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Backend Engineering Skills Are Emphasized Too Heavily for Principal Engineers

There is a bias toward backend engineers at the principal engineer level. This leaves frontend engineers heavily disadvantaged when it comes to promotion time.

When someone says they’re a fullstack engineer, what they usually mean is one of two things: 1) They’re a coding bootcamp grad that has minimal experience with Node.js and an emphasis on the frontend. Or, 2) they’re an experienced backend engineer that knows a little bit of HTML and CSS. A truly fullstack software engineer is a rare find.

That being said, principal engineer job requirements focus almost entirely on backend engineering skills. The companies I’ve worked for in the past have had requirements for expertise in areas like networking, system design, database design, building scalable microservice architecture, or designing fault-tolerant systems.

And while all those things are important, especially for someone at a principal level with a backend emphasis, these lists of requirements are often missing many skills that may be unique to frontend engineers but that are equally important.

Valuable Frontend Skills for Principal Engineers

What about the ability to build scalable design systems? Are you able to build atomic-level components that can be built up into molecules, organisms, templates, and eventually pages? Do you understand what should or should not be included in a design system’s component library? Do you understand how to provide clear design constraints to create a consistent UI while also allowing for flexibility in the usage of your components?

What about the ability to build accessible web applications? Accessibility is an often-overlooked skill but one that is becoming increasingly important, especially for software as a service companies in a competitive market. Are you able to build apps that conform to the WCAG 2.1 AA specifications? Do you understand basic design principles and common UX patterns for various widgets? What’s fascinating about accessibility is that so much of it is provided for you, right out of the box, with HTML. Yet most developers don’t create widgets that are operable using a mouse, a keyboard, and a screen reader, opting instead to focus on mouse users only and to ignore common UX patterns.

What about the ability to think clearly about microinteractions in the app? Are you able to create a seamless user experience that keeps users from becoming disoriented? Are you good at thinking through edge cases in how widgets function? Do you have a good design sense? Do you practice inclusive design? Piggybacking off of the previous paragraph, so much of accessibility is really just usability.

What about the ability to optimize performance on the frontend? Do you understand how dev, peer, and regular dependencies work? Do you understand how to optimize bundle size for your frontend app and how to avoid downloading the same resources multiple times?

Conclusion and Invitation

These kinds of skills and many more are extremely important in frontend architecture, and yet they are rarely included in skills requirements for principal engineers.

My advice to engineering leadership everywhere is to look for the valuable skills that frontend engineers bring to the table and find ways to include those skill sets in your requirements for promotions, especially for those positions at higher levels.

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