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I Don’t Believe in Full-Stack Engineering (robinrendle.com)
236 points by jxub 8 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 190 comments

This article is conflating junior developers with full-stack engineering.

I work on the entire stack. Can I work with databases and write queries? Sure. Can I do it as well as a data architect? No. That's not what's expected of a full stack engineer.

We can have meaningful, productive discussions with everyone on all parts of the stack. We'll talk with the data architect, write/tweak a query if we need to, we'll talk with the product manager and collect some features, we'll communicate the requirements to a backend engineer if one exists and help prepare the API as necessary to ensure the frontend can query for only what it needs when it needs it, and we'll connect it to the frontend which we built (yes, even using data chunking, semantic UI, and accessibility, all of which are expected in professional front-end development)

To the purist engineer, none of this is part of their reality because the purist doesn't have business requirements or tradeoffs. In the real world of business, these skills generate profit and are especially useful with new products and prototypes. If you're experienced enough and have a great team with you, you can execute on this with minimal technical debt that doesn't create long-term problems while still providing users with a great experience.

Agreed. I would also add, I don't think frontend vs backend accurately describes how skillsets are clustered anymore -- especially with JavaScript's increasing ubiquity.

I would cluster skillsets into: ops, development, and design.

Ops: making things highly available, logging, performance monitoring, reliability, deployment scripts

Development: Writing code on both frontend and backend.

Design: Visual design and CSS/HTML

Most developers I've interacted with at various companies write both APIs in the backend and user facing UI. In my experience it's becoming increasingly rare that a frontend developer doesn't also write backend code.

They typically aren't very good at making their apps deployable and highly available, and they also aren't very good at making things look good with CSS. Sure they can do it, but it isn't their specialty and it would be quite a learning curve or it just takes them much longer than someone who does just that.

When hiring people, I like to find people who are strong individually in those 3 areas (ops, programming, design). I don't try to find programmers who can do ops or design. I don't worry so much about a frontend engineer being able to do backend work and vice versa, the crossover is generally smooth and interchangeable.

It is generally easy to find ops, and programmers who specialize and are talented. Designers who can do visual design and code it up are a bit rarer, so sometimes it is needed have 1 person do design and another person code it up.

Also, a very senior person is obviously going to be stronger in each of those areas, so full stack is highly correlated with working experience.

I think the crossover between frontend and backend is less effective than you imagine. Generally a backend dev writes horrible frontend code and viceversa.

A very senior backend person will probably know many things about ops and frontend, but probably not about design.

A very senior frontend person will probably know a lot about design, UX and have a good enough experience with backend, but is probably not going to implement good ops practices.

In the React / Node world I haven't seen this to be true. I can imagine it being more so if the languages and tooling are different like in the case if someone was doing Java backend Angular frontend.

Same with Vue. I used to be more back-end, but frameworks like Vue and React make front-end feel more like traditional back-end, and are a joy to work with.

I'd separate the client side scripting and styling / layouts, actually. While JS and JS frameworks are fun and enjoyable to work with, and I can architect the JS stuff well to make maintainable code bases, CSS is still a mess for me. Though getting better at that as well. Flex-box and CSS Grid changes the game completely from using floats to do layouts.

> so sometimes it is needed to have 1 person do design and another person code it up.

Honestly, even when it is the same person doing both, I feel like it is best practice to do these activities separately anyway. As in, literally on a different day, with a different mindset.

If you design an application's looks and UX according to how the code 'should' work, particularly backend code (DB queries and endpoints etc) you'll most of the time end up with something that's suboptimal for the user without being able to see it - because you have this very detailed mental model of the system behind the curtain and it's 'obvious' that things should work in this way or that in strict accordance with how that system is organised - whereas the user knows / cares nothing about these things and wants things organised in a way that's more intuitive to them.

More than that, we can talk to designers, product people, leads, etc and have a better holistic view of the glue that holds everything together.

Its EXPECTED however that one not have all the answers.

In my experience, across general app development there are 4 specializations, and any given engineer should be able to straddle 2 of them.

Client Infrastructure | Client Product | Backend Product | Backend Infrastructure

Full stack generally stays to the product side of both. They tend to have a relatively shallow context on the current goings on of infrastructure/tooling, but can focus on one area or another when the time calls.

very good mental model for developer activities ..

> across general app development there are 4 specializations, and any given engineer should be able to straddle 2 of them.

> Client Infrastructure | Client Product | Backend Product | Backend Infrastructure

Completely agreed. I find it much easier to communicate with specialists like our DBA, or DevOps team, having at least some mid-level experience or knowledge in each different domain.

Exactly. At small companies you need developers with multiple skill sets so you can keep overhead low during your infancy and growth stages.

As you grow, companies can and do hire specialists who do one thing and one thing well which is great. But those things still need to be communicated and coordinated with other teams which is why having someone with multiple skill sets to bridge that communication gap is so important even in larger organizations.

One thing I find interesting is that people refuse to believe that something is possible when they themselves are terrible at it. I suppose this is the new "there's no 10x engineers"

> That's not what's expected of a full stack engineer.

That is highly variable. In a world where a lot of middle management considers "tech people" fungible, this is EXACTLY what is expected from a full stack engineer.

And, you get to do the work of front end, back end, and database developers all at once for the price of 1 person. What's not to love?

Only partially "/s", because although I'm not in that kind of position at the moment, I've seen it.

Tradeoffs matter a whole lot. I recently had to replace some beautiful SVGs by PNGs for various reasons centered around the business requirement that a page be below some size, and loads in less than some time.

A purist would cringe. I cringed a bit too. But the end result matters the most.

That’s interesting, I was under the impression that SVGs where smaller for logos and, well, vector graphics. Would you mind sharing what kind of graphics you were working with?

Graph, like a graphic calculator showing f(x).

Like you, I would have thought SVGs would be smaller, but experimentation proved that they weren't. It hadn't be checked before, but new options had to be found around the whole stack!

So instead of the crispy SVG that scaled so well, now there are some custom-sized PNG instead - served by geographically close VPS. It seems very dirty on paper, but in practice it works much better than the previous solution that as I purist I found very cute and clever. Unfortunately, it didn't achieve the goals and had to be discarded.

I find that a funny example that illustrates how full-stack engineering is very real.

If you only display the images at a predefined size, a PNG (designed for that size) will be crisper than an SVG. Discovered this at a previous job where we were doing a rebrand, we were using SVGs for the logo and monograms on the website and the designers complained that they didn't look good. We compared them with equivalent PNGs and the quality was much better.

General guidance:

* Photo - Use JPG, WebP or similar

* Images used at a single predefined size, where quality matters, e.g. logos - Use PNG

* UI graphics that are displayed at integer multiples of the base size, eg 24, 48, 72 - Use SVG

* Illustration graphics - investigate trade-offs between size and quality for both SVG and PNG

Or your SVGs were desined in Illustrator without actually modifying the code so that all of the coordinates in them would be integers.

Had this issue about 5 years ago. Good SVGs need to go through a manual code filtering step.

In this particular case, it wasn’t integer coordinates that were the issue, but the antialiasing quality, browsers (at the time, 3 years ago, might be better now) just couldn’t cut it. Say what you like about Adobe, but their algorithms are top-notch.

On the integer coordinates side of things, if an SVG has horizontal or vertical lines, I’ll always make sure they’re well-aligned before putting them into a UI.

I disagree with the article. It's a 1,000 word false dichotomy between Full Stack vs. Insert Specialist Here.

Sure, if you're a Fortune 500 company, go ahead and hire a DBA, Cloud Architect, Backend Engineer, UI/UX Designer, Graphic Artist, Social Media Marketer, etc.

You'll have a few million $ in salary overhead. It may take longer to produce a final product.

BUT, it will probably be way better than a product that a full stack developer knocks out.

BUT, if you're a startup or SMB or lean department and have a 100k budget and a 6 week deadline a full stack developer is a huge asset to your company.

Obviously when you take the same project and give it to a highly specialized team of people with lots of time they produce superior results. Do we really need an article about it?

PS. Giving a 10 person team a 1,000 hour time budget would not be a huge deal. Try not laughing when a single Full Stack developer asks for 1,000 hours.

I think you are making the false dichotomy between a full stack developer working and a full stack developer working well on all three areas.

Few people says one person can't do it all. Few people say that nobody can do it. But we specialize in areas for a reason. It takes a lot to be an expect in an area, and multiple that by three and its even more work and time.

