Do web developers need to know algorithms? 6 key considerations

Do web developers need to know algorithms?

There are thousands of different algorithms to learn so it’s important to understand the most important ones for your specific role.

Some back-end developers who constantly deal with large data sets have to be up to speed on data structures and algorithms. But is the same true for less technical roles? Or roles that don’t require the optimization of large data sets?

Overall, most modern web developers will need to know algorithms and data structures. Web development has progressed over the last decade and become more technical. You are likely to have some algorithms thrown your way when interviewing, so to get a good job as a web developer pick up some basic algorithms. 

However, it isn’t always that clear-cut. 

Some development roles won’t require you to know any data structures and algorithms at all, and won’t test for them in the interview. 

We have previously discussed whether you should learn algorithms before a programming language

But now let’s take a look at why web developers need to know algorithms and the circumstances where they won’t need to set time aside and learn them.

Do web developers need to know data structures and algorithms?

As a web developer, it is a good idea to have at least a basic understanding of data structures and algorithms. It broadens your technical knowledge, helps you to think programmatically, and adds another notch to your belt come interview time. 

That being said, let’s take a look at the circumstances when a front-end developer may not need to know algorithms. 

1. Job Dependant 

If you learned HTML5 and have a job that focuses largely on the markup language and CSS then you aren’t going to be touching algorithms. 

Whether it’s building out email templates or putting together static websites, HTML and CSS alone won’t require you to think programmatically so you wont need data structures or algorithms. 

On the other hand, if your role requires you to make API requests and fetch large datasets, you may have to dig into some algorithms for optimization. 

That being said, a lot of algorithm work has been abstracted away by modern frameworks. 

React uses a heuristic O(n) algorithm for its reconciliation process but you don’t have to have in-depth knowledge of how the process works step-by-step. Instead, an overview and appreciation of how it is working will get you far enough.

2. Functions and algorithms

A lot of weight is put behind the word algorithm as though it is this something that only veteran programmers can create. 

The reality is that if you know how to create a function you have most likely already created an algorithm. 

Algorithms are ideas or concepts that can be implemented in any programming language. They are just a set of instructions. A lot of functions are implementations of algorithms.

Plenty of web developers will have coded an algorithm without knowing it. Examples of some common JS algorithms include: 

  • Palindrome
  • Max character calculator
  • Anagram checker
  • Fizz Buzz

3. Product Dependant 

If the company you work for is an agency that produces a lot of websites the chances are you won’t ever use algorithms. Whether you are coding them from scratch or using a CMS like WordPress, the vast majority of websites don’t require algorithms to function.

Many CMS’s have a lot of optimizations and performance features built-in.

So if you intend to create something from scratch be aware you’ll have to create these improvements yourself and may need to focus on some algorithms. 

In teams that work on more technical products or web apps, algorithms may be a larger part of your day-to-day. But overall, it will depend on the requirements of the products you work on and how far through the development process they are.

4. Interviews

The number one reason why web developers need to know algorithms is because of interviews. It doesn’t matter if you are the best programmer in the world, if you can’t pass the interview stage you won’t be getting the job.

Use online resources like Glassdoor to get an idea of the type of questions you may be asked and focus on how to solve these. 

Most new web developers should brush up on basic JS algorithms ahead of any interviews so they can answer any questions that come their way. 

Most companies don’t expect you to have an in-depth understanding of each algorithm but will want to see you know some concepts. 

For JavaScript developers, I have included a list of the 40 most common algorithm questions at the end of the article.

5. Theory vs Application

Your job as a web developer or software engineer is to solve problems. Clients or customers will come to you and need your skill to fix a business issue they have. 

Solving these problems requires you to think analytically, break problems down into smaller parts, and pick the right fix for the right problem.

You must weigh up and evaluate the solutions on offer and make an informed choice on the best way to proceed.

In theory, web developers may need to know algorithms but the reality may be very different. Don’t get so caught up in learning the theory of algorithms that you then fail to apply them correctly or utilize a better solution. 

6. Problem Dependant 

Sometimes React may be the best tool, other times it may be Vue. If software engineering is for you, you’ll enjoy evaluating each option and coming to the best solution.

Each task and project has its own solutions. Each problem will require a slightly different approach and attribute. 

Many web developers take a problem-based approach to learning algorithms. That is to learn a specific algorithm as you encounter it in a problem. 

If you decide to create an image or audio processing tool, you’ll likely have to use specific algorithms. However, there is no point memorizing these or using them outside of a specific use case so only learn them when required.

A lot of the heavy lifting has been done by the everyday tools we use. So most solutions exist already. Make sure to research how others have solved your problem before diving in and creating something completely bespoke. 

