The Career Path of a Full Stack Developer
Full stack developers have a curious streak a mile wide. They don’t just want to know how to code; they want to know how to code everything — from client-facing interfaces to back end libraries. If you have a talent for programming and a habit of following new concepts down rabbit holes, full stack development might just be your dream job.
But how do you get there? What is the career path for a full stack developer, and how should you go about walking it?
Not to worry! In this article, we’ll cover everything you’ll need to know for your journey — which foundational skills you’ll need to pick up, how you can prepare for your first job, and what you can expect from your career progression.
But before we launch into the nitty-gritty details, let’s talk broad strokes; what is a full stack developer?
A full stack developer is a professional who, as the name suggests, can handle a “full stack” of development technologies and have proficiency over both front end and back end coding disciplines.
Taken together, the front end and back end encompass the whole of an application. The front end — or client-side — refers to all aspects of an application that a user can see and interact with. The back end refers to the servers, databases, business logic, and proprietary software that support the application from behind the scenes.
Think of an application as a house. A front end developer serves as the structure’s interior designer; they furnish and decorate the house, making it an attractive and functional place to visit and use. On the other hand, a back end developer is a contractor responsible for building the foundation, setting up plumbing, and running electricity — all of the essential features that the people in the house would typically take for granted.
Their extensive cross-disciplinary knowledge makes them invaluable; not only can full stack developers readily shift between front and back end tasks, but they are also well-positioned to take a holistic view of an application’s development and draw its disparate parts into a cohesive whole.
Full stack developers are generally responsible for the following tasks:
- Supporting development efforts from project conceptualization to launch
- Prototyping and building applications and/or websites
- Designing front end interfaces and user experiences
- Conducting database and server administration
- Fine-tuning projects following user feedback
- Collaborating with other developers, UX designers, sales, and leadership to improve and execute projects
Full stack development is a popular and promising career for those in the software development field. Currently, a full 55 percent of surveyed developers identify as full stack professionals. This high ratio is unsurprising; according to HackerRank’s 2020 Developer Skills Report, full stack developers currently reign as the most in-demand professionals in their sector, with back end development and data science ranking second and third, respectively. A full 38 percent of hiring managers claimed that full stack development was the “#1 role to fill in 2020.”
The profession is on track to grow, too — the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects jobs for web developers to grow by 13 percent between 2018 and 2028. This expansion is significantly faster than the average five percent anticipated for all other professions.
There’s no doubt that the role has potential, or that it could provide a professionally satisfying career to the right professional. But, as one of those professionals, you may be wondering — what do you need to do to start traveling a full stack developer career path?
1. First, Learn the Skills
All full stack developers will need to have a robust foundational skill set if they want to qualify for a job in the field and — more importantly — handle the responsibilities assigned to them. Keep in mind that the core capabilities listed below offer a jumping-off point, not a finishing line.
According to HackerRank’s research, full stack professionals often need to learn more languages than other developers; 45 percent of full stack developers surveyed in 2020 reported that they had to learn a new language within the last year.
There are several skills to prioritize at the beginning of a career path for a full stack developer:
Don’t know where to start? Don’t fret — there are a few ways to build a strong foundational skill set. Generally speaking, your choice of educational route will depend heavily on your situation, learning preferences, and preferred time frame for upskilling.
Let’s review the most popular options!
As you might expect, a four-year degree is one of the most common learning paths for developers. According to Stack Overflow’s 2020 Developer Survey, a whopping three-quarters of surveyed professional developers have completed at least the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree.
- Computer science, computer engineering, or software engineering (62.6 percent)
- Civil, electrical, or mechanical engineering (9.3 percent)
- Information systems, IT, or systems administration (7.9 percent)
A college education is often the best route for those who want to take a comprehensive dive into the theory and practice of software engineering. These four-year degrees are also well-received by potential employers and regularly offer opportunities for professional networking and portfolio-building.
However, since conventional undergraduate degrees demand four years of full-time study and a financial investment, this route may not be a fit for those who want to upskill quickly or on a budget.
