We recently spoke to three of the Zühlke Backend Engineers – Rajiv, Ioana and Nickson – spending some time understanding their work, and getting a few tips for people who potentially want to get into the role.
What do backend engineers do?
Unlike frontend engineering, which focuses on bringing the design to life and creating an interface that people can see and engage with, backend engineering is by its nature more opaque. It’s a software engineering role, but one that’s focused on building the structure that underpins a product rather than the side of it that users interact with every day.
“You don’t know what’s going on in the background when you press a button, for example, but there’s always something there, and that’s what we work on,” Nickson explains.
Nickson gives the example of logging into a website to show the difference between the two roles. “When you log in, the frontend sends your username and password to the backend which authenticates the details and tells the frontend that they’ve been entered correctly.”
Rajiv, on the other hand, compares what they do to a building: "People only see the facade; they don't see that behind the walls are cables, pipes, vents and motors running to keep the building functional and comfortable," he explains.
The relationship between the things they’re building means that frontend and backend engineers work closely together at different points of the project to make sure their outcomes are aligned.
They also work with the product team to produce and validate ideas, and the UI and UX designers who work on the user experience and interface that users ultimately engage with. Depending on the scale of what’s being built they may also work with data teams, and if it is going to be deployed in the cloud then they’ll work with DevOps specialists too.
“The main challenge we have to overcome is thinking about the best way to design something,” says Nickson. And this often centres on getting data from one place to another, and making sure it shows up in a way that is usable. Ioana also touches on this when she emphasises the importance of asking the relevant questions throughout the process. “I need to make sure that important information flows in the right direction so the best possible decisions are made,” she says.
What skills are important for backend engineers?
“You need really good problem-solving skills, and to be able to adapt quickly depending on what’s required,” Nickson explains. He also points to the need for strong communication because you’re often in the middle of different teams and you need to properly interpret their needs.
Rajiv echoes this too. “When you’re talking to colleagues or clients, you need to understand what they actually want, and then also explain how you’re going to do it,” he says.
One of the skills that Ioana highlights is a detail-oriented approach. “There are plenty of moving parts and you must consider consequences and weigh options, and sometimes you have to compromise on what you want to do because in the end there are real life constraints in terms of time, budget, priorities and even differences of opinion,” she explains.
“I enjoy it because you don’t know where you’re going to go at the beginning of the project – you get to be creative with it and no two people will make something the same way,” Nickson explains.
That’s an aspect Ioana speaks to too. “I’ve always enjoyed puzzles and detective stories, so it’s very much the problem-solving side of the role that I have the most fun with. Sometimes you need to go around looking for information, sometimes you have to use what little you have and make the most out of it, it can be quite different from project to project,” she says.
How do you get into backend engineering?
As could be expected, backend engineering is a fairly technical role. Most people enter the field through a STEM degree.
Nickson, for example, studied computer science and Rajiv started out in classic engineering. And when Ioana was asked about her background, her answer was, “I didn’t choose the backend life – the backend life chose me.” Her degree was in Computer Systems Engineering with Business Management, but towards the end of her studies she focused on software engineering.
What she highlights, however, is how much of her learning happened on the job. That’s also something that was solidified after she was certified as a Scrum Master. “It taught me the importance of taking best practices from one project to the other to improve the ways of working,” she says.
When asked for his advice for aspiring backend engineers, Rajiv says they need to start with their mindset. “A willingness to learn is vital, because technology is always changing – and you need to update your knowledge based on what you’re focused on too,” he says.
Ioana also suggests working on your own small project for something that interests you using an object oriented programming language like C# or Java. “You can read up on SOLID principles, design patterns and sustainable software engineering and applying those learnings as you go,” she says.
When it comes to information and resources, Nickson mentions Hacker News as one of his favourite resources. He says it’s a good place to find out what’s up and coming in the world of tech. He also suggests learning a backend programming language like Java or Kotlin.
What Ioana also emphasises is the importance of being open to learning and growth. “You need to give things your best shot and if you don’t meet your own expectations, learn from your failures,” she says.
“This mindset is something that sets you in good stead throughout your career. I feel like technical knowledge can be built over time with practice, but behaviours take longer and can make a huge difference in the working environment,” she concludes.
Interested in a Backend Career?
If you enjoy coding and problem-solving, then a career in backend engineering is a way to do that. And at Zühlke, you also get exposure to a range of different projects. That’s something that Rajiv particularly appreciates.
“Working here has really helped me to broaden my understanding, and find out what I really like doing,” he says. If this kind of flexibility, along with a combination of technical and creative thinking appeals to you, get in touch to find out more about openings on the Zühlke team.
Backend Engineering in brief…
- While frontend engineers build what users see, backend engineers work on the underlying structure that enables a solution to deliver.
- Backend engineers come to the role through a range of backgrounds. Most have a STEM qualification, but many upskill themselves from other specialisations and then make the move across.
- Like other software engineering roles, backend engineers need to be able to write code proficiently, using their creative thinking and problem solving abilities as they do. They're also expected to understand where and how their software runs – servers, containers, cloud functions etc.