Computer Science

How to Become a Full-Stack Developer—And Why the Job Title Is Somewhat Controversial

How to Become a Full-Stack Developer—And Why the Job Title Is Somewhat Controversial
When employers advertise for full-stack developers, they're looking for professionals capable of reducing the time and cost required to create a prototype design for a product, build it, test it, and release it. Image from Death to Stock Photos
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry October 1, 2019

Do you need to go to college to become a full-stack developer? That depends. Many opportunities in programming don't require a degree—assuming you have the right skills, an impressive portfolio, and connections to the right people. Earning a bachelor's degree isn't the only way to break into this role.

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Browsing LinkedIn, you’ll see lots of programmers calling themselves ‘full-stack developers.’ That job title describes professionals who have the skills and knowledge to take a software or site concept and turn it into a finished product. They can do everything a front-end developer can do plus everything a back-end developer can do—from database design to JavaScript coding—and possibly what a web designer would do, too. No matter what the software development challenge may be, a full-stack developer is capable of tackling them.

The title of full-stack developer is likely used too liberally these days, causing some employers to look at anyone using it as a potential ‘jack of all trades and master of none.’ But, if you really embrace the spirit of that full-stack designation by diving deeply into all the skills and technologies associated with every facet of software development, you will maximize your employability, be able to work independently, and potentially make more money than colleagues who choose to specialize.

Ready to learn more about what it takes to become a full-stack developer? In this article, we’ll cover:

  • What full-stack developers do
  • Why the title is somewhat controversial
  • Jobs for full-stack developers
  • The skills and knowledge necessary to become a full-stack developer
  • Educational commitment to become a full-stack developer
  • Do you really need a degree to become a full-stack developer?
  • Choosing the right path
  • Career prospects for full-stack developers
  • Is this the right career for you?

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What full-stack developers do

When you become a full-stack developer, you build applications from end to end. You are comfortable handling systems engineering and working with databases, servers, and clients. On Quora, a user described the role of full-stack developers this way: “Front End developer + Backend developer = Full Stack developer”.

It’s a simplistic formula, but it’s also true. Software and web applications are built in layers. Front-end web development involves the design and construction of the user interface. Back-end development involves the creation of the server-side code that handles requests from users. There’s also a database layer and—depending on the complexity of the software in question—possibly other layers as well. A full-stack developer is capable of building each layer.

Day-to-day duties of full-stack developers include:

  • Designing application architecture
  • Using front-end and back-end programming languages
  • Designing and launching new features
  • Maintaining the quality of applications
  • Maintaining code integrity
  • Implementing security and data protection
  • Writing, documenting, and executing unit testing
  • Coordinating with marketing and the product team

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Why the title “full-stack developer” is somewhat controversial

The term full-stack actually refers to the many technologies it takes to build software and web applications. A full-stack developer will, ideally, have not only breadth of skills but also depth of skills. When employers advertise for full-stack developers, they’re looking for professionals capable of reducing the time and cost required to create a prototype design for a product, build it, test it, and release it.

That is often not the case, however, because of the number of technologies involved in software development these days. Many developers who refer to themselves as full-stack are experts in some skills but have only passing knowledge of others.

Front-end developer Andy Shora put it this way on his blog: “Stacks are a lot bigger than what they used to be, and being able to claim one has acquired refined skills at every layer of web development is certainly not a small claim. Does this mean you have a broad range of skills or you specialize in everything?”

If your goal is to become a full-stack developer in practice and not just in name, you’ll need to commit to making education a part of your career for the long haul. In that same blog, Andy Shora wrote: “In my eyes the most valuable skill to have as a software developer is the ability to learn, closely followed by the ability to know when you don’t know something.”


The skills and knowledge necessary to become a full-stack developer

There’s no way to list all the proficiencies that full-stack developers need because the technology is always changing. Full-stack developers do need to be proficient in a lot of programming languages—a list that currently includes:

  • HTML
  • CSS
  • JavaScript
  • JAVA
  • PHP
  • C
  • Python
  • Ruby
  • Perl

Full-stack developers also need to know how to use Git to manage and share code and how to use development frameworks like Hibernate, Python Django, PHP thinkphp, yin, nodeJs express, and JAVA Spring. Then there are the front-end frameworks and third-party libraries like JQuery, LESS, SASS, AngularJS, and REACT. At a minimum, full-stack developers should be able to interact with a few databases like MySQL, MongoDB, Redis, Oracle, and SQLServer. Ideally, they can also work with streamlining tools like Grunt, Gulp, and Browserify and deploy code on AWS EC2.