So sure, one person can do it all. Sure, one person can do it all well. But the later is much rarer than the former. And have specialized people for each area who can focus exclusively on their area is better.

That 6 week deadline is always going to be 18-20 in reality

not always. Just finished up a 7 week deadline in 12. 2x in my experience has been a fairly reliable estimate. A 3-4x project has either gone completely out of scope or was poorly estimated. And it’s not always the development team’s fault. Sometimes the client is not timely, or even habitually late with deliverables. Unless you’ve worked with them before and know what to expect, give the client a timeline of X but quote for 2X just in case.

Estimates are interesting and I encourage anybody to play with the statistics to see how it works. There are 2 scenarios you need to consider. First is the scenario where the stake holder asks for something, the thing is possible (i.e. it's a matter of working on it until it's done), they don't change their mind, the team doesn't have some kind of emotional incident (like people refusing to work together, someone having a serious health issue, etc). In that case you can split down the overall task into many sub-tasks and estimate each one. Each sub-task estimate will have a high variance, but the more sub-tasks you break it down into, the less variance the resulting overall estimate will have.

The key thing to understand is that while the overall variance will be small, you don't know what the multiplier will be. For teams that you are familiar with, technology that you are familiar with, etc, etc, in my experience people do tend to come out with about the same overall multiplier. Different teams are vastly different, though. I've had teams that operated anywhere from 0.5x (i.e. they overestimated by a factor of 2) to 4.0x (i.e. they underestimated by a factor of 4). It's always best to keep measuring your team's performance to figure out what the best multiplier to use (this is what's known as "load average" in some "agile" systems -- the inverse is "velocity"). Care must be taken to dissuade people from trying to optimise the load average/velocity because it will undermine your estimations -- usually I don't tell people what it is.

Now the other scenario is also fascinating, but requires much less statistics to understand well. Basically this is when the stake holder constantly inserts urgent requests, or cancels tasks mid-development because they thought of something better. Or when your team sits around for 5 days arguing about whether to indent with spaces or tabs. Or upper management decides to "accelerate" the process by constantly inserting new members into the team. Or someone intentionally tries to sabotage your project because they have a "competing" project in the company (or possibly just because they see you as a threat to their eventually triumphant march to the heights of the org chart). Or your lead developer decides that today is the day to institute a national "bring a firearm to work" day. In those cases your schedule is fiction, no matter what process you used to create it.

BTW, all of those things have happened on teams I was on in my career :-). Incidentally, not having a firing pin in a weapon is not considered evidence that it was "just a joke", strangely enough...

Excellent points, I think the whole point of SCRUM planning is to get estimations correctly and it is not as easy reading few articles on it. Hence involving a scrum-master is highly recommended who is usually a person like mikekchar who has done it multiple times atleast.

The scrum master has to have a fundamental understanding that 8 hours of work is not one day. It's generally interrupted by meetings, helping out a coworker, crisis mode on some bug and also generally fucking around with coworkers. When a Dev says 8 hours that should automatically be translated to 16-24 because they won't actually be able to be "heads down"

The interesting thing is that statistically, the things that interrupt a developer occur at a predictable rate. What's not obvious, though, is that you can't predict the completion of a single task. You can predict the completion of a statistically significant collection of tasks. If someone is asking "How long will it take to do X", where X is a single task and is banking the company on the reply, they are a fool. But if you ask "How long will it take to do 30 x" and you have some data to show how long x usually takes, then you can actually give some good replies.

Even more interesting (and I was thinking about this only 5 minutes ago), there are models for defect discovery rates. This basically means that when we write code we make software errors. The amount of time it takes before we discover the error is a random variable with a particular distribution. There are several models which try to allow you to determine how long it will take before you find 90% of the errors, for instance. I was just thinking that I bet the model for errors in requirements is probably very similar to the model for software errors and you can probably fairly easily model how long it will take you before you discover 90% of the remaining functionality that you need after you make the initial plan. Indeed, I've measured in a few groups I've worked on that for those groups they needed another 30% of the overall project time to complete tasks that were not anticipated at the start. Unfortunately I no longer have access to that data so I can' look at it in more detail.

(NB: 30% was just for those teams and those projects -- I don't for a second believe that the number is universal. The fact that it was similar for a few teams is probably coincidental.)

Unless your numbers are completely random just for the example, deciding to run an 1,000 hour project with 10 people is a disaster by itself. How would you involve 10 people in a short 3-4 weeks project?

The numbers were only to make the point that hours are more easily accepted when it's split among a larger team. Yet the same quality is expected when a single Full Stack dev does the project in 1/4 the time and budget?

One validator, six testers, three developers. Not at all uncommon in certain industries.

There's another thing, a team of specialists usually requires more management, planning and a good team culture to avoid "not my job to think about that" syndrome.

Full stack to me is more about ownership and responsibility than pure expertise. He's the guy that can literally carry the entire thing on his back if he has to. Technically speaking, usually because he's the one that created it, by himself, made it work, made it scale, and made it make money without any help. In my case he becomes the guy in charge trying to figure out how to hire people to just little parts of his job. And finding out he now has to learn how to hire people, just like everything else...


This is probably the most accurate description of a full stack engineer in this comment section.

I once met a software engineer who said I was not full-stack because I didn't know how to add to the Linux Kernal. I once met a hiring manager who said I'm not front-end because I don't know how to vertically shard MySQL and "every front-end developer knows how to do that." Technology stacks differ per company and the definition of the title will also differ. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

You should do everyone a solid and name-and-shame the frontend/MySQL company because dear God that's horrifying.

They don’t exist anymore, they didn’t have what it takes :O

And nothing of value was lost

They couldn’t hack it..

Agreed, though I don't feel like a Full-Stack Engineer should do the DevOps Engineer job as seems to be required by this hiring manager. I am not saying you should not know the underlying component you are using in your stack though, just what you need to work on it, not how to administrate a large scale database deployment.

It seems that the world clearly lacks a definition of what Full-Stack Engineering really means ...

I wish. My recent task has been writing scripts to set up Postgres on a bare-bones linux server (including all security, software, users, nfs, hot backup servers, etc) and port an Oracle database over to the postgres database and update 1000s of oracle queries to work on postgres.

In my spare time I also had to create some new admin screens and do a bunch of back end work. I also created a bunch of new svg images for the admin screens.

Basically I'm expected to do everything from setting up and managing linux servers, security, install and configure software, set up oracle and postgres databases, do DDL and DML work, write server-side code, write web services, create images and do layout work, write test cases, write html, js, css, and know a bunch of JS libraries like vue, vuex, vue-router, webpack, jest, bluebird, lodash, async, tailwind, scss, etc. ad naseum.

You’re probably underpaid for the amount of work you’re doing and should test the waters for another role that pays more.

I’d second this. A jack of all trades that can finish a “multi” stack project is worth a lot at most companies.

Yup, it differs considerably depending on the job—the point I guess is that your breadth of experience spans the software in question from end to end.

I consider myself a “full-stack” programming language engineer because I’m equally comfortable with type theory, user experience design, practical implementation, and instruction-level optimisation. Am I a full-stack web developer because I’m equally comfortable with front-end design & development, server-side infrastructure, and networking protocols?

Some would say yes, some no—but I can readily develop, maintain, and optimise a whole application by myself if I need to. I may not do as good a job in any particular narrow area as a specialist in that area, of course.

Indeed I have seen front end Django developer jobs, when Django is most definitely a server side technology. However on multi tier systems it may be handling the "front end" of the system.

In a world with no SPA django is as much a front-end framework as it is anything else (just as JSP, ASP and a million other frameworks that render html on the server and send it).

If you can't make your own transistors to speed up the UI, then you're not full-stack... and no one is.

"Fullstack is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules."

The misunderstanding the author makes is that a Full Stack Engineer is a specialist in all roles. They're not. They're simply Intermediate to Senior in most.

I'd defer to a specialist in essentially every field, but if you require a broad range of work to be done without hiring a half-dozen people, I'm who you're looking for. The best title we have got that kind of experience is Full Stack.

(It's also a well-understood recruiting buzzword you can use to quickly indicate the work you want and the salary you expect.)

I barely understand why you would have more than a few full stack engineers ever.

The guy talked about having beautiful SCSS. At some point, you are talking about design and less about engineering.

Full stack is a job to be taken on by a small team. Having a large team with lots of full stack makes 0 sense.

