What’s the Real Difference Between Front End and Back End Engineers?

I was recently having a conversation about this with one of my co-horts at work. He’s a Ruby dev who works a lot with Rails. Ruby is a terrific language, from what I can see. I’m not very fluent in Ruby, but if I ever get an excuse to learn more Ruby, I will be grateful indeed. He was arguing for the idea that you are either a front end type of guy or a back end type of guy. You cannot really be both. He said that perhaps there might be a unicorn here and there, but he had never seen a unicorn, and truth be told, he doubted whether unicorns actually exist. So, devs were either front-end or back-end, but in his experience there was no such thing as a full-stack developer, no matter what the titles are we use.

I’ve been wondering about this point of view since our conversation, and now I’m not so sure the answer is really as simple as the front/back-end dualism. I think there might be more to it.

Many years ago, when I was deciding upon a major, I had gotten some recognition from a professor for some writing I had done. I eventually chose an English major. I remembered a similar conversation I had with a TA in a writing lab. He was arguing that artistic writing comprehended skillful writing, and comprehended far more than skillful writing. Skillful writing, however, did not necessarily comprehend artistic writing. This sounded a little circular to me (weren’t there artistic skills? Wouldn’t skillful writing include artistic skills?) but I tried to listen to the point behind his words and began to see what he was trying to say. It was simply that there is a point where Art requires Something More. No one can say just what that Something More will be. It might be impossible to put into words what that Something is, exactly.

What I later came to appreciate is that art is not something linear. It doesn’t simply progress logically from point to point, like a computer program would. Art can possess giant leaps of faith or leaps of doubt containing enormous voids of any meaning at all. Art can aim to encompass the entire breadth of human experience, not just the breadth of rational experience.

Most of the time, human beings prefer simplicity and comfort. We’d rather choose the easy path rather than the harder path. But sometimes we don’t have a choice. There’s the hard path and the hard path. Or there’s just the hard path. At times like those, life consists of Discomfort! I submit the Discomforted Mind sees things differently than the comfortable mind. Some art can only be understood from the perspective of a Discomforted Mind. And some artists cannot seem to help being Discomforted human beings. They have forgotten what it’s like to be comfortable. In short, there are a lot of ways to be a human being. Not everyone approaches it from a comfortable perspective. The comfortable perspective, though, is quite limited at viewing art, at least at viewing art that is beyond pedestrian.

Our normal unconscious mind is programmed to protect the Ego, the personality, this conceptual model of what we are and what we are in our world. It protects the status quo. Anything that might threaten this Egoic status quo will threaten the unconscious mind. Unfortunately, human growth sometimes requires break downs and break throughs that do challenge the status quo. If the status quo never changed, there would be no growth. So there’s an important Catch 22 with being human. You can either be safe or you can be happy. You can either be unchanging or you can mature and develop. Our unconscious mind will prefer staying safe. But the Spirit will choose to grow, if we listen to it.

My Own Story

I joined the Mormon Church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) when I was 16. At the time it fulfilled something fundamental that I was searching for. But later when I was finishing up my Bachelors at BYU, I began questioning things, and my Model of Reality began to collapse. Long story short, I began to lose my faith in The Church. I eventually decided that the Church as I knew it had never existed outside of my imagination, and that theretofore I would downcase it to “church.” But it didn’t feel like my model was collapsing. Instead, it felt like I was collapsing. I was so associated with my model of reality that it felt like its death was my death. It felt like something inside me was dying, and I suffered a lot, emotionally. Leaving the church conceptually wound up being a deeply emotional experience.

But the upside was that the art in literature became a lot clearer. In fact, I began to appreciate literature and art far more than I ever had before. This distortion of my normal conscious affect was just enough to open up to me a whole vista of possibilities that were unavailable from my normal conscious perspective. If I had been in my right mind I probably would have missed the whole thing. It required that I suffered enough to begin to see art.

Years later, after my wife had died from cancer, I used to enjoy riding my bicycle uphill a lot. I rode so much that I kept getting stronger as a rider, and I needed larger and longer hills. Here in Georgia, there’s something called Brasstown Bald. It’s only about 2.5 miles or so up to the parking lot, but it has some ferocious pitches that approach 40% gradient. You have to stand on the pegs and lean forward, and your handlebars will start to poke your belly, because the road is so steep. This is at one part of the ride called “The Wall,” a rather short portion of the ride near the top where most recreational riders will have to get off the bike and push for a bit.

