Full-stack developers must master many things: the front end of a website, app or service (i.e., what the end-user sees), the back end (the libraries and frameworks supporting the software), and the database. That means a successful full-stack developer must have a broad range of technical and “soft” skills, because they must not only build the software, but also manage the other stakeholders involved in its creation.
Given all that complexity, it’s worth exploring what it takes to actually become a full-stack developer. Let’s jump in!
What is a Full Stack Developer?
Although developers can work on different aspects of the front-end, back-end, and database, they work on all three tiers in many organizations. There are different reasons for this, including whether there’s budget enough to hire separate developers for separate tiers. But in many cases, it’s simply a choice: A developer with a strong skill set is able to work on all three tiers, making them cost-effective if they have the resources, time, and background necessary to deliver. Because the entire application is known as a full-stack application, the developer doing such work is called a full stack developer.
What Skills does a Full-Stack Developer Need?
A full stack developer needs the skills to write solid back-end code, including:
- The tools supporting that language: These include Visual Studio Code or Visual Studio.
- Database knowledge: You’ll need to know a relational database, typically either MySQL or SQL Server, along with their associated tools, MySQL Workbench and SQL Server Management Studio.
Your front-end skills will include:
- HTML and CSS: These are the languages that define what a website looks like visually.
Then you’ll need to round out your skills with other tools such as:
- Git/GitHub. Git is a tool for helping track changes to your code and manage your overall set of code. GitHub is a website that hosts Git, allowing you to work with members of your team, either in the same office or remotely.
- Deployment and CI/CD skills. You might not be the one doing the deployment, but you’ll need at least some awareness of the tools for doing what’s called “Continuous Integration, Continuous Development.” The tools for these are usually handled by devops engineers; however, in smaller shops, the full-stack developers might end up having to handle this part as well.
What is the career path of a Full-Stack Developer?
The first step in the career path is the learning period when you first learn the above skills. Then you will be ready to land your first position as a junior developer.
Junior Full-Stack Developer (sometimes called Associate Developer): This is the entry-level position. In order to land your first job as a junior level, you need to shine in the above skills and ace the interview. The first job is a critical time for learning and mentoring under people who have much more experience than you. Be open-minded and ready to learn as much as you can. Although you’re aiming for a career in full-stack development, it’s possible you’ll be placed in either front-end or back-end work. Take that opportunity to master the skill set you’re assigned to, and eventually ask to be moved to the other end so you can master that skill as well.
During this time, you also might discover you prefer either front-end or back-end. There is nothing wrong with that. You might want to adjust your career goals to be either a back-end developer or a front-end developer.
Mid-Level Full-Stack Developer: This is when you’ll bring together your back-end and front-end skills, along with your database skills. This is where you’ll do the most coding and putting your full-stack skills to use. You’ll also be mentoring the junior developers, which means practicing patience and being able to explain things well. On a single project you may still have to work in only front-end or only back-end; however, as a full-stack developer, you’ll be comfortable doing either. Then on the next project you might move to the other end.
Senior-Level Full-Stack Developer: By now you’ve been in the industry a good five years or more and have mastered front end, back end, and probably databases to an extent. In a larger organization, at the senior level, you might become a team lead and do less coding and more mentoring and architectural planning. You might even be given management duties (which is why some developers prefer to stay at mid-level).
In smaller organizations, you’ll likely still be doing a lot of coding. You’ll also be involved in more decision making on what tools and technologies to use and how they all fit together. If the company launches a new project, you might be the one to help head it up, working alongside product owners and project managers. You might be involved in meetings with the CTO and other stakeholders to help set the direction for the project.
Full-Stack Development Consultant: This isn’t for everyone, but this is where you can “break free” from the company and start helping multiple companies on their full-stack development. While you can make a lot of money at this, it comes with some risks. There may be dry periods and you’ll have to live off savings. You also need to get pretty good at sales and marketing so you can find clients. You’ll likely be your own company owner, meaning you’ll have to go find health insurance and you’ll have to set aside money for taxes. That’s why this isn’t for everyone, but it can be highly rewarding when done right.
How Can You Know if a Full-Stack Developer Career is Right for You?
A full-stack developer career isn’t for everyone. Some developers have a keen eye for visual aspects of websites (UI) and the user experience (UX) and gravitate naturally towards front-end development. Such people might find that they really don’t care for the back-end and database development. Or they might find they really don’t have a great eye for UI/UX and enjoy writing back-end code that works with databases.
This decision usually happens during the training. As you’re learning front-end, back-end, and databases, note if you prefer one area over the other. But even during the training steps, you still might not know. Then as mentioned earlier, during a junior position you might get a clearer picture and set a different course.
In all of the above, however, developers love coding, they love problem solving, and they love building things. Those are the three most important things in determining if a development career is for you, including full stack development.
Do You Need a Degree?
These days, probably not. There was a time when landing a developer position required a bachelor’s degree at a minimum. But times have changed and you can learn development in other ways, including online courses and bootcamps. But if you go the self-teaching direction, make sure to be involved in online communities and meetups so you’re not working in a vacuum. You’ll want to learn as much as you can from people who already work in the field. Without them you won’t know what you don’t know.
If you do decide to go for a degree, make sure you vet the school carefully. Computer Science degrees spend a lot of time on algorithms and data structures, which are important, but only a small part of the career. Make sure the school offers courses that clearly teach back end and front end skills and web development.
How Much do Full Stack Developers Get Paid?
According to Dice’s most recent Tech Salary Report, full-stack developers get paid on average $116,856. Remember that different areas pay differently depending on cost of living. Junior developers will make less, but there’s lot of room for advancement and go well past that figure.