CSS might involve design, but it also involves engineering. Optimizing code size and rendering speed and fluidity are certainly engineering tasks.

Hmm. Maybe full-stack engineering doesn't need you to believe in it?

Though to be fair it probably does, because having your entire professional community believe you don't exist creates ridiculous amounts of frustration, anxiety and imposter syndrome.

I do (with skill levels ranging from competent to highly regarded):

* UI design

* Data architecture

* API design

* HTML/CSS/JS/React/GraphQL/etc

* Front-end accessibility (not the best, but I don't just do div/span soup and call it a day)

* Front-end performance (i'll spend weeks optimising the hell out of everything I see in browser devtools if given the chance)

* API performance (see previous).

I tend to draw the line at devops and sysadmin stuff, mainly because I don't find it interesting. But for everything listed, I do it because I enjoy it. And there plenty of aspects of engineering professionalism i'm not great at, which offsets the fact that I apparently have an impossible unicorn set of skills.

Honestly, I wish I didn't and was happy doing just a subset. But if I'm spending my time doing just design, I get frustrated that i'm not coding, and if I'm just coding i'll be dreaming of design. Also, the context-switching is hell. I wish my interests would let me specialise, but they don't.

FWIW, your listed skill sets look very front-end heavy to me.

So basically you're a front-end guy who can do some basic back-end stuff. If that's full-stack then 80% of developers out there are full-stack.

I apologise, it was 1am and I miscommunicated, I listed a subset with a very front-end heavy bias. I transitioned from back-end roles to front-end in the second half of my career. I also do (have done):

* Recommendation engines (less relevant now a lot of it is easily achievable with tools like Spark)

* Data processing pipelines

* Search indexing, optimisation, and relevancy tuning for millions of products

* Actual database model definition and business logic (possibly where the confusion was, i kinda meant to say everything between database and request/response layer, when all I really said was data modelling).

* Weird stuff like integrate Django’s model layer seamlessly with RPC frameworks. Essentially you could define “foreign keys” that worked across service boundaries and they’d work transparently and decently optimised.

* Systems architecture. Defining service and communication boundaries, message queues, pub/sub etc.

There’s probably a bit more I’ve forgotten about. Does this address the imbalance a bit?

My point is that if you define full-stack as merely having the skillset to do these things at an intermediate/senior level, then there are plenty of people who fit the bill. The issue is time management, I don’t think it should be someone’s job to do all these things, quality will suffer regardless of ability.

eh, throw it up on heroku

[x] devops

I mean yeah, as long as I can get by with Now or Heroku all is good. But that approach doesn't work indefinitely.

I don't believe in Specialized front/backend development when it relates to web development.

Web development is and should always be a full-stack affair. Otherwise your frontend developers would request apis in a way that destroy performance and create a database model or logic that is unmaintainable on the server-side. Your backend developers would make apis that make the requested front-end design make a hundred api calls or api calls in the wrong places (like during a transition/animation).

It's not just about communication either, though that's also important - it's exceedingly hard for specialized developers to understand the reasons for another's requests, being full-stack means you can see the full-picture.

It's about owning the feature/product from beginning to end. It's about knowing what tradeoffs to make in the serverside, clientside, database or ops, which you can only do effectively if you are familiar with each. It's about never being stuck waiting for your backend to fix an api that isn't right, for your dba to build that query so it won't take a year to run.

That isn't to say that you can't specialize while being Full-stack or that specialized roles outside of web development shouldn't exist (for example game development, big data, machine learning).

I'm not sure you're disagreeing with the author. In the article, full-stack is described as being "the ability to easily navigate the back-end and front-end with a senior level of expertise."

I'm a backend dev; I know enough JS and CSS to build a prototype, or to make a tweak like you're suggesting, but I can't build a production-level frontend app or website. If that's full-stack, the term is a bit too fluid to be meaningful, in my opinion.

I expect senior fullstack developers to have senior level of knowledge and expertise in backend and frontend. I don't expect senior level expertise from junior full-stack developers.

For that matter if you were a senior full-stack developer I would expect you to be able to build a production level frontend as well as a production level backend (though maybe not operation-wise, I.E. deployments and configuration, depending on your background).

That still doesn't preclude having expertise. For instance I wouldn't expect a full-stack developer to know how browser rendering works or the difference between layout and paint events (but I would expect him to know to never access an element's size during an animation) - that's someone with an expertise in front-end performance.

But anyway that's not what I gathered from the article, to me it purports that back-end developers shouldn't do front-end work.

It all just sounds muddled terminology to me. You say you expect them to have "expertise in backend and frontend", but then you say you wouldn't expect them to have expertise like "know[ing] how browser rendering works". So what is it? :)

There are levels of expertise, even as a senior developer.

I expect a full-stack senior developer to be able to lift a webapp from scratch (frankly I'll probably expect it even from an experienced junior full-stack developer in today's PaSS world). I expect every full-stack senior developer to be able to get the job done in both front-end features and back-end features, as long as they aren't very specific. I expect him to be able to do so in a maintainable and relatively performant way that has structure and consistency behind it.

I expect him to know best practices for both front-end and back-end. In front-end that is for instance knowing that you don't measure dom elements inside animations.

I don't expect him to know the internals that led to these best practices (in this case how the browser works and the nature of the layout phase) nor when is it ok to break them. If best practices were followed but something still doesn't work it's okay to call an expert (for instance an expert on browser performance).

Specializing as a fullstack-developer means that you are also an expert in some field (for instance browser performance, or web animations, or graphs).

Perhaps a better phrasing is that since I don't really expect pure front-end senior developers to know it either, only those who specialize in certain fields, so really a full-stack developer is already a senior front-end developer and a senior back-end developer.

There isn't something that makes a front-end developer more specialized in front-end then a full-stack developer, it's just that he didn't work enough on back-end.

> I don't believe in Specialized front/backend development when it relates to web development.

Do you really expect a backend java developer to be comfortable with angular/react and vice a versa?

Indeed. These aren't very complicated subjects, it's easy enough to learn and doesn't require full-time work to become an expert with (and the same goes for backend web development), it merely requires constant practice and dealing with production.

The constant practice and dealing with production your java developer would not have unless that became their job focus.

So are we agreeing that being extremely broad is an anathema to quality because you cant possibly constantly practice will all things?

No. You can be a senior java developer with great expertise with only a part-time job. There's nothing that prevents you from being at a senior level in multiple technologies or fields of study. More then that though, doing both complements each other, so that a senior level full-stack developer often has better insight about server-side issues then someone who only ever knows how to provide back-end solutions to product level problems.

yes!! That is what full stack is.

You can, if needed, produce a working app working from the database all the way to front end. This includes, design, ops and development. All of it.

I'm the only competent developer in our company. So believe it or not, but I'm doing it all, from tinkering in disassembled Oracle 9i JDBC driver, to planning Oracle migration to writing SQL queries, reverse-engineering stored procedures, modifying Delphi sources, writing Java code, writing Kotlin code, writing HTML, JavaScript, CSS, Objective C, rolling out some tiny PHP website, writing brute-forcer to crack P12 private key because someone forgot password LoL. Sure, I'm not an expert in any of those fields. I don't even like most of them. Give me task to write Kotlin library (reimplementing React!) and I'd be happy sitting in the corner for the next few years. But I don't have that luxury and generally stuff I'm doing works well enough. And given our income, it's just not possible to hire few competent developers and they would do nothing most of the time anyway. But if I can do it all, I'm busy most of the time and I can have some money as well. Full stack, that is.

I'm sure your reasons are valid, but I laughed a bit when I read that you use Oracle and don't have the budget for more people.

> I laughed a bit when I read that you use Oracle and don't have the budget for more people.

Why? Because you believe the former causes the latter?

There are many valid criticisms to be levied against Oracle the company, enteprise software in general, and especially its pricing.

However, it's important to remember that, for many businesses, it's either impractical or downright impossible to hire enough engineers to make up for to lost features of replacing Oracle with even somethig as relatively feature-dense as PostgreSQL.

for many businesses, it's either impractical or downright impossible to [...] make up for [...] features of replacing Oracle

I would have granted you this if you'd said "for a few specialized businesses", but you're waaay overselling it. 99.9% of businesses using Oracle would do just fine with a "lesser database".

> would do just fine with a "lesser database"

And I would grant you that if you could make the credible argument that a "lesser" [1] database could be a suitable replacement on a drop-in basis, without significant engineering effort.

