Back-End Engineers Are the Unsung Heroes of the Tech Industry

By Nathaniel Mott , written on April 11, 2012

From The News Desk

Designers and front-end developers get all the credit. They're the ones that produce the most readily visible changes to your favorite service or product. Most customers never even realize that there are countless engineers toiling away in data centers, working on infrastructures and behind-the-veil fixes in order to make some of their dream features a reality. And that's a shame.

The experience of using a piece of technology isn't based solely on the look and feel of that piece, it's also based on how well -- and how, period -- it works. Unfortunately, these nuts-and-bolts are hard to market, despite the impact that they have on the overall experience.

There's a special kind of rage reserved for those times when your iPhone says you can't download an app because it's over 50MB in size. The previous limit -- 20MB -- was manageable, so you'd think that something 2.5 times the size would be easy to work with, but it's not. Why? Because of the new iPad and the Retina graphics that developers have to include in their applications.

Or instead consider the disbelief and frustration that iPhone 4S users felt when they used their new phone for a full day. Maybe it was a bug with iOS 5, or maybe it was the A5 processor, or maybe it was a cruel joke being played by the battery gods. We don't know the exact cause, but the 4S has a noticeably shorter battery life compared to its near-identical twin, the iPhone 4.

Fixing the above issues would certainly improve the experience of using an Apple product, or, hell, any product if the terms were changed. But the question is this: How is the company supposed to make any money off improving something that consumers won't understand?

It's hard to explain to consumers why the battery in one phone lasts longer than the battery in another phone. All they care about is the fact that they missed a call from their Great Aunt Susan, because they had played half an hour of Angry Birds and watched a single YouTube video. Try explaining to someone, why they can't download a game on their iPhone, and watch the expression on their face as you tell them that it's because of something that's used by a device that they're not even worried about. Then duck, because something is going to end up being thrown.

Fixing any of these problems will provide a real, tangible benefit, but they aren't immediately visible. In a world where tech pundits were complaining that the iPhone 4S looked like the previous generation iPhone, and that the Retina Display iPad isn't a worthy upgrade, it's impossible to deny that looks matter. If someone thinks that increasing the display on only a display isn't a big deal and recommends waiting until the next generation (which, incidentally, happens every generation), how will that person react to a device that "only" increases the battery life?

This is the balancing act that Apple and other tech companies need to perform in order to build great products. For every consumer using a feature there needs to be improvements made to dozens of items that the consumer never even thinks about. Would the average person be excited to hear about Apple building a new data center, or coming up with a new way to compress images or manage app downloads? Probably not, but they're definitely excited about iCloud or being able to finally download one measly little app.

Going forward, we're going to see a lot more companies focusing on building out the backend for consumer-facing goods. They may not be the next big company that everyone and their mother knows about, but I'm sure that we'll end up noticing the work that they've done, even if we don't give them credit for it.