Software engineering is a very broad profession with many different types of work you can do, each with their own opportunities and challenges, but have you ever wondered what those opportunities are? Perhaps you’ve feel your work isn’t challenging you enough, or your not motivated but what you do.
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In this article, I want to take you though some of the different places software engineering can take you, and what the opportunities, challenges and rewards are for each of them. Hopefully by the end you will be more equipped to understand the challenges and opportunities available to you and how you can shape your career choices around what excites you.
Front End & Back End?
You’re probably familiar with the split into “frontend” and “backend” engineering, you’ve possibly seen somebody exclusivity describe themselves as a frontend / backend engineer.
Separations like this are a good start, and we tend to think we have a pretty good handle on what they mean, but I don’t think they tell the whole storey. This separation makes the assumption that each of these categories is a fundamentally different role. However, the core challenge and activities in all of these roles is the same; you’re using your creative human brain to find solutions to problems and convert those solutions into code.
Or as a former manager of mine put it…
The biggest difference between front and back end development sits in two areas: The tools used to do your job and the problems you will be solving. Let’s dig into each of those a little deeper to see how they can effect the work you do.
No matter what you do, you probably use some kind tools, and those tools will be highly specialised to the task you are doing. For a mechanic these tools may looks like wrenches, screwdrivers or diagnostic devices. But for a software engineer these are more like the programming language, operating system, development frameworks and even development methodologies.
But here’s the thing: You are not your tools.
These tools exist to help you get your job done and may be different depending on what that job is. You shouldn’t allow yourself to become limited or defined by the tools you use. You chose them, you learned how to use them, but they are but an artefact of the problem you are solving not the definition of what you do.
The Problems Being Solved
The other difference is the actual problems you are trying to solve – the challenges you are facing on a daily basis. I’ve heard a lot of engineers over the years talk about how they don’t feel like their project is providing them with “real challenges”.
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For developers who work on the front end, this can often sound something like “all I do is call and API and render it on the screen; I don’t do any ‘real engineering’”. Whereas on the other side it can sound like “All I do is manipulate data and pass it to the UI; I’m too far from the real code that the user sees”.
Often when feeling this way, there is challenge available to them – but it’s not challenge that excites them, it’s not work that motivates them to get out of bed in the morning and go to work.
If this sounds sounds like you, perhaps you too are not solving challenges that motivate you. Understanding what challenges are available in different roles and knowing which ones inspire you most will empower you to make the right next move in your career (weather that be a new job, or a discussion with your manager to ask for different activities).
The Challenge Spectrum
So, it seems that a traditional frontend vs backend definition is not enough to articulate the different choices you can make to position yourself in a place to solve exciting problems and do your best work. Instead, I want to introduce you to the Challenge Spectrum.
The Challenge Spectrum spans from data & platform challenges to human & interaction challenges, taking in all possible roles you can occupy along the way, all of them as just important as the others. At several points along the spectrum, Ive annotated some example challenges you may face at that location.