high-performing, flexible, and secure.

6, 7, 8: The Front End Trifecta

This list of back end developer skills would be incomplete without three very important programming languages: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. While these languages are more often used on the front end, they’re still useful skills for back end developers. After all, the three determine everything a visitor sees, from a page’s text to images to scrolling drop-down menus.

So, what are these languages?

  • HTML: HTML is the most fundamental building block of the Internet. It determines the structure of web pages when working in conjunction with the other two languages. 
  • CSS: This language determines how elements will be rendered on a webpage and standardizes display across all browsers. 
  • JavaScript: This language is most commonly used as a scripting language for web pages, but can also be used in non-browser elements, like Adobe Acrobat. 

The three languages work together for front end development and form the design of a website from the front end perspective. They provide direction and information on the style and content of a website, as well as how users interact with it.

You may be wondering why these front end skills are essential for a back end developer. The truth is, there isn’t a clear distinction between the two career paths. Even when developers focus on front or back end development exclusively, there will be some overlap in the skills required for both specialties. Moreover, companies like to hire developers who have multidisciplinary skills; that versatility is the major reason that cross-functional “full stack” developers can be so attractive in the hiring pool. 

That said, not all companies will need multi-specialty programmers. While full stack developers can be useful for companies who have thin resources and can’t justify separate back and front end teams, many larger companies do have separate divisions for their developers and have a need for back end-specific professionals. 

9. Communication 

While there are many technical skills a back end developer needs, there are some useful non-technical ones as well, and communication ranks high on that list. Establishing well-honed communication skills means you’ll find it easier to collaborate, whether with other back end developers or with the front end developers who are working on the same projects. Being able to communicate clearly also helps when working with business leaders and other professionals who do not have the same background in development and programming.

A career in back end development is an excellent option for those who are interested in programming and are passionate about technology. As you work toward deciding what career path you want to take, you’ll also be deciding what your educational path looks like.

Remember, there are a variety of ways you can gain the back end developer skills you need to be successful. You can choose a formal degree program or opt for a coding boot camp. The best educational path depends on what your needs are, whether you’re looking for a variety of topics or want more specialized training that you can complete in a shorter period.