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The Growth Trajectory of a Front-End Engineer

I’ve been wrestling with this question for years: what does a successful, senior-to-staff-to-VP level front-end engineer look like?

It’s a question that I’ve found has different answers depends on who’s answering, which itself is based around their definition of what a front-end developer is and ought to be. As a discipline whose identity seems to shift with every passing technological advance, I’ve heard variants of a few major themes:

  • FEs should grow into full stack engineers. This is closest to what I believe, and admittedly it’s colored by my background in computer science and what I believe will generate the most productivity and autonomy. This is also the avenue of growth that most other engineers can relate to and approve.
  • FEs should become absolute masters at their craft. For design-oriented FEs who have no interest in delving into backend code, this is an attractive path to mastery and delivering the best possible experiences. The interaction between HTML, CSS, and JavaScript is a lot more complex today than even just a year ago, and a world-class engineer navigates these interdependent systems with ease.
  • FEs should build tools that advance the industry and make it web development easier. This aligns well with the “good engineers are lazy” standard of measurement, and can masquerade as a technical developer advocate/evangelist role. I think it’s also the hardest to come by, as it requires a combination of technical chops, social and communication savvy, and a job at a company in a position to affect the web community at large.
  • FEs should look to become managers. Building and leading a team of talented front-end developers isn’t easy by any means, and there’s something to be said about any good engineering manager regardless of their disciplinary background. The difficulty with this ladder is that there are very few companies with front-end teams.

Have people come up with any other possibilities?

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