As I pointed out in a downthread comment, a very useful feature is that existing stored procedure that encode business logic already work.

Are you really saying that only 0.1% of business database users fall into even that category? My second-hand (DBA I know) experience contradicts this, but if you have a better source, I'm certainly interested.

[1] I don't actually intend to make any overall value judgment, since my point isn't that Oracle has feature/performance superiority over any other database. Instead, I'm saying that it has specific features that the business needed at the time it was chosen that may not be offered by a different one.

Of course once you already have application an built around a platform, the switching costs can be high. See also: IE6. No argument from me there.

But Oracle doesn't sell their product with the pitch "hahaha too bad you're stuck with us". They try to convince the next generation of ill-informed technology leaders that it would be a mistake to choose anything else. I've heard the pitch, and by the third time I heard "invest in Oracle RAC" I was consciously suppressing the urge to punch the salesman.

I'm saying that 99.9% of Oracle customers would have been significantly better off from a cost, flexibility, and support perspective going with an alternative like Postgres when they started building their product. And most of the remaining 0.1% would have been better off with MSSQL.

> I'm saying that 99.9% of Oracle customers would have been significantly better off from a cost, flexibility, and support perspective going with an alternative like Postgres when they started.

Although I agree that some huge proportion [1] of businesses today would do very well to seriously consider Postgres as the first option before even looking at Oracle, I don't recall this being true 17 [2] or even 10 years ago.

Remember, we're likely talking about non-tech businesses here, ones where they're sustaining operations with a single developer. You mention "ill-informed technology leaders" but it's hard to imagine there are any technology leaders actually involved on the buyer's side.

I don't think it's helpful to look back at such a decision through the lens of today's technologies and the kind of talent/expertise that is, today, available to a business whose core competency is tech.

I'm no fan of "enterprise" anything, so don't mistake my critique as cheerleading Oracle. I just feel the context of technology decisions is paramount. It also seems especially germane to the overall thread topic, which is whether a generalist can possibly have enough depth in key areas to be considered competent enough in them.

[1] your repeatedly asserted claim of 99.9% is extraordinary, requiring extraordinary evidence.

[2] Oracle 9i was released in 2001. EnterpriseDB wasn't founded until 2004.

I was building enterprise apps 10 years ago. 20, actually. I made the same arguments then, and I will stand by this evaluation now.

It reminds me of the early 2000s when IBM and WebLogic were selling 5-figure appserver licenses hand-over-fist into enterprises. I would have to dig, but I do recall a study sometime later finding that almost all of these customers were just using them as servlet containers. It's not that WebLogic, Oracle et al have no purpose, it's just that the people buying these things tend to have no idea what they're doing.

> I made the same arguments then, and I will stand by this evaluation now.

To whom? This particular business? 999 out of 1000 businesses (each of whose needs you evaluated and found only one of whom really needed Oracle and therefore excluded)?

What was the argument? That they could do it cheaper by hiring (possibly then non-existent) Postgres DBAs and using Postgres instead of Oracle DBAs and spending exorbitant amounts of money on Oracle?

To us, technical people, that argument might sound perfectly reasonable, but to a non-tech executive it might sound cuckoo-bananas crazy.

> It's not that WebLogic, Oracle et al have no purpose, it's just that the people buying these things tend to have no idea what they're doing.

This strikes me as a dismissive stereotype. As you admit, it's not as if they made a choice that failed to function at all. Social proof is a thing. They merely paid a very high price.

Where were all the people who did have an idea of what to do, those 20 years ago? Busy trying to educate them, or separate them from their money? How about you?

Me? 20 years ago I was busy building ROLAP engines that ran cross-RDBMS, because the customer had already decided to blow a million bucks on Teradata et al before I even got there.

I'm not quite sure what your point is. It's all understandable because nontechnical people were making technical decisions? That doesn't make it ok.

And yes, quite a lot of those overpriced appserver installs failed to function. Let me tell you about the time I wrote the backend for Sprite's Sublymonal campaign; their IBM-operated datacenter couldn't provision WebSphere capacity in time (lead time > 2 months), so I ran the thing off a couple VPS nodes (IIRC rackspace), hiding the whole project from their IT staff.

My point is that overall context matters.

My point is also that making sweeping, moralizing statements like "doesn't make it ok" (nor the repeated forays into other enterpise software topics) isn't helpful in general, and it certainly isn't helpful in furthering understanding or intellectual curiosity on the specific topic, as it relates to Oracle and a single, generalist (arguably "full-stack") engineer performing a sustaining and development role.

I think the idea though is most companies that have such small development team usually don't have the need or expertise to take advantage of those features.

That idea just doesn't stand to reason, though, to be fair, if you say "most companies that" you're expressing a stereotype, which can easily fail, as it does here, when applied to a specific case.

I personally know a "such a small development team" (i.e. a single person) who certainly has the expertise, by virtue of having trained to become an Oracle DBA after a fairly extensive career as a software engineer.

As for need, I'm no expert on Oracle's unique features, but the GP specifically mentioned "reverse-engineering stored procedures", which implies at least previous developers thought there was a need to use an arguably advanced database feature.

In fact, even just having a substantial quantity of stored procedures written in PL/SQL, perhaps at a time when that company had (or contracted out to) a larger development team may make it prohibitive to switch to any other language. Reliably implementing business logic as-is is a pretty big feature.

Errr... the cost value of Oracle database is skewed. It simply costs sooo much it's impractical for most companies to use, especially if they cannot afford more then 1 decent engineer.

We are talking about 10000s of dollars per CORE (not even per cpu).

Also for that matter, I've never met a company that uses oracle features that aren't available in Postgres or can be made with MySQL and another service such as Redis or ElasticSearch.

It also impractical to maintain without a dedicated DBA.

Which usually means that if a company uses OracleDB they are loaded with money.

> We are talking about 10000s of dollars per CORE (not even per cpu).

Amortized over what period of time, though? Is that today's price, or 17 years ago? Is that list price or the price an actual small user would pay?

> I've never met a company that uses oracle features that aren't available in Postgres

I'm sure you'r in the majority here on HN, but that's merely selection bias. Also, it's true today, but was it true 17 years ago, circa Oracle 9i?

> can be made with

Businesses whose core competency isn't tech and/or who aren't located in a tech hub aren't likely even to consider the "make" option.

> It also impractical to maintain without a dedicated DBA.

That's simply false, as the Oracle DBA I know routinely contraced out to companies as a temporary, non-dedicated DBA.

I suspect there's another growth/tech-centric bias at work in this assertion.

All that said, I'm not a proponent of Oracle (or enterprise software in general), but I am a proponent of fact-based discussions.

> Amortized over what period of time, though? Is that today's price, or 17 years ago? Is that list price or the price an actual small user would pay?


Today's prices. 10s of thousands it is still whether you get it at retail price (which is unlikely) or if you amortize it for several years (including yearly support of course).

An actual small user is still likely to pay 10s of thousands of dollars a year.

> I'm sure you'r in the majority here on HN, but that's merely selection bias. Also, it's true today, but was it true 17 years ago, circa Oracle 9i?

Can you provide me with such a feature that Oracle has but Postgres doesn't and is in demand?

Oracle db is a masterpiece and has the best performance of any database I'm aware of , sometimes several times more if properly configured. That was it's big selling point in days of vertical scaling - the hardware was often a lot more expensive then oracle's licensing.

Why are you bringing up a version from 2001? Was that mentioned in parent posts?

> Businesses whose core competency isn't tech and/or who aren't located in a tech hub aren't likely even to consider the "make" option.

Business without tech as a core competency outsource.

> That's simply false, as the Oracle DBA I know routinely contraced out to companies as a temporary, non-dedicated DBA.

I suppose you could run an oracle DB with no or little DBA support. But the companies I know who use it use features that require constant DBA support - replication being the biggest one.

> Today's prices.

Perhaps not relevant, then.

> Why are you bringing up a version from 2001? Was that mentioned in parent posts?

Yes, Oracle 9i was specifically mentioned, which is why I find it bizarre, if not inappropriate, to criticize (let alone laugh, as an upthread commenter did), with not just "20/20 hindsight" but also with today's technology availability.

> Business without tech as a core competency outsource.

That's just a synonym for "buy" in the "buy vs build" decision, whereas "make" is a synonym for "build".

> > I've never met a company that uses oracle features that aren't available in Postgres

> I'm sure you'r in the majority here on HN, but that's merely selection bias. Also, it's true today, but was it true 17 years ago, circa Oracle 9i?