What I remember is that this was a terrible climb for me, but it was a wonderful day. I had the experience of my legs completely filling with lactic acid and that my body felt like a giant cramp. But I also had the experience of being so full of physical pain that my grief had finally gotten lost amidst it. I couldn’t feel my grief anymore for that period of time. My brain was full of pheromones. I actually felt pretty awesome in my wrecked body. I had gotten out of my mind, and I had found a kind of freedom I hadn’t known in a year or more. Probably several years, since my wife had been in quite a bit of pain during her treatment.

This climbing experience reminded me of how awful it was to lose my faith decades earlier, but how wonderful it was to finally “get” Art.

This reminded me of how easy it was to spend hours moving a pixel on a screen, and how on one day it might seem like a total waste of time, and on another day it might seem like you had discovered The Meaning of Life, if you had discovered the exact location for that pixel on your display that caused your eyes to open. So I asked myself, what’s the difference between the day spent moving the pixel resulting in frustration or in the change of consciousness that results in a peak experience?

I think the answer lies in your state of consciousness.

If you’re already sufficiently suffering, the pain required for maximum desire and effort is closer than if you’re comfortable. You have to already be in some kind of pain, or be closer to being in some kind of pain. Or perhaps you have to resist pain less. Perhaps this means that you make friends with pain and suffering, so you don’t resist it as much as you would if you were very comfortable. In any event, if you’re suffering enough already, spending all day moving a pixel doesn’t seem so bad.

I don’t think pain and suffering are bad in themselves. A human can withstand great suffering if he or she finds meaning in the suffering. Meaningless suffering, on the other hand, leads to dispair and worse. But, if the suffering means something to you, you can handle it.

I eventually found meaning and have re-built my Model of Reality several times. I also survived the death of my beloved wife, and I’m probably more resilient now because of this grief process. And I think my friend’s bout with moving the Infernal Pixel on his display did not require endless suffering. It might have resulted in success rather than in frustration. But we get to assign our own meanings in life. Our experience can mean whatever we want it to mean.

What the Hell Does This Have to Do with Front-End and Back-End?

Just this. The “divide” between the Front-End and the Back-End is similar to the divide between the Conscious and the Unconscious. Some of us prefer the linear logic of the back-end, some of us prefer to prettify the front-end, but whatever we choose, it makes us feel better.

I used to think I was a back-end guy. Linear logic was preferable to moving pixels. But then, I’ve suffered my share in life. Part of the reason for that is just how I’m made up. It’s just my personality to be sensitive sometimes. It’s a blessing and a curse.

So, who’s to say I cannot find the same bliss moving “The Infernal Pixel” on the front end as I did climbing Brasstown Bald after my wife died? Or reconstructing my own Meaning of Life after my Faith collapsed in college? Suffering and Bliss go hand in hand. You could choose to paint your bathroom the color of the Australian Gooney Bird (is there such a bird? I have no idea). You might spend some time searching for just the right color. You might have to create your own color. Or, you could choose to recapture the experience of The Garden of Eden while you’re sitting on your thrown in the bathroom. Now, I’m not sure, but I suspect the later might require a lifetime of work, whereas the former might only require a year or so. The later would require great suffering, while the former would require much less suffering. The Gooney bird bathroom could result in great joy. But the Eden bathroom could bring meaning to your whole life.

Or you could just content yourself with an eggshell colored bathroom and call it good.

I submit there’s an artist inside each of us. Sometimes he or she only comes out when we’re already suffering. Other times we choose suffering in life because we love our inner artist. Whatever kind of person you are, suffering will help you see more than you did and be open to what previously was closed to you. Suffering and pain can be a window for you. Which I think is why Zen masters have bad knees.

So, whether you’re a front-end person or a back-end person, there are perspectives you haven’t had before. You can eventually see abstract leaps on the back end amidst the normal linear progressions and you can come to see the step-by-step progressions of excruciating artistic front-end expressions.

I submit that ultimately, front-end and back-end are the same. I submit that the distinction itself is artificial. You can experience them the same, and for you, there is no difference. You define your own life’s meaning and art. Perhaps the Australian Gooney bird is what makes your bathroom feel like the Garden of Eden. Perhaps you can talk to your dead wife only while you’re climbing Brasstown Bald on your bicycle. Perhaps life is full of 10,000 things that only make sense when you’re out of your mind. And perhaps we just don’t know how to talk about any of these things when we’re feeling normal.