What is a Full-Stack Web Developer Exactly? A Complete Guide

CareerFoundry Blog contributor Eric An

This is one of the most popular coding jobs, but what is a full-stack developer, what do they do, and why are they so in-demand?

Let’s clear it all up for you.

Maybe you’re someone interested in making a career change and have repeatedly seen the words “full-stack web developer” on every technical educational website and job application.

Considering that the majority (47%) of professional coders surveyed in the 2022 Stack Overflow survey are full-stack developers, what this position involves can still be a bit…blurry.

We’ll explore what a full-stack dev is, their tasks, and why you’ll want to become one yourself.

So, let’s take a look at what we’re going to cover—simply select any of the following sections to jump straight to it.

  1. What is frontend web development?
  2. What is backend web development?
  3. What is a full-stack web developer?
  4. What does a full-stack developer do?
  5. Why become a full-stack web developer?
  6. How to become a full-stack web developer

There are two general fields that make up a full-stack developer’s skillset: frontend development and backend development. Let’s explore those first!

1. What is frontend web development?

This skillset involves the actual presentation of your website—how the information in your website is laid out in browsers and on mobile devices as well.

Everything that you actually see on a website—the layout, the positioning of text and images, colors, fonts, buttons, and so on—are all factors that the frontend developer must consider.

A dedicated frontend developer will be very experienced working with HTML and CSS, as well as the scripting language JavaScript. With these languages, the developer can very efficiently manipulate the information on a website to make it appealing and effective.

If you’d like to start learning these languages, then a free coding short course is the simplest way to kick things off. Our best advice is to start coding and building things as soon as possible, and these languages will put you in a great position to do that.

The main goal of a frontend developer is to provide the platform for visitors to interact with, a platform which provides and receives information. This means some developers will be well-versed in web design and using software such as Photoshop and Illustrator to create graphics and themed layouts.

Additional skillsets of a frontend developer could include user experience design and user interface design, skills which help a team evaluate the best methods of displaying and collecting information. A frontend developer who possesses these design skills is potentially more valuable as they can identify the look and feel of a site while assessing the technical capabilities of such a design at the same time.

It should be noted that although this additional skillset might be useful to a developer, they are certainly not a requirement for the job.

Now that we know what the frontend is, let’s look at what coding “under the hood” is like.

A full-stack web developer reviewing code at work

2. What is backend web development?

Creation, edit/update, and collection of data are some of the processes that are most often associated with backend development.

Some examples of common scripting languages used are PHP, Ruby, and the most popular these days, Python. With these languages, a backend developer can create algorithms and business logic to manipulate the data that was received in frontend development.

This means that a backend developer must be able to write code to receive the information input from the user and also save it somewhere–like in a database.

There are two main types of databases: relational (like PostgreSQL and MySQL) and non-relational management systems (like Mongo). The language used for database management is SQL, which helps the developer interact with the database. You can get started with it in our beginner’s guide to SQL.

The concepts might sound foreign, but just understand that there are different database management systems based on convenience and use.

Another component of backend development is server management, which are applications that host the database and serve up the website. An alternative to knowing how to manage servers is to use cloud-based platforms that provide the infrastructure, like Heroku or Amazon Web Services.

Understanding server management allows a developer to troubleshoot slow applications and even determine how scalable their websites are to include more users.

3. What is a full-stack web developer?

Full-stack developers are experts in both the frontend and backend; so, the full-stack of technology that makes up a website.

They are proficient in both frontend and backend languages and frameworks, as well as in server, network and hosting environments.

To get to this breadth and depth of knowledge, most full-stack developers will have spent many years working in a variety of different roles. They also tend to be well-versed in both business logic and user experience, meaning they are not only well-equipped to get hands on, but can also guide and consult on strategy too.

T-shaped developers

Essentially, full-stack developers are T-shaped developers. But what does that mean?

The T-shaped model is a concept that has been around for a while that describes the abilities or characteristics of an individual. An ideal T-shaped person has many generalized skills, with a specialization in one or a few specific fields.

A full-stack web developer is an excellent example of this model, as the developer has general knowledge across a wide breadth of technologies and platforms as well as in-depth experience and specialization in a couple of those concepts.

If you’d like to look more closely at the range of skills required to make it, check out our guide to full-stack developer skills.

A note on frameworks

Rather than having to develop complex proprietary code every time for creating different websites, frameworks have become popular resources to make many processes more efficient and convenient.

Libraries like jQuery are extremely popular for frontend developers using JavaScript, as they can implement various functions that other developers have already cultivated and tested.

JavaScript frameworks like AngularJS and EmberJS solve many of the challenges faced by frontend developers by developing conventions that can easily be implemented with any website.

