An Introduction to Front-End Developer Tools
The tech stack for front-end web development has expanded vastly in recent years. For veterans of the industry, the progression has been gradual, however for folks just starting out, these changes may not be the easiest to digest. Thus, I compiled a list of front-end tools I use on a daily basis along with the steps I’d take as a newbie to the industry.
- Core Tech
- Chrome DevTools
Additionally, many of the modern tools used in front-end development rely on a basic working knowledge of the command line, which on OS X is Terminal. Pluralsight has a great video by Dan Benjamin that introduces the basics of the command line. Again, its not necessary to become a command line pro to be a front-end developer, but a basic understanding of how to move around, create files & folders, and familiarity with the following will get you further than most: grep, ssh, find, curl, git, npm.
UI (User Interface) Frameworks:
When you build websites every day, you’ll start to notice some patterns emerging in the projects you’re involved with. Components like navigation bars, buttons and labels, and pagination are all common patterns you’ll likely find yourself repeating over and over. UI frameworks are an attempt to abstract the common elements into reusable modules, so web developers can have a base starting point for the various elements used in their sites or apps.
Version Control (prereq: Terminal):
You’ll want to keep a record of the work you do, and probably collaborate with other developers. Version control, or source control management, is a way you can incrementally save versions of the file or files you’re working on, and leave notes in the process, which, when grouped together, is called a commit. When you commit the code you’ve been working on it creates a version of that code locally which you can then compare at a later time to remind yourself what changes you made and when you made them. Git and Mercurial are two popular command line tools that serve this purpose. If you’re not comfortable on the command line, there are a variety of GUI applications available like GitHub’s, GitX, Git Tower, and SourceTree.
Taking this one step further, if you want to work on the same code with other developers, you can push your commits to a communal server, where everyone can access your changes. Enter GitHub. GitHub allows you to share your code with other developers, and pull down the work other developers have completed, and merge it with your changes. Overall, version control offers a very visual way to compare your work with the work of other developers, and as such is a great collaboration tool. CodeSchool has a great free course called Try Git, if you’re just getting started.
The Next Layer
Once you’ve covered the basics, there’s another layer of tools that sits on top of foundational web tools. Each of these tools requires a prerequisite understanding of the underlying technology.
Templating Languages (prereq: HTML):
HTML templating languages are an abstraction of common HTML. They exist to make writing HTML less repetitive, less error prone, and more rapid. They require an understanding of compiling the code you’re writing, which means the end result will look very different than the source code you’re editing. Both Handlebars and HAML compile to HTML.
HAML is frequently found in Ruby on Rails applications, and is a shorthand method of writing HTML that integrates directly with Ruby code. The driving factor behind HAML is that Ruby’s ERB syntax, like PHP, requires the author to “pop” in and out between writing HTML, and writing markup that will be generated by Ruby. This can lead to code that’s very difficult to read. HAML solves this issue by allowing the author to generate HTML markup without any of the repetitive angle brackets seen in both HTML and ERB.
CSS Preprocessors (prereq: CSS):
Like HTML templating languages, CSS preprocessors allow you to both write code that is compiled, and require a healthy understanding of the underlying language you’re writing (in this case, CSS). They’re very powerful, allowing web developers to write less code, reuse portions of code to decrease repetition (something very common in CSS), and modularize your CSS so you can benefit from conditionally loading CSS rules only when needed. The two most popular CSS preprocessors are Sass and Less.
Sass is an incredibly powerful language that allows developers to introduce more complex programming techniques to CSS, like variables, nesting, and mixins. Sass (and Less) have gained in popularity as the backend techniques of writing object-oriented code have migrated to the front-end. You may have heard of object-oriented CSS, and Sass is a great starting point for learning how to do some really powerful things with CSS. CodeSchool has a great introduction to Sass called Assembling Sass.
Less is an alternative to Sass, but is very similar. Basically, if you understand Sass, you’ll understand Less. There are syntactical differences, but the principles remain the same. Less is what’s used in the Twitter Bootstrap project (mentioned earlier), and as the CSS preprocessor of choice for the most popular UI framework on the planet, has become very popular itself.
Taking the example of AJAX, you have to first understand what AJAX is (The best guy at explaining AJAX is Jeremy Keith, hands down), then understand how the jQuery.ajax function works, in order to understand how the implementations in Backbone (Backbone.sync) and AngularJS ($http) work.
Some resources I’ve found very helpful in getting up to speed with Backbone and AngularJS include The Anatomy of Backbone.JS, Backbone.Marionette: A Gentle Introduction, AngularJS: Up and Running, Shaping Up with AngularJS and A Better Way to Learn AngularJS.
Ready to dig deeper?
Check back next Tuesday for an Intro to Advanced Front-End Developer Tools. In the meantime, let us know what you think! Any questions, thoughts, ideas? Send ’em our way!
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