A coding boot camp is an intensive, skills-based course that allows aspiring professionals to pick up marketable skills in an instructor-led, classroom environment. Typically, these programs conclude in around three to six months and offer a variety of part-time, full-time, virtual, and in-person options. Successful participants of these programs also tend to be well-regarded by employers.
Boot camp programs are typically cheaper than college programs. However, the lesser cost — and shorter timeframe — does come with a trade-off; boot camp learners usually don’t have the expansive theoretical knowledge that college graduates do, and may need to do more to network and build their portfolios independently.
In theory, an aspiring developer would not need to attend an in-person program to prepare for a full stack developer career path. It is possible to prepare for a career in full stack coding entirely through independent study consisting of online courses, books, tutorials, and other media.
Take online learning platforms like freeCodeCamp, Khan Academy, and Udemy as examples. All offer self-guided courses in the coding fundamentals that allow learners to learn at their own pace and according to their own interests. Usually, these classes are cheap — and often, free. However, these courses rarely come with hands-on instructor support and, in the case of aggregate platforms like Udemy, do not always provide a consistent caliber of quality. Learners should thoroughly vet all online learning platforms before they enroll in a course.
It is worth noting that this route demands a very high level of accountability and self-motivation. If learners aren’t able to hold their own noses to the proverbial grindstone, they may find their upskilling timetable extended by weeks, months, or even years. Think carefully about your learning habits before you commit to independent study!
2. Continue Practicing
All those on a full stack developer career path — and especially those who aren’t pursuing a structured, formalized program with regular class projects — will need to practice their skills before applying for their first job. There are several ways to accomplish this; read on to find out how!
Build Up Your Portfolio
If you’re a newly minted full stack developer with high hopes and no prior experience, you’re going to need a portfolio.
A portfolio is a body of work that represents you; often, a recruiter will base their first impression of you and your skill set off of what they see in your portfolio. Having one is critical — especially if you’re a self-taught learner who doesn’t have an undergraduate degree or certificate of completion to vouch for your competency. Employers don’t want to roll the dice on an unskilled, inexperienced candidate; they want to hire someone they know can handle the work that the role requires.
What should your portfolio include? Generally, any project or work that you feel demonstrates your best work or coding skills should be on display. For each example, you should describe the project, note what you contributed to it, highlight the technologies you used, and include a link to the code, if at all possible.
Be aware of potential confidentiality conflicts! If your best project is bound by a confidentiality agreement, you will not be able to share it in a portfolio without consent. It’s inconvenient, yes — but you can compensate for the loss by maintaining a few side projects that you have full control over and can share.
One easy way to do this is to make your portfolio itself a robust side project. Create a well-designed, functional website that includes your bio, resume, and any projects that you feel demonstrate your capabilities.
Alternatively, you can create a robust profile on GitHub. GitHub is a popular, cloud-based version control and collaboration platform that allows developers to contribute code to open-source projects.
Employers may assess your GitHub portfolio to see how often you contribute, the quality of your code, and which languages you have demonstrated command over. While it’s not technically job experience, being active on GitHub will show your passion for and capability in full stack coding.
No matter the route you take in building your portfolio, make sure that your skills are on display!
Work on Volunteer Projects
True, volunteer work may not sound like an intuitive first step if you’re searching for paid full stack employment — but doing so can pad your resume, provide much-needed experience, and help a good cause.
Countless nonprofit organizations need good coders but don’t have the budget to hire a coder on a full- or part-time basis. You’re a good coder who needs to gain experience before venturing into the (paid) job pool. Your interests are aligned! Volunteering your time and technical knowledge will benefit everyone involved.
So, how do you get started? The easiest way might be to approach a cause you feel passionate about and offer your services. However, if the causes you gravitate towards don’t have immediate coding needs, you can also sign up on platforms such as Code for Fun and Donate: Code, which connect community-minded developers with nonprofit causes. Start looking around — you never know what opportunities you might find!