On the backend, there are frameworks like Rails for the programming language of Ruby, Django and Flask for Python, and CakePHP for working with PHP.

The main purpose of frameworks is to make a developer’s job easier by developing a set of conventions that can be adopted for many of the different processes involved in creating a website—from how information is displayed to how it is stored and accessed in the database. If you want to look at them in more depth, we’ve created a beginner’s guide to web frameworks.

Now that you’ve learned what they actually are, another way to understand this job is by looking at what they do in their day-to-day.

4. What does a full-stack developer do?

They say you are what you do, so what does that mean when it comes to a full-stack developer?

Well, the answer there depends on several factors, mainly the type of company and industry they are working in.

It makes sense that a full-stack programmer working as a freelance developer will much more likely be working on every aspect of a project than one working as part of a team for a large multinational firm.

However, a general run-through of some full-stack developer responsibilities you might expect would be:

  • Designing user interactions with frontend code
  • Ensuring webpages are mobile-optimized
  • Creating and maintaining databases and servers
  • Receiving design handoffs from UX and UI designers and coding them
  • Testing and debugging on both the front- and backend
  • Designing and developing functioning APIs
  • Writing documentation
  • Communicating with data scientists and analysts on the data architecture
  • Staying up-to-date on new technologies which could improve technology and customer experience

A web developer reviewing designs from the design team

5. Why become a full-stack web developer?

Given the choice to specialize in frontend or backend development, why would any developer choose to learn the full spectrum?

It goes back to the value of being a T-shaped person. You are more valuable to a team when you are able to address and discuss both aspects of the web development process and bridge the disconnect.

In other words, one developer who can readily assess and communicate how a website should look, feel, and manipulate data while understanding the technical limitations of such implementations will be a respected and valuable member of any team or company.

Are full-stack developers in demand?

In a word, yes. A quick search shows that there are currently over 23,000 open full-stack developer positions in the US right now, according to job site Indeed.

Drilling down a little to “full-stack web developer” shows up over 15,000 openings.

Needless to say this shows that is incredibly encouraging if you are looking for a career path that is flexible and generally recession-proof. But can you earn a good living from it?

How much does a full-stack developer earn?

Here’s another reason why you’d want to become a full-stack coder—it pays. According to Glassdoor, the average total salary for a full-stack web developer in the US is $109,393. That’s double the national salary average!

It’s unsurprising that considering the broad range of skills from across the tech spectrum that they are expected to have, this position is a well-remunerated one.

You can dive deeper into the data and see how much you could earn in your region in our complete full-stack developer salary guide.

6. How to become a full-stack web developer

Now that you know what is a full-stack developer, it’s time to look at how to get there.

First of all, you’ll need to gather a good deal of industry experience. You’ll need to learn both frontend and backend languages, as well as the ins and outs of databases and storage.

It’s also worth remembering not to neglect your soft skills either—you’ll probably have some of these already!

If you’re starting from scratch, then online tutorials are an excellent way of working out if the field is for you. This video tutorial with expert frontend developer Abhishek will get you coding:

Taking a full-stack development certification course is a great way of not only learning those T-shaped skills we mentioned earlier, but also having a recognizable acknowledgement of that for potential employers.

In fact, you can’t just study to become a full-stack developer; it’s all about constantly learning and getting as much experience as you can in both frontend and backend development.

Final thoughts

There are many resources available to learn about full-stack web development. Google the phrase “become a full-stack developer” and you will get pages and pages of different venues and methods to learn.

But you’re probably at the start of the journey and don’t feel like you have the knowledge to differentiate between the step-by-step guides, YouTube videos, bootcamps, and online courses.

A good first tip is to review the resources based on a criteria of the topics mentioned in this article. Ask yourself questions like:

  • How much frontend development is involved?
  • What will I learn for backend development?
  • What programming languages and frameworks are being taught?

A full-stack developer has all the keys to the house–there’s no door that you cannot open.

It provides an unparalleled freedom to simultaneously work on the front- and backend, and evaluate the capabilities and potential of your website or app in real-time, without having to wait for another developer to review if what you’re desiring is possible or not.

In short, you become a master of the internet.

Interested in becoming a full-stack web developer? Or perhaps you’d like to specialize in frontend or backend development? I recommend you start with this free set of web development tutorials and read the following articles to help you get started.

What You Should Do Now

  1. Get a hands-on introduction to web development and build your first website from scratch with our free, self-paced Web Development Short Course.

  2. Take part in one of our FREE live online web development events with industry experts.

  3. Talk to a program advisor to discuss career change and find out what it takes to become a qualified web developer in just 4-7 months—complete with a job guarantee.

  4. This month, apply for the Women in Tech Scholarshipworth up to $1,555 off our Full-Stack Web Development Program. Offered to the first 100 women who enroll, book your advisor call today.

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