The best-paid full-stack developers have broad technical expertise and can deal with server management, deploying and managing cloud computing environments, API design, and database design.

On the non-technical side, design is a skill that serious full-stack developers often nurture because UI design and UX design are such an essential part of software development. They also need to be able to think creatively, manage their time effectively, cope with tough challenges without giving in to frustration, and communicate effectively with clients.


Educational commitment to become a full-stack developer

A lot of employers require full-stack developers to have a bachelor’s degree, but according to Stack Overflow’s 2018 survey of more than 100,000 respondents, only half of all professional developers have a bachelor’s degree.

Of those, one-third majored in something entirely unrelated to computer science or software engineering. That may be because it’s possible to learn the programming skills required to become a full-stack developer for free or cheaply online. In fact, a lot of developers—regardless of whether they have a degree—are self-taught or are graduates of intensive coding boot camp programs.

Having a bachelor’s degree in software engineering may still add weight to your résumé when you’re looking for jobs, however. You’ll find great programs at:

Don’t expect to learn everything you’ll need to know to land a job in whatever degree program you choose. Also, don’t expect to learn much programming if you choose a computer science degree over a Bachelor of Science in Software Engineering. If you love programming and want hands-on experiences, opt for the latter degree, but consider a BS in computer science if you think you’d like to explore other careers in IT.


Do you really need a degree to become a full-stack developer?

Not necessarily. There are plenty of popular online distance learning programs, certification programs, and immersive boot camps designed for aspiring full-stack developers who want to learn the ropes. Check out:

SwitchUp publishes lists of the best coding boot camps, and their 2019 list includes a number of full-stack programs. You should look into these programs even if you’re pursuing a bachelor’s degree because they can help you find employment opportunities you might not have found otherwise. The Stack Overflow’s survey also showed that more than 88 percent of boot camp alumni were hired within a year of finishing a program.


Choosing the right career path

There’s no perfect career path for aspiring full-stack developers. Keep your eyes on job listings to see what employers are looking for. That way, you will know precisely what skills and qualifications you’ll need to bring to the table to become a full-stack developer. Plenty of job ads list ‘a computer science degree’ dead last or close to it when ticking off the qualifications they want to see in applicants.

A bachelor’s degree or even a master’s degree can be a good investment. Whether it will be a good investment for you will depend on your short- and long-term career goals. College is expensive, so it makes sense to think about it in terms of ROI. If you love programming and picture yourself spending your entire career coding, it may make sense to look into coding boot camps (which are much less expensive than two- and four-year degree programs) instead of college.

If, however, you want to make the transition to management someday or you want to work as a systems or security analyst in the future, then you should probably prioritize getting a degree.

One other thing to consider is that neither a degree nor a certificate from a coding boot camp program will necessarily get you hired. Your portfolio and connections will play a much more significant role in landing you a job. Make sure that the degree programs and boot camps you’re looking at have a track record of candidate job placement and relationships with companies that hire software developers.


Career prospects for full-stack developers

There was a time when applications were routinely created by a single person, and so all software developers were full-stack developers. Software has become a lot more complex since then, so programmers are more likely to specialize now. That said, small companies and startups often need full-stack developers to compete because they don’t have the budget to hire whole teams of specialized developers. That’s how some front-end developers and back-end developers unintentionally end up becoming full-stack developers. They have to acquire new skills to respond to employer requests, and their resumes grow longer and longer.

Plenty of big companies hire full-stack developers, too. Many full-stack developer job listings on Indeed and elsewhere are in the IT sector, but there are also jobs for full-stack developers in marketing, energy, media, education, retail, and the nonprofit sector. Software development is a dynamic career field.

Chances are good that you’ll make plenty of money no matter where you work when you become a full-stack developer. According to ZipRecruiter, the average annual income for full-stack developers in the US is $107,302 per year, with the majority of developer salaries falling between $80,500 and $127,000. When you consider the pros and cons of becoming a full-stack developer, that’s a definite pro.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also reports that the number of technology jobs—a category that includes full-stack developer jobs—will grow by 12 percent from now until 2028. That suggests that you’ll be able to find a job pretty easily when you become a full-stack developer.


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Is becoming a full-stack developer the right career for you?

People who have an aptitude for programming, are comfortable pursuing self-directed continuing education, and are okay with the fact that they may never achieve true mastery of a single technology can thrive in this flexible career. Full-stack developers who live up to the name are extremely valuable on teams but can work solo if they want to. They are lifelong learners by necessity and tend to do something different every day, so they seldom get bored. If you love learning new programming languages and frameworks and think variety is the spice of life, this role may be perfect for you.


Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

To learn more about our editorial standards, you can click here.


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