Take a Few Small Gigs
Don’t want to run before you’ve started walking? Taking caution is understandable.
A career path for a full stack developer requires experience — but if you don’t feel prepared enough to apply to full-time positions, try taking on a few smaller, freelance projects! These one-off jobs will help you gain confidence, grow your skills, and add to your portfolio.
If you want to try seeking out a few smaller projects, try asking around your friend and family circles to see if anyone you know has an immediate coding need. If no opportunities surface, you can search for short-term job openings on freelance platforms such as Upwork.
Remember, your purpose here is to gain experience, not become a full-time freelancer; don’t undersell yourself, but don’t get too stressed if you find yourself on a project or two that pays below your preferred rate. Once your bolstered portfolio helps you land a full-time position, your pay will be more stable and — hopefully — recognizant of your abilities.
3. Find a Full Stack Development Job
Once you have built your foundational skill set and gained some experience, you can start applying for entry-level jobs — but what will you be signing up for, exactly?
Generally speaking, entry-level full stack developers are responsible for building front and back end structures and collaborating with other professionals to design, code, test, and refine innovative applications. They may also be tasked with maintaining and otherwise working with databases, operating systems, and UI frameworks. Above all else, entry-level full stack developers should be open-minded team players who are willing to learn on the job and tackle new challenges as they come.
Not sure how to land the job? Your first step should be to update your resume, polish your portfolio, and start studying for your coding interview. Remember, many hiring conversations include practical coding sections, so be ready to program on command!
- Prepare for Technical Interviews — LeetCode
- How to Make Progress While Studying for Coding Interviews — freeCodeCamp
- 21 Psychological Tricks That Will Help You Ace a Job Interview — The Ladders
4. Progress to a Senior Position
Once you have spent three to five years in a junior role, you may be ready to rise into a senior full stack development role.
Senior developers must be capable of building out and managing the breadth of a company’s infrastructure. They should have a thorough understanding of database management and architectural design, as well as some familiarity with user experience work.
Given that these professionals are also often tasked with leading a team of junior developers, senior professionals should have well-developed leadership skills and be capable of strategic delegation.
5. Advance to a Director Level
After spending several years in a senior position, you may have the opportunity to take on a directorial role.
One note to keep in mind as you pursue this advancement: while directors still spend some of their time coding, they often spend more time tackling big-picture problems and addressing their managerial responsibilities. If you want to step into this role, you should make an effort to bolster your interpersonal communication and leadership skills.
In their day-to-day work, directors are responsible for developing and managing applications across front and back end technical stacks. They provide technical leadership and vision on ongoing projects, contribute to concept brainstorming sessions, create software engineering schedules, and address all budget and resource allocations.
Directors also play a crucial role in managing and developing staff, providing mentorship, and ensuring that their teams are as efficient and cohesive as possible.
6. Achieve a CTO Role
If you perform well in a director-level role for many years, you may feel prepared to seek out a CTO role. A CTO, or Chief Technical Officer, is responsible for providing overarching technical leadership and guidance for a business.
Unlike the others mentioned here, this role will not have very many day-to-day coding responsibilities, as it is an executive-level leadership position. However, it will have a plethora of managerial obligations; CTOs have oversight across all aspects of a company’s technical strategy and are responsible for communicating that strategy to partners and investors. These professionals also use stakeholders’ feedback to improve their approach and provide oversight on major tech-focused initiatives.
Generally, CTOs must have a wealth of technical and business knowledge, excellent communication skills, a robust understanding of business principles and priorities, and a proven ability to conduct technological analyses and research.
Where Are You On Your Full Stack Developer Career Path?
If you have a passion for coding and the curiosity to perpetually expand your knowledge, you will be well-suited to a career in full stack development. It doesn’t matter if you’re a high school student with a knack for Python or an office worker with a desire to pivot careers — you can build a successful career as a full stack developer.
If you’re ready to pave the way for your own full stack developer career path, start looking into the educational options that make the most sense for you.