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András Tóth
András Tóth

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Pitfalls of full-stack engineering

In this day and age full-stack job listings come left and right. Companies have very limited headcount or a breakneck growth and they want to make the most out of the people they hire.

However, regardless what we wish there are no superheroes out there (or they cost an astronomical price and probably have very bad work-life balance) and it is time to discuss the where the so-called full-stack engineering can and cannot perform. I intend to give you all the viewpoints necessary to draw your own conclusions.

Disclaimer: Currently I work kinda full-stackish (sometimes I write a new SQL query or help in refactoring a react-native app). Usually I do mostly frontend development, but I was working on the backend for a couple of years and even was doing automated end-to-end testing in C#. But I would not call myself a full-stack engineer as there are way too many layers to be familiar with; I find the idea dangerous with a lot of bad consequences - hence this article.

To see when full-stack engineering works out and when does not we need to understand what an engineer really knows and to see how big the actual stack needs to be covered by one person.

The anatomy of engineer's knowledge

It is important to know that actual software development is a lot more than understanding the syntax of a programming language or the ability to traverse a binary tree.

As there is reusable and not-reusable code there is reusable and not-reusable engineering knowledge.

Knowing a programming language [not reusable]

The quirks and the syntax of a language cannot be really reused, unless the other language is almost the same - you need to relearn keywords, rules, gotchas and indentation. The less similar two languages the more time you will need, e.g. jumping from JavaScript to Rust is a bigger one than from C# to Java.

For instance the idea that this is a bindable context of a function and not a pointer to the object containing said function in JavaScript itself cannot be really reused for another language. That construct (I think) only exists in one particular language and that knowledge is lost when the language is abandoned.

The ecosystem of a language [not reusable]

This means the modules or packages available (like react or express.js or SQLAlchemy for Python) at your disposal usually through a package management system like npm, pip or pip3 for Python, NuGet for .NET...

This encompasses the knowledge of which of these libraries is great and which has issues, what tool is the most productive for a given task and so on.

This type of information is slowly accumulated and not-reusable.

Platform specific gotchas [not reusable]

Languages and ecosystem do not exist in a vacuum. There is the operating system or a sandbox around them (say MacOS, Firefox or a particular Android version). The medium our code runs on interacts and sometimes dominates how we write things. Couple of examples:

  • knowing that older browsers won't be able to process certain UTF characters therefore completely dropping the rendering of a page
  • when you see timeout fails you check if the clock of a virtual machine you use is in sync with the real world or not (developing the very idea took me 2 days of bug hunting)
  • running two tasks with && won't work on Windows (hence the existence of npm-run-all
  • or you can be an excellent Java programmer who knows nothing about how the Android system handles permissions...

These can only be earned by paying the “iron price”: struggling through mysteries, scrolling through GitHub issues, asking for help on stackoverflow - you can be stuck debugging these for days time to time!

Therefore this is a very important part of engineering!
Platform specific knowledge can make or break releases!

Having a team member that scores high on platform specific experience is able to defuse future landmines people would not even start searching for.

Abstract engineering [reusable]

This is what you learn when you learn clean coding, the SOLID principles, design patterns and anti-patterns, test triangle and the art of getting rid of unnecessary layers.

This is knowing what to reuse and what not to reuse. This is your ability to smell the code. Usually sharpened by getting familiar with more than one language and by using a lot of well and not-so-well designed libraries, languages and tech.

To give you another personal example, when I had to fix a data engineer's python code (lacking any training beforehand) I immediately searched if there was a better way to replace variables in a string than positional %s signs:

sql = 'SELECT %s FROM %s WHERE id = %s' % ('my_table', 13, 'name')

# versus
sql = 'SELECT {column_name} FROM {table_name} WHERE id = {id}'
.format(id=13, table_name='my_table', column_name='name')

# Did you notice that in the first version the order 
# of the arguments passed is wrong? Not likely to happen in
# the second version - it would look odd immediately
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

As it turned out there was already a syntax for named placeholders - which is a superior way since there is a clear indication of intent and also changing the order of parameters has no consequence.