How important are data structures and algorithms for web developers?

Understanding whether developers need to know algorithms is one thing. But getting a feel for how important they are for your career is another. 

Let’s take a look at why developers need to know at least a little bit about algorithms and it can help you going forward. 

All of this is general advice, as we discussed before, each job and company will require different things from their potential employees. Make sure to do your homework before applying.

More Opportunities

If most of your work is done on the front end you are primarily dealing with the user interface. 

You deal with the visual aspect of the product and may not have to deal with crushing large sets of data. 

However, if you ever want to move into a more technical frontend role then you are going to need these skills. 

Depending on your location these more technical jobs may even pay more. So as a web developer it becomes very important to learn algorithms to open yourself up to new opportunities. 

If you don’t bother to learn about algorithms you may struggle to progress onto different job opportunities. Even having a good basic understanding of certain language-specific algorithms can be enough to land you a decent job down the road.

Improving Skills 

Life as a software engineer is about continual improvement. You need to keep learning to keep up with the pace of change and stay at the cutting edge. 

Problem-solving and an analytical mindset are part of that. 

Learning algorithms is important for web developers because it helps broaden their knowledge and makes them more well-rounded. It doesn’t have to be your bread and butter but having a fringe idea of how they work will help you upskill

You slowly accrue skills as a developer and have a toolbox that you can reach into as time progresses. Think of data structures and algorithms as another item in your toolbox. 

You never know when they may come in handy and you want the skills to be able to use them when they do.

As a web developer not knowing this stuff you might be getting by on your job and you might be doing just fine, but you don’t know what you’re missing. 

Starting Out 

If you are someone just starting as a web developer or are still on the learning journey then algorithms may not be that important to you. 

Getting some personal projects under your belt, or completing a boot camp is going to move the needle far more than algorithms. 

When you first start the most important thing is getting experience and building your basic knowledge. Once you can comfortably code in JavaScript or have figured out which parts of software engineering are most important to you, then move onto data structures and algorithms. 

If you try to learn them too early you may not have the contextual knowledge for them all to make sense. 

Changing Landscape

The web development landscape has changed significantly. The improvement of web technologies has made it a lot more possible in the browser. 

Front-end frameworks have also revolutionized how we build, maintain, and improve applications. The requirements of a front-end developer have also changed with the advancement in technology. 

If you want to make web apps or dev tools then understanding data structures and algorithms are more important than ever. 

Old school design-focused frontend developers may not have found them useful, but the modern engineer needs at least a brief understanding of how they work. 

You can still make it incredibly far without them but you are likely to run into performance issues at some point that will require you to dive in. Algorithms will help you find efficient ways to handle a lot of data.

Why do web developers need data structures and algorithms?

As developers, we have a host of awesome tools at our disposal. We are always searching for things to make our lives easier. 

Part of the reason web developers need data structures and algorithms is that they make certain aspects of programming easier. 

Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of using algorithms in our code.

Speed

Google has made it crystal clear that they view page speed as paramount to a positive user experience. They have even begun knocking people’s sites down in the ranking if they have a poor user experience. 

One of the benefits of using optimized data structures, and algorithms to manage them is speed. If you manage your data correctly your app will be lightning-fast and is more likely to be effective. 

On the flip side, poor site speed can turn people away from your product or service and result in a smaller bottom line. 

Search Capability

With small data sets, searching isn’t that difficult. You are hardly going to notice any discrepancies or issues. 

However, as the pool of available objects that can be searched grows so can your headaches. 

Web developers need algorithms to be able to implement robust search features in their applications. Without them, users may spend too long searching for what they are looking for, or not find it at all.

Cast your mind back to older forums and how poor their search functions are, it makes the entire platform hard to use.

Performance 

Performance is the one area where most web developers are likely to need algorithms.

Applications that send too many requests can end up overwhelming the server and causing it to break. If you use something like Azure or AWS these requests can become expensive and will erode your profits. 

As apps scale, they must continue to perform as well as they did on day one. If your website or app breaks down as the user base increases you are going to be in long-term trouble.

Performance algorithms save both backend and frontend developers headaches by making use of the right data structures at the right times. 

Conclusion

Overall, web developers do need to have some knowledge of data structures and algorithms. Absolute beginners should focus more on mastering the craft by learning a programming language and building things.

But as you progress in your web development career data structures and algorithms should form an important part of your toolbox. They can open up opportunities for you and you are going to be quizzed on them at interview time, so make sure you are in the know!

Resources

Algorithms 

40 common JavaScript algorithms