What does full-stack developer even mean?

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.

LAMP

lamp
Traditional LAMP Stack

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.

lamp-abstract
Abstract LAMP stack

MVC

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

Due to the Javascript revolution a large part of the stacks in production today can be broken down even further, Javascript was doable and used earlier, but not to the extent and in the same way as today. Taking this into consideration it is possible to do a more clear distinction.

6_tier_stack
6 tier stack

The controller/view tier, is much more well-defined and can be sub-divided on technologies, the distinction is not really communicated by the traditional LAMP stack, even though this possibly has been a more or less the de facto standard, having Javascript play a larger or smaller role based on adoption.

mean
MEAN stack

MEAN

Which brings us to another very predominant stack – the MEAN stack (MongoDB, Express.js, Angular.js and Node.js, source: Wikipedia).

The MEAN stack is a Javascript centric stack and the hard part when talking about a Javascript centric stack is the sheer number of variations based on frameworks etc. and the combinations possible, but the MEAN stack is very popular and seems adopted widely.

 

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.

mean-abstract
Abstract MEAN stack

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.

annontated-5_layer_stack
Annotated 6 layer stack

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.

Each of the stacks requires specialist knowledge, since they are technologically very different. If you look at a single tier, like the server logic tier, all of the languages mentioned derive from the language C and have so much in common it is almost just a matter of syntax… *ahem* Javascript is derived from C and all in the same category, so we can actually collapse these two tiers into one. The separation was only aimed to represent the two functional areas.

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.

Developer Origins

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.

top-downbottom_up

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.

diamond

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).

Just kidding…

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:

  1. What does the stack comprise of we are talking about
  2. How many variations to the stack have your shop/project made to the stack
  3. 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.

 

What does full-stack developer even mean?

Public Specifications FTW

Please note that this post is by no means endorsed by my employer, it is a personal reflection on a strategic move I have participated in, in my line of work as a professional software developer.

The above paragraph, which I felt I a need to write as a part of this blog post, is very aligned with the actual post topic in itself, please read on.

The place where I work have for a long time published specifications on some of the offered services. Either this was done using our CMS or using PDF artefacts from a Wordprocessor.

Both processes where tedious and held several issues:

  • Content in CMS
    1. Hard to edit longer documents with figures and cross references
    2. Version control was not obvious
    3. Drafts compared to published documents was not used
  • Wordprocesser artefacts
    1. Version control practically non-existing or external
    2. Document control based on files shares, folders and naming conventions
    3. Manual publication proces

There was probably several other issues I have happily forgotten, like PDF meta-data removal etc.

After having done a lot of open source work in Markdown and on Github and in conjunction with releases of some open source demo clients for our services, I proposed that we published the accompanying public specifications on Github.

This proved to be a very clever move.

It did require some consideration on our side and it was quite a new move to us. Yes we had published specifications for public availability for long a time, but putting these in a public repository was still a new move for us. But the concerns hastily evaporated and the proces became natural and incredibly productive compared to the old processes.

At the time of writing we have 6 open sourced specifications and 3 clients accompanying these and a repository with XSD files supplementing one of the specifications.

Not all of the specifications are finished, but they are out there, so if somebody wants to see what is going on, they are most welcome. We have only received a single pull-request and that is completely okay. We do not want somebody to write our specifications, that is our job, but corrections to sample code, clarifications and of course spelling corrections are most welcome.

Here are some of the pros I have observed:

  • Using Git and Markdown
    1. Version control is built-in
    2. Markdown is quite powerful and easy to edit
    3. Syntax highlighting of code samples (bash, XML, JSON, text etc.)
    4. The flow resembles a development flow and the toolchain is somewhat the same
    5. Tagging of versions and complete history is available
    6. An engaging proces supporting pull-requests (oh well)
    7. Branching for new editions and proposals for change requests

Currently one of the specification has 4 branches, when evaluation and review is finalized, will be merged onto the master, which can be tagged as the authoritative specification – and this proces is so easy to grasp and complete since it is same proces we use for source code.

One last benefit I really enjoy, one which I think is a bit underestimated is – the contract.

When we publish a public specification, we aim at to be informative, useful, correct, exact, educational, clear and to the point.

This works quite well and since often I find that we refer to the public specifications when discussing topics related to our services and since the quality of these sometime outshine our internal specifications, I often find myself thinking that we should publish much more, much much more.

So revisiting the opening paragraf – ever so often we are afraid and publishing API’s become a side-project. Do not be afraid to publish your specifications and documentation, do not be afraid to use an existing platform and toolchain, the pros outweigh the cons and you will quickly forget all about the old way of doing things and you will find yourself more productive and in the end getting your specifications published will be easier than ever.

Whether you are publishing a website or a PDF document, the information is public, the proces is actually the most important aspects and Github and Markdown REALLY leverage this.

The discussion on how far you can go and how much you can publish is a huge topic and should perhaps be another blog post.

Public Specifications FTW

Interesting piece on *squatting

The landscape of domain name typosquatting: techniques and countermeasures – Spaulding et al. arXiv upload 9 Mar 2016. We round up our series of posts on internet deceptions by looking at domain squatting. My “favourite” advanced technique is bitsquatting, which turns out to be a great demonstration of the inevitable failures that occur with sufficient […]

via The landscape of domain name typosquatting: techniques and countermeasures — the morning paper

Interesting piece on *squatting