This is the most reusable knowledge.

It also helps you with the adoption of a new language: you know what to put into the search bar to get what you look for.

Tip of the day: Head first design patterns is a book seemingly about Java but in reality it gives you the whys behind every pattern. Not just for object oriented programmers.

Tools of productivity [reusable]

This ranges from getting the most out of your IDE with the right setup to how to organize your day to get stuff done. It is also knowing when to stay to finish a problem and when to go home. Or when to decline the wrong meetings.

How full is your stack?

Now let's switch the perspective to the problem an engineering team would need to solve.

In an average enterprise application or software service the following layers will be there between the end-user and the machines serving them:

  • [frontend] UI: layout masonry (CSS or Views/Screens in mobile development), UX principles, accessibility, design, site-building, animations, typography (i.e. do you know the rules how to make a page look great in 20 different resolutions?) and also the size of the stylesheet served
  • [frontend] dealing with the API and application state: it means making calls to a server, handling authorization tokens, cookies, bundling code to be consumed by a browser or a phone, event handling, UI testing etc. or the "JavaScript part" (in a web app)
  • [backend] accepting and serving data from the frontend: input validation, API security basics, integration testing, performance and memory limits...
  • [service-to-service communication]: creating an effective micro-service architecture, message queues, circuit-breakers, contract testing...
  • [database] performant and safe DB queries, safe DB updates: from writing actually human-readable SQL code to hinting the query optimizer; but also backups, replicas, distribution, updating schemas to a new version (surprisingly common task)...
  • [testing] testing strategies, end-to-end testing, unit testing, mocking, test coverage, etc.
  • [devops] building a simple-to-use and resilient CI/CD pipeline, knowledge of Docker and of containerisation, service monitoring, remote access and debugging. Setting up environments like staging and production and also knowing the operating systems that serve these efforts, the ability to resurrect dead virtual machines...

The burden of knowing it all

To be a full-stack dev you need to know all these on paper at least to be true to your title. Maybe not devops some would say, or maybe site-building is for a design team.

There is also the sad fact that you can't finish learning a stack - you have to maintain your knowledge constantly. New versions are coming out (like switch Python 2.x to Python 3.x), security vulnerabilities are discovered and we have to adjust how we write code (check the rationale behind Rust).

Or then there is scaling an application: your company had 1000 users and now you have to serve 10 million; working at a new scale requires new methods to tackle it.

Another example from the relational database world. At the university I have learnt how insanely useful are foreign keys in maintaining data consistency - and then I was learning at work how impossible is to use them when you have to maintain a performant, huge database.

In short, every new language you learn, every new platform you add to your CV there will be a "maintenance cost".

That is time dedicated to:

  • read tutorials
  • follow discussions and blogs
  • to experiment with what you know
  • and to toy with new members of the ecosystem
  • ....

Just as any new feature you add to your codebase would require work just to make sure it still works years later.

Code quality will eventually suffer when stuff is solely written by full-stack engineers 👩‍💻 👨‍💻 if the team was not balanced by expertise, or there are no specialists to review, mentor and refactor.

When can you be an effective full-stack engineer?

Only if there is a lot to share between the stacks. E.g. if the language of the backend and the frontend is the same, like for React frontend and node.js backend this is a moderately easy task.

Or having a Java backend serving a Java mobile (Android) codebase.

The same is true when companies move people across teams; if team A is working on Android with plain Java and team B is working on the same platform with Kotlin the time spent on getting familiar with the new tech will be dramatically different than making C# .NET monolith developers adopt a Node.js microservice architecture (happened to me - most stressful year of engineering).

There is a time factor here: for a seasoned developer a year is required before they can think in a new language (that is not forcing the logic of their previous one onto the new one), and maybe another before they can excel in it.

Good ideas

Now that I laid out a little framework it will be easy to discuss why certain ideas work and why others don't.