As somebody working on PostgreSQL full time, I very much agree on that. Neither today nor back in the 9i days has PostgreSQL implemented everything Oracle provides. Nor the reverse, for that matter. And I'm not just talking about features nobody uses.

> > It also impractical to maintain without a dedicated DBA.

> That's simply false, as the Oracle DBA I know routinely contraced out to companies as a temporary, non-dedicated DBA.

I do think it's easier to operate several databases, including PG, without a dedicated DBA in comparison to Oracle. Obviously it's entirely possible for both.

Oracle Express is free. It's close to full feature as the Standard one, except some limitation on number of connections and some enterprise feature.

Yes Oracle 11g XE is free although you are stuck a version behind the latest 12c release. You get a lot of stuff in there although you are limited on db size as well. You do get apex which you can use to build web apps easily and all your pl/sql will work but there are some limitations around Java in the database and anything that relies on that. It's definitely worth a go, but if you are starting from scratch Postgres is probably more appealing now.

I didn't know you can even use Oracle Express in a commercial settings, I've always seen it as a developer edition.

It's historical reasons. They use Oracle 9i with 15-year old software and they don't have budget to upgrade, so, I guess, they'll use it for another 15 years. Actually it works well for its age. I'd say that PostgreSQL would as well and I'd choose it any day if I have to pay for it. But I have to work with what I've got.

How many developers are there at your company?

5 people, me as a developer, another guy as a mostly database stuff (he knows Java and sometimes helps me, but prefers to work with database-related tasks), 2 kind of management guys to work with papers, money, documents and all that stuff and recently we hired one young guy to help with boring stuff (something like first line technical support).

Oh... it's just her/him :-P

How was your day at work?

> writing brute-forcer to crack P12 private key because someone forgot password


What makes you a "senior" engineer, anyway? I feel confident calling myself fullstack. I'm not going to list all of the things I have done and know how to do because honestly it would feel arrogant. But what lead to the thought process that backend and frontend developers should be separate anyways? Yes, it is complicated and time consuming to keep up with both backend and frontend development, but there's no way you're telling me some people believe it's actually impossible to do that. If you dismiss the frontend as unimportant, what the hell are you writing the backend for to begin with???

I like coding and I definitely find programming enjoyable. But, importantly, I don't write software for the hell of it. If you actually give a damn about software development, I don't understand how you could simply dismiss one side of software development due to where it gets executed in the stack.

> What makes you a "senior" engineer?

You've spent enough time designing software that you can take a vague spec, design a solution avoiding common pitfalls and following a very easy path. Then you hand back a prototype followed by a complete and maintainable solution to a happy client.

At that point, your services should no longer be _required_ to keep the product working.

"But can you just change this?"


Of course, it's software. We can change anything!

Even better, I'm not busy trying to keep your current software working - so I can get right on it.

Everyone has their own definitions. Here are mine. Do note that a lot of people who think that they are senior, actually aren't by mine, and senior is something that can be reached by some with very little experience.

Junior - Needs close supervision. Can't reliably develop something more than 1k lines.

Mid level - Has learned to follow a design consistently. Doesn't keep an eye on the bigger picture. Likely to fall apart around 10k lines.

Senior - Can work in the weeds and keep an eye on the business as a whole at the same time. In my experience is likely to be able to design something that can scale to 100+k lines.

As far as I can tell you can use the title if you've worked for about 8 years in the field. (Not that I really agree with the definition. But basically from what I see they do the same work as non-senior engineers but the job listings want more years of experiences.)

That's optimistic. I usually see it at about 4 years, which is absurd, and directly leads to the 26-year-old senior dev I worked under a couple of jobs ago, who's primary concern in code reviews was that I always cache my jQuery selectors "for performance reasons".

In my view this is off base because it's a bit intentionally obtuse.

I think the real maxim is more along the lines of "if you need actual full stack engineering, you don't want a full stack engineer."

Because full stack engineers are not there for large, highly engineered, Amazon/Google scale sites.

They are there for the MVPs, the startups, the moderate scale internal line of business tools, your local city government, or one-off moderate projects.

A full stack engineer is not there to have expert knowledge of every single micro detail of front-end, back-end, databases, site performance, SEO and such.

They're there to have a general knowledge of them, produce something reasonable, and know enough of all the ends to ship in a timely manner, hopefully with design decisions that can be easily tweaked, meet requirements, and don't have boatloads of technical debt, until 'till it justifies a larger, more specialized, engineering investment, or just putters on with light support 'till end EoL because it's good enough for the scale of operation.

what's the takeaway from this blog post? There's no such thing as a full stack engineer so don't bother learning about databasing and server concerns and devops; just focus on front-end? Are we just criticizing people for doing their jobs to the best of their ability?

A full-stack engineer is not always going to write the best front-end ever; there may be some kludgey stying and some non-semantic HTML (divs and spans!). As a non-DBA, queries may not have optimal execution paths. There may be questionable backend design decisions.

This is an obvious conclusion and does not really speak to the value that a developer brings to an organization. Development is a means to an end, and there are plenty of business cases that an experienced full stack developer can solve in a 'good enough' manner.

We run the risk of letting the perfect become the enemy of the good. Any mature developer should have one or two areas of deep expertise and have enough skill in other domains to get a job done.

I don't tell people I'm a full-stack engineer because I'm equally good with every random piece of technology at use in a product, but because it signals willingness to apply the imperfect human skills that I do have to different parts of a system.

The front end of a single-page React application is a lot more complicated than just HTML templates and CSS, and you can get all sorts of productivity and developer happiness gains from being able to jump between front end and backend - consider implementing the network layer in Redux, breaking out validation logic into a shared library, or fixing a bug that can only be understood by looking at both a front-end request and the endpoint that handles it.

This is a weird rant.

He is complaining that someone who does many things won't be as good in front-end as someone who does only front end.


Nobody expects full stack engineer to be all that great in front-end. That's why he is not a front end engineer.

Vice versa he won't probably be all that good in SQL or in administration and devops.

I am not even sure what is this guy complaining about exactly

Disagree. I expect full-stack developers to be _great_ at frontend, and _capable enough_ to build the backend. When resources are constrained you want the customer-facing side of the product to be a priority.

> _great_ at frontend, and _capable enough_ to build the backend

I think that bias says more about the particular kind of company you're in than the general label of "full-stack".

That's a dangerous attitude. Both are important.

Back-end is where the state of the application is. Where all the users are served, not just a single user. The back-end is where things are going to melt down with scale.

If you make bad decisions in your backend you might find it hard not to lose customer data. They might also create user-visible latency or reliability issues.

Front-end by contrast tends to keep working as well on day 100 as it did on day 1.

If your point is that stable and boring back-end with shiny front-end is good, then yes, I agree with you.

So you like putting lipstick on a pig.

Whenever I interview someone I explain what Full Stack means to me. As a small team we have to support the full stack of development. That means

  * provisioning and updating servers
  * installing and configuring software on those servers
  * keeping server system software up to date (Apache/MySql/Php/etc)
  * maintaining and developing custom frameworks
  * writing all the admin tooling for getting sites up and running and configured
  * working in our backends including writing queries
  * designing databases and migrations
  * maintaining deployment of new code and version control
  * setting up build systems for our apps
  * designing frontend systems (how they use api's, deployment of them, stores, etc..)
  * writing components and styling them
and that is just the web stuff. Not including the VR/AR/App stuff we get tasked with building.

While I am a Senior/Team Lead and don't expect people to be experts in all of that stuff, debugging requires at least being willing to take on any of that.

The author seems to think that just frontend development requires all your mental capacity. I really don't want this to come off as me being arrogant but feel very confident in my skills in everything he described AND I do all of the above web stuff and more. I also manage a team and meetings and timelines and quotes and resourcing and sales questions etc... It's not that hard. And I know I am not a 10x or 100x dev (maybe 2-3x)

Even in a team of specialists, some of the work they do can be off-loaded to a full-stack developer to free them up for tasks that require more of their expertise.

For example, a front-end specialist would be better off optimising the slow page response times of the product's news feed or implementing a new application page altogether than, say, adjusting css that break on a few view ports. In a big team, you can push the CSS fixing job to a junior; but in a lean team, it's better if this goes to a generalist in your team.

