Is Full-Stack Development Worth Your Time?

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With tools such as Node.js gaining in popularity, some developers believe the line between websites’ front- and back-ends is becoming meaningless. Others argue that the technology on each side remains specialized, and no one person can master both environments well enough to produce high-quality products. All of this points to a very real dilemma for Web developers: Should they pick a side to focus on, or plan to dive into areas that they used to leave alone?

The answer is complicated by the fact that the technology behind Web applications is evolving rapidly, with apps themselves becoming more complex. Though many employers like the idea of hiring developers whose knowledge encompasses both the client and server side, others are pushing the technology in ways that require deep expertise in order to create and maintain a product.

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“Small companies need someone who can do everything,” said Michael Wales, Web development curriculum manager with the education company Udacity. “Bleeding-edge companies, like a Google or a Facebook, have the ability to hire someone who knows one thing and can do it excellently.”

No matter what kind of company you aspire to work for, the stack’s increasing complexity means you’ll need a solid understanding of how everything works. “As stacks themselves comprise more technology, employers are looking for breadth as well as depth,” said Jenni White, director of operations for the boot camp provider Codeup in San Antonio, Texas.

Or as Ryan Hauk, UI development manager in core site development for the watch and fashion company Fossil, put it: “It should go without saying that anyone with that broad level of skills is going to be looked on as more valuable.”

Wide vs. Deep

Indeed, employers value a breadth of knowledge, even if the jobs they offer are narrowly focused. “The size of the company has a lot of bearing in terms of the value it puts on specific skills,” said Will Harrell, UI developer in Fossil’s Digital Design department. “‘Full stack’ is a sliding scale, so the people I’d be looking for would have a variety of skills. You need to be familiar with the basics.”

Each side of the stack, Harrell added, “is going to be pretty deep. JavaScript isn’t overly complicated, but it is different from Java or PHP or C languages.” That said, he looks for “at least some exposure to various things” when he’s interviewing developers: “Having that wide expertise is beneficial.”

Once you’re in a company, you might find that the actual scope of your work is limited. While larger organizations tend to offer more complex projects, their efforts are often broken down into discrete parts. It was the increasing complexity of Web apps that brought about the differentiation between the front end and back end in the first place, Wales said. He sees full stack developers as either occupying senior roles or working for organizations that aren’t building full-blown Web apps.

That means many of the opportunities for true full-stack developers lie within smaller companies. “Small teams value the flexibility that comes with someone who knows their way around both ends,” Wales added. Complex Web apps have forced developers to specialize in either front- or back-end. When that happens, “In practice, the full stack developer may be a more senior person who’s not doing a deep dive into a particular area.”

Common Ground

Employers like full-stack knowledge for another reason: It helps their teams work more efficiently. “Almost any Web developer is going to be working on some kind of team,” White noted. “Teams require excellent communication skills—speaking the language of your colleagues helps.”

Harrell gave an example: “If a JavaScript developer has a basic understanding of how Apache works, that helps greatly in discussions… When you can speak each other’s language, it points to a better way of doing things.”

Wales frames full stack development as being something like a “double major,” a combination of distinct areas of expertise. He recommends that people just starting out begin by learning front-end development, with its emphasis on CSS, HTML and JavaScript. “Once you learn them, you can pick a language and learn the back end,” he said. “All of those languages aren’t going away.”

For his part, Hauk sees value in getting exposed to the full stack early on: “If nothing else, a full stack course would give them an educated decision to see what suits their interest best.”

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3 Responses to “Is Full-Stack Development Worth Your Time?”

  1. Emmad Kareem

    The software world is crazy! The poor developer is paying all the cost and is getting almost nothing in retrun! Each aspect of the technology is rapidly changing. It is true you can grasp the syntax and how things ‘work’ but that does not mean you can provide professional product without deep expertise and focus. The artisitic talents of front-end and the technical complexity of the back-end are rarley found in the same person. Many managers just want the job done without understanding the complexities and the risks they take by demanding for ‘the guy who knows it all’. Specialization is the first step to success, in my opinion.

  2. Bob Wadsworth

    I am an experienced developer and IT manager with a total of 35 years in the industry. I am just now getting involved with web development from both as a developer and manager. From where I stand, I find it very interesting that the front end and the back end development are specialized in the web world. I come from old-school mainframe and client-server development and the developer was responsible for both the front-end and back-end development. Now, I will admit, it does take a person with unique talent to design a very nice usable and navigable front end, be it windows based or web based, but that should not mean someone else should code it. I may be mistaken in the web world as I now know it takes a little more work to create an interesting web page using HTML/CSS/JavaScript. However, you can have someone who is artistic lay it out and explain to a developer how they want it and need it to work and a developer should be able to take that and run with it for both the front end and back end or as you now call it, “full stack”. But then again, I am old school and many of you will say VERY OLD SCHOOL. I’m OK with that.