The Myth of the Full-Stack Developer

If you could one hire one person to handle your entire application stack, would you? The answer is yes for at least 30,000 companies based on Glassdoor job postings. In theory, a full-stack developer sounds like a great deal for startups with limited funds. For the cost of just one salary, you get someone who can handle front-end and back-end development plus databases, servers, DevOps, and more. All of these skills come in one tidy package, and you get the added benefit of a dedicated team member can assume ownership of the project, make updates quickly, and troubleshoot issues as they come up.

It’s a tantalizing prospect, and according to Tech Republic, these technology unicorns are among the most in-demand employees for 2019.

The problem is that it rarely works out that simply.

Jack of All Trades, Master of None

Most full-stack developers are highly skilled in one or two areas and competent in everything else. In other words, they have a working knowledge of many different technologies and skillsets but have mastered only one or two. Think of a full-stack developer as a generalist. He or she will have a broad understanding of all the relevant technology, but won’t have the deep, detailed knowledge of a specialist.

Increasingly, that’s not enough for companies that want to create industry-leading applications. Here’s why:

1. A modern, born-in-the-cloud application relies on a wide variety of tools and technologies

As technology increases in complexity, developers need a growing portfolio of skills to build and maintain front-end tools, back-end architecture, and all of the support systems needed to keep everything running efficiently. Your developer will need in-depth knowledge of programming languages, databases, DevOps, quality assurance, information security, and more. On top of that, emerging technologies and innovations have the potential to differentiate you from your competitors, but only if your developer has the knowledge and skill to integrate them. Can one person really do all of this? Maybe, but there’s a big difference between competency and mastery, and that difference sets apart the mediocre applications from the stellar ones.

2. It’s extremely difficult for one or two rock-star developers to stay up on everything across the entire stack.

Every stack is different, and there’s no way one person can master every technology that might benefit your company. This is the key problem with relying on a full-stack developer alone. No matter how skilled your developer is, one person can’t develop the depth of skills and knowledge needed in every area just to keep your technology functional, secure, and user-friendly. 

And of course, you don’t want your tech to merely be functional. You want it to meet specific needs and help you differentiate yourself in your niche. For that to happen, you need someone with in-depth knowledge of each unique component. That might include expertise in web development, your chosen programming language, mobile application development, cybersecurity, UX, and quality assurance. But finding all of those skills in a single person is unlikely at best, and that means you will always have to leave opportunities on the table.

3. Relying on a solo full-stack developer requires a simpler stack and limits your options

Let’s say you strike gold and find a uniquely skilled full-stack developer who can handle both front- and back-end development needs. Unfortunately, you still have some hoops to jump through. Every developer has specialty areas where they are very knowledgeable, and the tendency is to give the most attention to these areas while spending less time on those they aren’t as familiar with. With a team, you have the freedom to hire people who excel in particular specialty areas, which means you can implement a wider variety of technologies to meet the needs of your users.

Logistically speaking, one person can only do so much. If your development team consists of a single person, you will have to limit your stack to what that person can do, both in terms of skill and time.

4. Solo development makes it difficult to scale

Again, this is a logistical concern. If you are working with a development team, you can focus effort where and when it is needed the most. Let’s say you are building a new application. You’re going to need some intensive design effort during the prototyping stage, and you’re going to need more input from your developers as you build your MVP. A development team allows you to scale your efforts to meet the demand, and will also allow you to tackle development projects that would be impossible for a developer who is flying solo.

5. You’re always one step away from a "hit by the bus" problem

What would it take to bring your project to a standstill? How many people could be removed from the project (“hit by a bus”) before it grinds to a halt? This dilemma, known as the  “bus factor,” is especially problematic for companies relying on a single developer. If that developer leaves your organization, you have an urgent crisis on your hands.

Even though full-stack developers are trendy at the moment, the truth is that limiting yourself to one person – no matter how talented that person may be – comes with a long list of challenges.

What Software Teams Can Do That Solo Developers Can’t

The alternative, of course, is to build a dedicated software team. Here’s why that’s almost always a better choice. 

Access a broader range of strengths and specialties – No one person can master every specialty area. With a development team, you can hire for the specific skills you need to accomplish your technology objectives. That might include a variety of programming languages, industry knowledge, expertise in specialty services like QA or UX, and experience with emerging technologies and features.

Higher productivity – Many hands make light work, as the saying goes. And while technology might not exactly be described as “light work,” the principle still applies: having more people on your team means higher productivity, a faster pace of development, quicker time to market, and greater efficiency. 

A faster path to realizing your vision – Whether you want to create a new niche app or a software platform to support your broader company strategy, a development team can help you reach your goals faster than a single full-stack developer. Multiple perspectives and fresh eyes will create a better end product, and you may be able to include features that would otherwise be beyond your scope of opportunity.

That’s not to say that a candidate describing himself or herself as a full-stack developer won’t benefit your team. A generalist with a broad understanding of the relevant technologies can be instrumental in creating your overall strategy, bringing experts together, and integrating the various components of each project. The key is to understand that this is a particular skill set that functions best as a component of your software team rather than flying solo. 

When it’s crunch time, a software development team can help you get the job done faster, scale your business more effectively, and implement new tools and technologies that would otherwise remain out of reach. 

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