If your backend dev is busy on implementing OAuth, he can off-load fixing a bug that has a small fix but is hard to test like a minor refactor. You compound this "minor" jobs and you will need a lot of junior staff to help on the load, or you could hire a full-stack developer to help with the whole team.

Eventually this generalist gains a good understanding of the full stack, as his title implies, and can contribute good ideas that affect all parts of the system. They also make good tech leads because they can interact and empathise with all members, and can call out decisions that may seem good on one part of the stack but could have horrible implications on the other end. Some progress to Architects simply because they have the bird's eye-view of the whole system.

Lastly, if you are a fledgling web startup, it would work against your business interests to hire an expensive specialist right away.

The difference in flexibility between having 4 backend and 3 frontend engineers on a team and having 2 backend 3 flex and 2 frontend engineers is a huge gain in what that team can commit to in any given period.

Ha! Referencing your own tweet, from earlier this month. Awesome!

I disagree mostly. I’m pretty full stack from UI down to circuit design, but that’s after almost 20y in the business.

I know, right? :)

To fully prove my point, here is a quote... also written by me. Huh?

Is that supposed to be convincing? Odd assumptions here. Like that guy on FB that always likes his own links.

> Of all the engineers I’ve met over the years only one has come close to what that title, full-stack engineer, implies: the ability to easily navigate the back-end and front-end with a senior level of expertise.

In the first paragraph, the author sets up a really weak straw man for himself to defeat. If you define "full-stack engineer" as "an expert at front and back end", it's pretty easy to not believe in it since you may as well be restricting the category to people who are 3σ. If you define "full-stack engineer" as someone who "can do front and back end moderately well". This is much easier to believe in.

Is it a straw man? The job openings I've read for full-stack developers certainly seem to ask for experts in both.

Yes, there is such a thing as a full-stack engineer. They'll cost you a lot of money (or equity), but will spare you from herding an entire room of specialists early on.

As products and teams scale up, cross-stack expertise becomes far less valuable than domain expertise and institutional knowledge.

This post also leaves off another area that I'd expect of a senior full-stack developer: Infrastructure/Ops.

I think people don't understand what full-stack dev/engineer really is (or should be). It's not a person who knows everything about everything, that's of course impossible, but it's also not a person who knows only a little about everything either. In my eyes a proper full-stack engineer is someone who's currently deeply involved with X, while having a previous experience (of being deeply involved) in Y and Z. As you move from one area of expertise to another you, of course, forget a lot, you fall behind with the latest features and approaches, but you still know enough about it to, first, be able to communicate efficiently with an expert, and the second to be able to relatively quickly get back into the saddle, if needed.

That just sounds like an experienced developer. X Y and Z could be Bootstrap, React and Angular. In that case you have an experienced front-end developer. In my view a full-stack developer is somebody who can write front ends, middle tier logic and design and use databases efficiently. In various phases of his career he should have worked specifically in each of these areas in depth. My view also includes the idea that a full-stack dev should understand how computers really work and should be able to spec a server/VM for a specific purpose. There are not many of these people out there. Heck, I was shocked 20 years ago at how few devs that seemed like nerds to me didn't even know how to take apart a desktop and diagnose a problem. Maybe I'm just an old guy and should worry more about the kids on my lawn.

I totally agree, that's exactly what I had in mind, X-Y-Z being a broader areas, not just a framework or a lib. For instance, I worked (in the span of now almost 20 years) on back-end, front-end, DBA and linux admin positions, and I'm not counting in that all the C++ and Delphi desktop programming that I did as a kid. This gives you a wider perspective on how things operate, and I find it very helpful when consulting clients on sys architecture, since I know how hard is to implement something in any part of the system and can plan for that ahead.

I understand OP's views don't represent his employer's, but it's still funny to see Gusto (OP's employer) recruiting for full stack engineers on the front page at the same time!

Quite. I'd be curious to hear what conversations if any he's had w/ them on the topic.

OP, feel free to chime in!

The first time I touched HTML I was ~19 years ago for my middleschool's technology class, where we were to implement a very simple (and ugly) webpage.

Later, in highschool, the first real programming language I learned was Java, and I did some personal projects with that on my own.

After graduating college without any marketable skills in the height of the recession, my sister (a SWE) introduced me to Python and then JavaScript. I weighed my options and found that going into front-end development would be ideal for me; I had an eye for design and it was simple enough to begin. I learned JavaScript through-and-through, but contemporaneously I learned backend web-development (via Python, Django and Flask). When an opportunity at work opened up, I transitioned to doing backend development (of which I was already familiar from personal projects).

Having done both, I do not see why they are mutually exclusive. I think the issue is that most people who call themselves full-stack engineers do not actually fit the description; it sounds like a good thing to label oneself. I see this often with bootcamp grads who know JavaScript only, and can run their code with Node, so they believe that they are now backend developers.

To learn the backend, I built from scratch: * a simple (and crappy) ORM * a simple (and crappy) db-backed session system * a simple form-generator (similar to Django forms, for flask) * login / user handling (etc)

To learn the frontend, I built a simple single-page-application, using vanilla JavaScript.

I have worked for years doing both backend and frontend development (JS visualizations for SVG/canvas, data-heavy SPAs, backend APIs, Golang services to process data, work with AWS, docker, etc), and I doubt that I am unique. Full-stack developers do exist, though of course one only has so much time and "jack of all trades, master of none" will apply to many.

Many of these new-bootcamp grads build a simple Node web-app without realizing many of the problems (and solutions) inherent in the backend and label themselves full-stack. That's the problem; not that the frontend is somehow too difficult to master, or that the backend is somehow out of reach.

The author seems to think "full-stack" means the developer is an expert in everything; that is hardly the case.

I would consider a full stack developer to be someone who likely has one or more areas of expertise, but is able to quickly move out of their comfort zone(s) and contribute in a meaningful way towards any part of the stack.

I agree!

I blogged this with the point of view of a full-stack developer that can do front-end development, but rather didn't a while ago: https://coderbyheart.com/the-full-stack-developer-trap/

This is starting from the assumption that every website must be an SPA, which I am not sure I agree with. Most of the time you really don’t need that much stuff on the client.

But but... reactjs :( /s

I would appreciate this if more front-end specialists actually had all four of the skills that the author claims separates them from full-stack devs: elegant CSS, high-performance web engineering, accessible markup, and in-depth knowledge of React/Angular/etc. I've not observed this to be true. All too often a person only knows the JS framework and doesn't know/care about any other aspect of their platform.

The author supports bloated stacks driven by trendy concepts. I highly disagree with nearly every point the author raises. At the end of the day, there is http where there is the request/response cycle, and knowing how the machine works is essential, so obfuscation and nonsense should be eschewed in lieu of greater clarity of understanding. One can pre-load data into a server rendered template but then one essentially has to load new data (hello xhr or websockets) and update the dom accordingly. Everything else is just noise. Full stack engineering gives one a comprehensive overview of the virtual machine. While SPA and serverless architectures (not to mention graphQL, postgrest, and other attempts to basically agglomerate the backend server onto the database) alter this equation, having full comprehensive knowledge of this is the equivalent of a mechanic knowing her/his engine, or a soldier being able to field strip his/her armament.

So, here we have a click-bait title and our reactions are feeding into the apparent pretensions to fame engendered.


The article is titled "I Don't Believe in Full-Stack Engineering", yet states "If you’re only hiring full-stack engineers" as though they are something the author believes exist.

It seems that the real approach of this article should have been to outline why hiring ONLY full-stack engineers may not be a good idea.

The author probably meant that they don't believe that full-stack engineering is beneficial compared to hiring primarily specialists.

Potentially. Which is why I believe that it is more of a click-bait title than a meaningful discussion point.

It's a common idiom. Someone who says "I don't believe in psychics" means "people who call themselves psychics don't have the abilities that implies", not that nobody claims to be one.

There are full stack engineers, lots of them. This article is extremely narrow minded. It's like saying that there are no nuclear scientists because you've never met one personally.

I remember the last big company I worked for, they asked me "What are you: Front end or Back end?" and when I said that I could do either equally well, they said something like "Lots of people claim to be both but you can be honest with us, which one are you really?“.

I ended up doing only front end at that company for a while then got bored and quit. My next company I did full stack and they actually got to see the benefits of letting engineers use ALL of their skills.

Well if he met me, he could add one more person to his list of people he has met over the years that meet his expectations of "full stack developer."