Map your team's expertise

Instead of thinking in frontend - backend - full-stack, try this: list all the technologies and responsibilities you have in your team, then assign people and their level of expertise next to it:

Tech Devs Skill levels
node.js Erica, Mike Expert, Junior
Postge/SQL Mike Junior
CSS/SASS Rubio Mid
Angular Erica, Rubio Junior, Expert
Kubernetes - -

And so on...

Look for variety

This little exercise above will tell you in which area you need to invest in training your team or who should you hire. Maybe the person you will end up with is a Python DevOps folk who is also adept at SQL and can help the team out.

Or you can also realize that maybe you employ a kubernetes-free solution since no one has the expertise for it.

This will also mean that you will spend a bit more time reading CVs... Will this person open up new possibilities maybe?

Full-stack is still great for startups

When working at scale is not a concern (yet) it makes sense to go with generalists who can ship features across a lot of technologies. It is great when you have to deliver prototypes and test with real users or stakeholders.

Bad ideas

The full-stack feature team obsession

If you run the company in an OKR fashion - that is most teams have to have a customer-facing measurable outcome - there will be a temptation to go with the "safest choice": having generalists aka full-stack devs. The idea here is wherever the direction will be (more frontend or more backend tasks) you will have the devs.

Who will also produce spaghetti code when they don't work with their strongest skills.

Therefore a long-term engineering vision can only be successful having specialists assisting the efforts.

Rigid team structures coming from the obsession of measuring team performance will get in the way of productivity.

Think about it, why is such a taboo to have some specialists dynamically be assigned to teams temporarily needing them?

Going full-stack being a necessity for promotion

Just as I wrote above there is almost no chance you can "finish" learning frontend or backend or database.

Therefore going full-stack is not adding new knowledge to an engineer; it is merely splitting their attention.

In reality it is not much of a step-up than a side-step. And if you remember the table above, even a senior dev can have junior knowledge in a new stack, so in fact they will be senior juniors (senior salaries with junior output).

(Fun fact of the day: the word medior is wrong in both Latin and English; you can't be more medium).

Company stack is across too many platforms

Even this article is on the skeptical side it is possible to execute full-stack development quite effectively, however the prerequisite is to have as much overlap as possible between said stacks, to make sure that the ecosystem and the platform specific gotchas are largely the same.

For example Android devs would find it easier to work on a Java backend.

If you expect JavaScript / CSS frontend developers to magically learn working with Java microservices in their spare time - it won't happen.

Wonder weapons 🤯

There is an expectation that certain classes of problems can be dealt with a wonder weapon therefore eliminating the skill requirement from an engineering team. I.e. less devs to feed, more profit.

This is a very popular thing in site-building: putting together a bootstrap kind-of design system and hoping that engineers don't need to learn CSS. But then user and design requirements start to pour in and people start using negative margins 😱, scroll-bars mysteriously appear in certain browsers 🥶 but not in others and so on...

The same is true for infrastructure - many promise that you can fire your DevOps team, but when something really breaks you will need to pull in the expertise who knows how to make a linux pod dance what has happened to it.

Promising people they can be full-stack in 3 months 😳

I am just in shock to see that code-camps can promise you can be a full-stack developer in 3 months. So please no, teach them the language, teach them how to search for answers.

Getting false confidence by copy-pasting from stackoverflow

With a bit of experience, the right IDE and search skills you can fix any minor bugs or get started in basically any language:

"Oh, I just have to run kubectl get namespace and I’ll get all namespaces!"

It feels like you have just unlocked a new platform, but in reality this is no better than "wingardium leviosa". You don’t know if either wingardium or leviosa has any additional parameters, you just parrot back these words that do something. As I stated before have the humility to not claim a stack until you have spent a year in that ecosystem.

Wrapping it all up

I know this was a long article - but to have a meaningful discussion about the full-stack trend a lot of pieces had to fall in place. I hope I have given you enough tools to think in the right granularity.

Thanks for reading it all and let me know your opinion (or corrections) in the comments!

Top comments (4)

lewislbr profile image
Lewis Llobera

Nice article, I totally agree

latobibor profile image
András Tóth

Thank you!

abhayaysola profile image

Very insightful.

latobibor profile image
András Tóth

Thank you very much!