I see the term full-stack developer everywhere, this got me thinking:
– What does it even mean?
To recruiters it seem to say: “we want somebody who can do everything“, meaning we want to hire somebody being a perfect match no matter what, perhaps even in context of wherever technology would take us.
To developers however it seems to communicate that a developer is capable of handling the ability to work in all tiers of a given stack, meaning front-end to backend, UX implementation to datamodelling and everything in between.
The two are actually not far from each other, but … what stack are we actually talking about when we say full-stack and is this even possible?
Lets start by examining what a stack is.
There used to be a term, which you do not see so often anymore, since it has somewhat been booted by the full-stack term and that is LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP, source: Wikipedia).
The top-layer of the stack can be replaced by a suited language like Perl, Python and possibly even Ruby), meaning that the definition of the LAMP stack is not even entirely clear – but this is a basic traditional stack and possibly one, which was and still is dominant in many workplaces, simply due to it’s popularity and wide-spread adoption.
Since however the LAMP stack is a bit ambiguous lets break it down. From an MVC (Model-View-Controller, source: Wikipedia) perspective it would look like this and we get recognisable depiction. This makes it a bit easier to identify the tiers of which the stack is comprised – let be get back to this later…
As mentioned the LAMP stack is still around in some sense, but the classical representation does not really depict the more fine grained stack predominant today.
A 6 Tier Stack
Which brings us to another very predominant stack – the MEAN stack (MongoDB, Express.js, Angular.js and Node.js, source: Wikipedia).
The abstraction of this stack demonstrates a very interesting aspect of the more modern stack – the separation from the operating system. Of course there is a an operating system beneath the stack, but in general it does not play as significant a role as earlier.
This whole discussion on the significance of discussion the operation system as part of the stack is interesting, unfortunately the topic is beyond the scope of this article, so I will leave that stone unturned.
Yes there are alternatives and there possibly as many variants of this traditional stack as there are software teams/developers/PaaS product managers. I have attempted to annotate the 6 layer stack, with some technologies just to give you a picture, there are languages/technologies that I have unintentionally left out, forgotten or have not heard about, fill me in in a comment – but lets move on.
To get back to the question on: “What does full-stack developer even mean?” Building on the figure above, you would have to select a set of technologies to represent the 6 layers of your stack and then you should be able to work in all tiers of a given stack, meaning front-end to back-end, UX implementation to datamodelling and everything in between.
What I have observed is that these stack-jumping super-developers do not really exist.
Based on the above plethora of choices, I do not think it makes sense to talk about full-stack developers in general, unless you are very clear on what stack you are talking about. Yes you could go for the most prominent stack or buy into some specific eco-system. I have chosen not to touch on the Microsoft stack, since I have no knowledge of Microsofts current offerings in this area and the same goes for Java.
I have observed is that developers come from somewhere. They have played around with some technologies, languages, frameworks, applications, operating systems, a stack, while they learned their way around computers. Then they got a job or an education and got exposed to new technologies and possibly even new stacks.
Some developers are be top-down, they originate from the front-end, design, UX/UI or some industry or education related to visual presentation or they just started working with websites and at some point needed some more functionality.
Others are bottom-up developers they originate from Systems administration and operation, which mean they now the OS and they now the applications part and all the operational aspects of modern applications. Perhaps they even originate from database administration meaning they are strong on data-modelling etc.
The type I most often see is the diamond developer. These are classical computer programmers. They program and that is what they do. They originate from classical programming and at some point, they needed work with data so they got exposed to database technology. Later or before they get exposed to the concept of users (other than themselves) and they had to create a proper user interface.
There are of course exceptions to all of the modelled developers I mention above and you can vary the size and contents of the different tiers, where some diamond developers excel in several interpreted and compiled languages, even other language concepts than the traditional procedural/OOP programming paradigms.
No matter where you come from, your perspective is unique and your toolbox is unique.
Full-stack Polyglot Specialised Generalist Developers
What does full-stack developer even mean?
It is a developer capable of working the different tiers of the stack and who can understand the different paradigms and technologies of which the tiers are comprised at the same time utilise best-practices and embrace requirements and who can consolidate everything into an application (on schedule, budget and with minimal defects and maximum security).
Developers are a special lot. We specialise in our tools, we get thrown a problem and We have to understand the problem and the problem area. Which mean we have to become specialists in this particular problem area. When we solve the problem we get thrown a new problem, perhaps in a new job, gig, project and we have to become specialists again, but we often reuse our tool chain, which all of a sudden become a general tool. As we evolve with problem solving we extend our toolbox – we become specialised generalists or general specialists.
So to rephrase the question, does Full-stack Polyglot Specialised Generalist Developers exist?
I have met many extremely talented, clever and resourceful programmers over the course of my career and I hope to meet many more.
My conclusion is that the term full-stack developer has to take the following into account:
- What does the stack comprise of we are talking about
- How many variations to the stack have your shop/project made to the stack
- What is the prominent stack on the market
Then we have a slight chance of talking about the term full-stack developer and be on the same track, but at the same time this does not even make sense as a general term – developers evolve, stacks change, due to developer evolution.
The stack of yesteryear might be the legacy system you have to work with as your next problem area or you have to work with the untested error prone top-notch newest stack on the block designed especially for the problem at hand.
Stacks are just bundles of tools. Focus on problem solving, extend your toolbox, become a specialist, have a general perspective on technology and choose the best tool for the job. You will encounter numerous stacks, you will by far not become a specialist in all of them, some you will love, some you will hate, but for most you will do both since there are no silver bullets in software development – but there are plenty of problems, tools and the fantastic gratification of providing the solution.