To be honest, I'm getting sick of the front-end/back-end bifurcation that I see literally everywhere now. I'm even guilty of it. It has this notion that you are either back-end only or front-end only. It really leaves no room for actual expertise that allows a software engineer to actually build software.

In fact, the terms back-end developer and front-end developer imply neither person on his or her own can actually build working software without the other. And that's total crap.

These terms started appearing more frequently in the mid-to-late 2000s and nowadays they seem to be all over. But back in the early and/or mid-2000s, "Web Developer" or "Software Engineer" or "Application Developer" sufficed and it was implied that you could build software from scratch, soup to nuts. Of course, in a large organization you had multiple "Web Developers" who surely specialized in one thing or another in order to help their comrades out so not everyone was doing everything at the same time to maintain sanity. But still, as a "Web Developer" it would be expected that you could build software and everything that entailed for the web. Not "Oh well I built the backend... now you just need one other person to do the rest."

It depends what the organization is willing to sacrifice. If you want everything done well, then you should get specialists, or pay well for one of the rare persons who can master almost everything.

Internal software usually doesn't have to be as aesthetic on the front-end (UI) such that you can maybe sacrifice there, for example.

Sometimes you can throw hardware at poor performance if performance tuning is not a person's forte, but sluggishness may snag you at a bad time before you have time to upgrade to a more powerful box(es).

I have to admit, full-stack stuff sounded really horrible to me, coming from front-end development.

Databases? Containers? VMs? I don't even know where to start!

But when I got into serverless, it wasn't that hard.

Sure, with DynamoDB and S3 I have to manage aspects of my storage, but not much.

Sure, whith Lambda and API-Gateway I have to manage aspects of my back-end API, but not much.

Setting up a DB cluster and microservices with containers is something a fully fledged back-end dev needs to do.

But getting something decent up and running with serverless technologies is something I can do too.

I would never call someone who can only do serverless on the "backend" full-stack.

Haters gonna hate, I guess.

I think that definition of "senior level of expertise" is a bit too much for full-stack engineers. I actually have worked with many engineers who are very comfortable working front to back end creating wholistic solutions. To me, full stack engineer is someone who can design and implement a wholistic solution. If you can build a todo app, you're pretty much a full-stack engineer (a junior one and also depending on the todo app implementation).

The initial assumption is wrong: Full-Stack engineers are not expected to traverse the whole stack with senior level skills and ease.

Also if you become really good at something you'll realize that actually it is not all about more skills. There's a point where strategic decision making overcomes coding skills.

E.g. 1: I spent years to really learn vim and git indepth. I can write my own git clone and did that before as well. However I have seen so many different editors and IDEs that I'm at a point where I can take whatever is there. I use nano with ease if the situation requries it. This makes me quicker than installing my favorite editor, my configs and then start working.

E.g. 2: The more experience one gains the more one sees that the biggest drag on progress is usually misunderstanding, lack of info, lack of responsibility. So nowadays I do more for my team by creating meeting requests with the right people. For that I need to be able to read all of the source code and docs to figure out where the actual problem is and who really has the expertise to solve issues there. But I don't need to be as good as the topic expert.

"Front-end development is important today and it will be important in twenty years’ time, it’s not going away anytime soon."

That I don't think will be true unless it's pertaining the eventual abandonment of the web browser as the run-time.

The awful tangled spaghetti that is the current code for a web site UI is not tractable going forward. It takes way too much effort to make a usable interface for the value in return. It's also too limiting. And too difficult to maintain. These are all problems caused by using a run-time originally developed for document browsing that has been pressed into service as an application platform.

As a full-stack developer, the front end is the most annoying to work on because it's the most deficient and under-powered. Consequently, we don't put as much effort into it.

Eventually it has to come to something more sane. Maybe web assembly running in a virtual machine - in don't know. What I do know is the advancement of computing is being hindered by the lack of a competent UI system.

Haha. No. The tangled spaghetti mess will only get worse. We are only going to add more layers. People are not going to be sane :)

> What I do know is the advancement of computing is being hindered by the lack of a competent UI system.

Hasn't that always been the case? UI has always been a mess, at least as far back as I can remember.

What UI system is better than web right now? How will web assembly help?

I can understand the authors frustrations. I too have worked with loads of full-stack developers that have been fairly standard at both, or people that market themselves as full-stack, but are either Ruby/Python developers that can throw together a React app, or front-end wizards that can barely navigate enough Rails to build a basic CRUD app.

Where the idea falls flat is where you draw the lines in each discipline. Do you expect a front-end developer to have domain knowledge of all the leading frameworks out today? Do you expect them to be immediately productive on an Node/Express project? Additionally, on the back-end side, would you expect that person to have written production-ready code in a set of languages like Ruby, Python, C# and so, with full domain knowledge of all their respective frameworks? There are front-end devs that know a huge amount on the frontend side, and backend devs with working knowledge in a whole range of languages, but it's difficult to find a (sane) person that knows it all.

But, if you're a Rails shop, it's not uncommon for someone to know Rails really well, and be a solid frontend developer. If Ruby/Rails is your bag then that person is a full-stack developer, even though they might be completely useless if you're a .NET shop. Using myself as an example, I was fairly solid on the front-end, but as I got more involved with back-end dev I found my domain knowledge falling behind. I reckon I could throw together a halfway-decent front-end application, alongside a Rails/Django/ASP.NET MVC application, but I'd feel uncomfortable calling myself a full-stack developer because I don't consider myself good enough to know it all.

I'd be doing myself and a future employer a disservice by selling myself as such, but it doesn't mean that people don't, especially more controlling developers that want control over every aspect of an application.

He attributes bad web sites to lack of skills. I'm sorry, but in my experience it generally is due to lack of time and budget, no matter how experienced you are. Experience helps a lot but not every site is worth pouring in the money required to make it top notch. Some times meeting business needs matters more than technical perfection.

It also often results from lack of clarity in communication about things like

* Why are we doing this?

* What is the business value we expect from this?

* What resources do we need to do this to a level of quality where it has that business value?

I didn't believe in full-stack engineering either, until I had a very hairy problem that required fighting with various interacting issues to obtain a specific level of "web performance".

And yes, I know about "font loading, images, SVGs, animations, auditing third party scripts". Still sometimes, you have to dig deeper in the stack to find the low hanging fruit that will make the difference between meeting requirements or not.

After throwing away the nice SVGs and replacing them by inline PNG (uglier, but you need that 15% size difference and the precious milliseconds), what do you do?

My current solution is a combination of various things - the last element being VPS close to the customers to provide resources with a very low latency.

(and by the way, if anyone happens to know reliable VPS companies in South America, Japan, South Africa, I would love some recommendations. I only know about Hetzner ZA and Linode JP. I would love to find some good host quality around Uruguay or Brasil)

Show me a front-end developer that has mastered every aspect of front-end development, or a back-end developer that has mastered every aspect of back-end development.

Everyone else only gets to pick a somewhat arbitrary subset of those aspects. Some pick subsets from both front-end and back-end (in fact even for a front-end developer having at least some understanding of back-end development is a good idea and vice versa). If those subsets have no clear bias for one over the other, congrats: you're doing full-stack.

Yes, the label is misleading, not every full-stack developer can literally work at any level of the stack equally proficiently. And if they're relatively new to programming they may have spread themselves too thin.

Heck, in the 90s most web developers were "full stack" by necessity (mostly because there wasn't much of a frontend until CSS gained traction and AJAX became a thing). Back then we just called them "webmasters".

Completely agreed. "Full-stack" developers fall into two camps; that is the "web developers" who know enough PHP/Node/Whatever to build a CRUD app with UI, and the serious software engineers who treat front-end as an "oh whatever" afterthought. Both end up with nothing but a huge mess at scale.

I'm this way, and I don't know why. I try to avoid frontend, until I'm more or less forced into it. I can make something functional, but inevitably get grilled about my way of going about it or why I didn't use 2018x style. The fact is, I don't care. I hate every minute of it, and only learn enough to knock it out. I find myself mentally complaining every step of the way. I just don't like how the web as it is is designed, written, or fits together. I wish there was an off switch, as I know i'd be more valuable with these skills, but I'm just mentally unable to accept it.

Web developers are not serious?

That's not my point. I'm saying that there's a difference between the full-stack generalist "web developers" who know HTML/CSS/JS/PHP/Ruby, and software engineers who build complex systems, typically in Java/C#/C++.

