I don't want to be a full-fullstack developer

I am a Ruby Developer. I am a fullstack web dev. And I am tired of being one. I am also tired of being a business analyst and a manual QA at times. As years go by the industry is going deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of developer-focused engineering process and developers go on to combine more and more responsibilities beneath the surface of single cranium.

Long time ago in the prehistoric Internet

There were DBAs long time ago, you are quite rare to find a beast like that in the shadows of cubicles nowadays. Indeed.com search yields 7k results on the term fullstack web developer and 40k for just web developer. The separate roles of UX Engineer and Frontend Developer are also slowly being blended together on the premise of working on essentially the same thing. More and more agencies are looking for people who can do both frontend and backend, also participating in the business requirement development, writing unit and integration tests, being everywhere and doing everything.

Cut the cost, take the rest

That seems like a great idea at first, a person knows and does everything needed from scratch to shipped feature, controlling the whole process. It is easier for the business: you need to check with one person and process of development does not get too complicated with 'who does what' issues, it also cuts the costs making a little tradeoff with quality and development time. Communication and context switching also don't influence the people anymore as they go through the whole process rather than picking it up from where their successor in the chain left off. That seems like a nice enhancement... ...if you don't know a thing about how those professionals you crammed into one person actually work.

Complexity strikes back

Backend development is a complex field, including understanding of network layer, the way servers work overall, deployment, AWS/Google/Azure services(they are vital to modern web applications), specifics of server application language and framework, protocols used, authentication, database connectivity and setup and a lot of other things. Frontend includes solid knowledge of web standards, quirks and oddities of particular browsers, ES5, ES6, CSS, HTML, frameworks, preprocessors, transpilers, build tools, UX, UI, networking from the browser perspective, browser storages, sometimes even specifics of mobile apps with Flutter, Ionic and React Native. Don't even get me started on business analyst and QA roles for they are completely different bowls or rice.

Each of this roles has its own learning curve and essential skills to master. You can't just expect a person to read a few articles or a book, write a sample app and start bringing a good result. The result will always be somehow substandard. If you hire a fullstack web developer, you don't hire an equivalent of two half-time specialists at once, you hire one normal and one impaired(in the best case, you may as well get the equivalent of two so-so half-time devs). It requires devotion and motivation to keep track and stay relevant and brilliant even in one field, put aside two or more. Time is finite. You cannot succeed in two unless you have no personal life and time for yourself.

Wider or deeper?

Don't get me wrong, I think it is good to widen up the field of knowledge and employ understanding of your parts surrounding to do a better job on your section, but making developers be Jacks of all trades directly influences code quality, choice of solutions and the future of the project developed. Space in our heads is finite. We may fill it in with either deeper and better knowledge of one or a few fields or start chewing information on the multitude of domains resulting in superficial knowledge of everything. This knowledge creates a bubble of confidence that unfortunately does not justify itself, resulting in worse solutions and reinventing the wheel/employing wrong technique/banging the nails with a microscope.

Not all cuts are equally healthy

Fullstack is interesting because is seems to be almost unique to the software engineering field. Other fields mostly have more division of labour, you don't expect the dentist to cure your heart and neurosurgeon to fix your hemorrhoids. The reason it is employed in software engineering seems for to be the fact of virtual and failsafe nature of the field. Your code quality does not directly influence the outcomes visible for users, so you can hack around with patchy solutions long enough before the thing falls apart(and frequently it does when you are not around anymore). Also, that idea seems appealing on the intuitive level for money spending, hiring person with broader skills(no matter quality) may look like doing more for the same cost.

We get mediocre solutions created by people who don't have enough expertise in the particular field to see the better way, with a sketchy knowledge filled with Stackoverflow answers and copy-paste. We get people who stay stale in their improvements, having to keep up with too many topics. We get the professionals that don't create amazing things because they don't have time to dig in enough time to actually create some value to the field. We get substandard products by lower development price that fades off after the bugs and lost customers come in because of issues the projects inevitably face when developed in such the fashion. Fullstack may be worth it from the short-term economical perspective, but it is harmful for the industry overall and for the projects we build.

JS Artisan's photo

I feel the same way nowadays. The modern web development has become too much complex.

Tien Do's photo

JavaScript / NodeJS / C++ Developer

I often hear that people try to wear a fullstack hat because they are paid more (than just frontend or backend). More roles more money :)

Agnius Vasiliauskas's photo

Amazing post. I agree by 100%. Typical job posting for a web developer position looks like "It's mandatory for you to know 100 back-end frameworks and it would be good if you would know 50 front-end frameworks too". I suspect the biggest reason of this phenomenon is that companies tries to cut costs and/or they simply don't finds suitable persons with skills required, so throws every possible duty to the hands of one worker. And the bad outcomes of such approach appears very quickly.

For example - I have asked my manager why my company don't starts some project X. The reply from the manager was that X project was started in the past and it has failed. I have asked further - What solutions have you tried in a failed project X ? The reply was,- "the ONLY solution Y". After this answer I was amazed - How can one declare a project X as "failed" if there was only one solution Y tried ? It's not that hard to imagine that in IT field almost every problem has at least several solutions. So after trying N solutions you can only state that "exact N solutions don't helps to solve problem X". But maybe N+1 solution will solve that problem finally. BUT it takes only a professional in some field to actually be able to grasp and generate this N+1 solution. Jack of all trades will not be able to achieve this. As long as companies will not be able to understand this - we will swim in a deep sh*t sea as we always were.

Joe Lin's photo

totally agree with you, time is limited, we can not master all the programming skill

Saurabh Mhatre's photo

Great post

KuanYu Chu's photo

I heard the same concept from my teacher:

Be an expert in a certain field. It seems like you know everything (a bit), In fact, you don't know anything well.

This article reminds of above concept : )

Shubham Battoo's photo

Good read.

Madalin Popa's photo

Great article!

Sandeep Panda's photo

Thanks for posting this! Could you add "General Programming" tag to the post so that it gets more visibility?