There are also people who do both. I started out with JavaScript and PHP and do a lot of React/Angular/Laravel stuff. But I have also worked on complex performance-sensitive business systems written in a mixture of C++ and Rust.

My boss at my last job had done the opposite. Coming from a tradtional compsci C/C++ background (many moons ago), he learnt Angular 2 for a frontend project that required it. Both his C++ and frontend code were among the best at our company.

Saying there aren't good fullstack engineers is like saying multi-instrumentalists aren't good musicians. Sure, the very very best violinists probably don't play other instruments at a high level. But the average multi-instrumentalist (who plays the violin) is a lot better than the average violinist.

That attitude, as if there's no such thing as a complex system on the frontend, is a pox on the industry.

Building complex systems is far from limited to the backend.

Correct. There is a difference. Typically these 2 "types" sell themselves very differently also.

What actually is your point? Reading between the lines, it seems to be:

"Anyone who calls themselves a full-stack developer is garbage - it's just a matter of what side your garbage is on."

"Those that say it can’t be done should get out of the way of those doing it"

And sometimes that who are doing it need to listen to those who are asking the question, "Should it be done?"

I don't care what they call me, as long as I'm not stuck in a single environment. I like programming, whether it's on the front-end, the back-end, or somewhere else entirely. And I care more about programming than about design, image optimisation, database optimisation, or configuring containers and deploy tools. I understand those things come with the job, but they're never going to be my strongest point.

I'm fine if people just call me a programmer or software engineer, but it seems that these days, full-stack developer/engineer is what people need to know in order to place me.

The article is lost from it's first sentence. "with a senior level of expertise" No a full stack does not need to be senior in all, if you want a Senior Full Stack engineer maybe.

The fullstack engineer or T engineer is someone who shows versatility when it comes to the tasks given, he has an issue on the FE that is related to BE. He doesnt need to solve it but if the understands and then can point to the person who can fix it quickly thats key.

Also sorry did anyone see the bio of this guy? he is not even related to engineering unless he lies in his bio:

"I’m Robin, a web designer, writer and typographer living in San Francisco."

Click bait title with strawman argument. By this author's definition most engineers are not engineers because they're not experts. The moment 'expert' is removed from the definition the argument falls apart.

Some people want to focus on front end problems, some want to focus on backend problems. I personally just want to focus on problems. I'm neither front-end or back-end. I'm a software engineer.

Oh thank god! Finally glad to see this koolaid getting dispersed. I hope some of the glory gets reimbursed to embedded and systems level engineers too :)

Shouldn't a "full stack" engineer also be fully versed in hardware engineering, microprocessor architecture, kernel and driver programming, operating systems, programming language and compiler design, etc?

You sound like someone who is not good or dislikes either backend or frontend work and cheers for anybody who says that one person can`t do work. There are many of us who can.

So on the contrary, I am a generalist and love poking around all over the stack. But that's it. I am a crazy breadth person but dont like to go into the depth at each level as that has way too much overhead for me. So that limits my expertise (but not love to tinker) in any one area. In companies/places where we need to go beyond POC apps, standardization (within stack and tech) kicks in, and you are not going to be productive if you are not doubling down on one or two areas. Worse are political problems where as an "apps engineer" where you are implementing a bunch of interfaces but diving deeply requires you to transcend org boundaries (again I am not a fan of that, just reporting as I see it), limiting your productivity.

I've always wanted to build a server from scratch: build a simple chip running a one-trick web server that can respond to a GET request and have it serve up a single page application, and a not-a-lot-of-bauds serial modem connected to the internet through a gateway of some sort. It'd probably take me a year of nights and weekends, but at the end I would be comfortable calling myself a full-stack developer.

Pretty sure software architecture applies to both frontend and backend development, but for whatever reason, most frontend developers seems to ignore it (not everyone, but most public libraries are terrible architecture-wise).

Since the skill it's transitive and it's one of the skills that gives the highest value long term, I don't see how there couldn't be a fullstack developer.

The best teams are T-Shaped (specialists who also generalize) that doesn't mean they are specialists in everything, but as a team they have the expertise they need collectively. Those teams work well because when someone is on vacation you can still execute as a team because you cross train. It's not rocket science here people

In my experience companies looking for full stack engineers want a fully competent front end engineer that’s willing to get his hands dirty with a CRUD backend. Specifically not someone that’s mediocre at everything, and at least for reasonable hiring managers, not someone that’s an expert at everything.

Full-stack cannot truly exist because of the clash of cultures. Front-end values that which is shiny and new, the latest framework in the latest browser, code 6 months old is already obsolete, code 2 years old has to be rewritten entirely because all of its dependencies are broken now. Experience is not valued because no-one has any in the current trendy tool, it's too new. Whereas back-end values that which is mature and stable, code that is 10 or 20 years old is considered to be proven and reliable, experience is highly prized because it shows its value in day-to-day work. When the cultures crossover you get horrific things like node.js or MongoDB.

That doesn't mean there aren't front-end people who can write a bit of SQL or back-end people who can throw together a simple website. That's fine, those are basic commodity skills now. But everyone has to choose the culture they are comfortable with and that will dictate where they fall on the technology spectrum too.

So I when write complete applications myself, native/web frontend, backend system, stored procedure at the DB layer, talk with all parties, architecture blueprints, what I should call myself then?

I know, consultant with expertise delivering delightful experiences.

meh. I consider myself pretty fullstack - plastic forming to css and most things in between. Am I your guy to write the best ISR on some rando chipset - no. Am I your guy to write the most optimized query and tuning with a deep dive in the query planner - no. But I know enough about each respective domain to go deep when needed (google makes this more doable today than ever before) and I can get an MVP far faster than a specialist. I don't mean to knock specialists but rather to say there are roles for both and believing in one or another is the wrong place to focus.

"Because there’s no such thing as a unicorn and there’s no such thing as a full-stack engineer."

Ridiculous to find out I've been doing the impossible for 15+ years now? Somebody give me a raise!

Full stack engineer means knowing CS fundamentals. With that you can do most anything, except good UI/UX development. Leave that to the web developers.

Errr.... hold on ... I can build every component of a complete system, front end, back end, deployment, database.

Maybe I don’t exist.

This really comes off as a rant by a front-end developer complaining about full-stack devs not being as good as them.

As evidenced by the first dozen top-level responses (largely written in defensive tones from self-proclaimed "full stack developers") it becomes clear that everyone has a different definition for the term.

Thus, I find this entire conversation to be mostly useless, except as a survey of what the term "full stack" means to different people, particularly those who brandish it.

Great article, lots of trigger in this thread but what you're saying resonates.

If you read between the lines, you could pretty much say that as much time as you split between backend and frontend you would need to become a solid engineer in either of those domains.

Never says never. You'll be amazed how good some engineers are.

what an awkward little article

Specialization is for insects.

One of my favorite Robert Heinlein quotes.

Apologies in advance for the negativity, BUT....

I wonder how many people honestly believe that they are doing good "social proof" work for their career when they publish pieces like this.

However, many of these read as insecure, pedantic, and a decent lack of self-awareness on the authors part. Tone deaf. Pretentious SV "influencer word salad". When reviewing resumes, I always do a ton of Googling. This would have given me a bunch of soft data points that would potentially outrank his/her resume

"Full-Stack Engineering" as defined by Robin Rendle - would have been a more honest title, but no one would have clicked.

A full stack developer is what turns into an Architect. If you cannot build, operate, tune and debug the full stack, at scale, you are not an architect.

>A full stack developer is what turns into an Architect. If you cannot build, operate, tune and debug the full stack, at scale, you are not an architect.

Ah yes, I love cleaning up the mess every "architect" I've ever worked under has left on the front-end. Front end development is an arcane art, full of a million gotchas that have nothing to do with intuition, intelligence, or programming skill. It's just years and years of running into stupid mistakes and API quirks to build that domain knowledge. Anyone who doesn't respect and accept that is sorely mistaken.

I wouldn't agree. A building architect isn't an expert at all the trades that are required to fulfill his design; he just has a strong understanding of how everything fits together and what is/isn't possible.

Agree, and the mess is when an architect thinks they are the head and know better than everyone else. I doubt there would be a mess if the architect said let’s do x and someone said oh no y is a better approach and they lived happily ever after ;)

If you can build a web site with React + Firebase + Google Cloud Function + CDN, you are a full-stack engineer.

Not even close.

All this talk of front end and back end and I'm just sitting here not knowing how to do any of it.

At least I get paid lots of money.

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