What Is Full Stack Web Development: A Crash Course
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What Is Full Stack Web Development: A Crash Course

Learn what full stack web development is. We’ll explain the difference between full stack, front-end, and back-end development, plus the pros and cons of becoming a full stack developer.

Computer science, like any expanding profession, creates specializations within the field as it grows. Despite some overlap, distinct expertise exists in each specialization. While some people focus on specific skills to serve a particular niche, others are compelled to conquer the entire beast. They choose to become full stack web developers. 

Keep reading, and we’ll define full stack web development, explain the specializations of front-end and back-end development, and offer some guidance on the pros and cons of becoming a full stack web developer.

Breaking Down Full Stack Web Development

Before we dive into the details of full stack development, let’s lay out the basic anatomy of a website or application. 

The Presentation Layer

When you look at a website, you’re seeing the client-side user interface, which includes the design, buttons, input fields, and copy. This is the top tier, or presentation layer, of the website and is built by front-end developers.

The Back-End Systems

The systems and processes that happen server-side, but impact what you see, make up the back end and include databases, integration with third-party systems or information, and major processing or calculations that affect the presentation layer. 

Back-end developers build the processes, integrations, and databases that are “under the hood” and not seen by the user.

The Middle Tier

A development team working around a computer

Lying between the UI and the back end is the middle tier, connecting the user interface and the back end. The middle tier is also responsible for processing data to serve to the front end or be stored in the back end, but it’s typically lighter weight processing that won’t impact your users’ load times. 

A RESTful API is the most common architecture for a client-server application. Middle tier work is generally shared between front-end and back-end developers.

As you might have guessed from the name, a full stack web developer is equally skilled in all three tiers, or the web app’s full stack. 

Along with broad development skills, full stack web developers usually use a common technology stack best suited to their project and aligned with their skills.

Different tiers of a website are built in different programming languages, but those languages need to work together, hence the importance of choosing your tech stack.

Some common tech stacks include:

  • MEAN: MongoDB + Express + AngularJS + Node 
  • LAMP: Linux + Apache + Mysql + PHP
  • WISA: Windows + IIS + MySQL + ASP.net
  • Ruby on Rails: MVC + JSON + HTML

When creating a development team, companies can hire specialized front-end and back-end developers, or use full stack developers that work on both the front and back end. 

Required Skills To Become a Full Stack Developer

What is full stack web development: A group of developers work on a computer together

As you might have guessed, becoming a full stack developer is no small feat. You are expected to have working knowledge and experience in all aspects of software development. 

To get an appreciation for the broad scope of expertise required of full stack devs, let’s take a look at the required skills.

Git, GitHub, and Sourcetree

Every software development team needs a place to store code, the ability to merge code from multiple developers, and a version control system. Git, GitHub, and Sourcetree are popular tools that serve all these functions. Some alternatives include Bitbucket and Mercurial.

HTML, CSS, and JavaScript

Web browsers like Chrome, Firefox, and Safari interpret HTML, CSS, and JavaScript and then display web pages in a visually appealing manner for the real world. Adding libraries like Bootstrap make these presentations look great in all browser sizes. 

We take this for granted today, but imagine surfing the web without HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. It would be like reading your first grown-up novel — “What? No pictures?”

Third-Party Libraries

Website developers regularly use common elements: date pickers, droplists, or hamburger menus in mobile apps. Since all developers use the same components, the base code is shared in a library accessible to everyone, saving developers a lot of time. 

Once the base code is added to the website, the developer only has to customize it to fit their project. There are hundreds of libraries available to choose from. Full stack developers are expected to be familiar with several, like the ReactJS or Angular libraries.

Programming Languages and Libraries 

Based on your tech stack, you’ll need expert-level skills in several back-end programming languages like NodeJS, Ruby, .NET, Python, or Java. 

In addition to the language syntax, each programming language also has a corresponding library of common functionalities, like the jQuery library. Full stack developers need to be deeply familiar with the libraries available for each back-end language.

Databases and Cloud Storage

Even the simplest websites and applications use a database (and typically SQL queries) to store and retrieve information about their users or input created from user actions.

Additionally, full stack developers need to understand where their applications and back-end systems live, ensuring they scale to meet user demand and can communicate effectively. While some web apps may live on-premise, you’ll most likely have at least some pieces of your total solution hosted in a cloud environment like Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Web Architecture and REST API Best Practices

If you remove a wall in your house without knowing it was load-bearing, you’re going to end up with a sagging ceiling that may eventually collapse. The architecture design of your website or application is equally important. More than knowing the weak spots, you need to understand web architecture and the best uses of REST APIs to ensure accessibility, security between systems, and efficient processing. 

Security Best Practices

Speaking of security, the users of your website and applications trust you to keep their data secure. Your company trusts you to keep these properties safe from hackers and malicious attacks. A full stack developer understands security concerns and how to build security by installing firewalls and SSL certificates, preventing scripting attacks with secure input fields, and more.

UI and UX Best Practices

If you want to be a full stack developer, you’ll need to spend some time learning about web design, UX artifacts, and the best practices when designing and developing user experiences. These skills, along with the HTML, CSS, and JavaScript skills already mentioned, will set you up for excellence in front-end web development.

Should I Become a Full Stack Developer?

A team of web developers working on their computers in an office

Only you can decide if a career as a full stack web developer is right for you and whether you choose to master a web stack, a mobile stack, or a native stack. We can, however, give you some things to consider as you make your decision:

  • You won’t get bored. Being a full stack dev means you’ll have opportunities to work in every area of your website or application. 
  • You’ll have job security. Because of their versatile skill set, full stack developers are always in demand. Even if you can’t find a full stack position, you are equally qualified for front-end or back-end positions.
  • You’ll be on the path for career advancement. You might be in a position to become the lead developer where you get to mentor and train junior staff. 

Or, you might want to move into a full stack engineering role. You’d be responsible for the project management and execution of system administration projects. This encompasses the configuration, management, and maintenance of an entire computer network and system.

On the other hand, you might be happier in a more specialized role that allows you to become an expert in your area. Some reasons to consider specialization over full stack development include:

  • You don’t have the time or energy to stay proficient in the full technology stack. It’s not only a lot to learn, but it’s also a lot to keep up with as your tech stack advances. Full stack developers spend a significant amount of time outside their job keeping up their full stack skills.
  • You prefer back-end or front-end development. If you get excited every time you’re assigned front-end work but don’t love back-end tasks, you might want to consider specializing in front-end technologies, or vice versa. A full stack developer is expected to be equally enthusiastic about working in any layer of their web application. 

The Pros and Cons of JS Full Stack Development

What is full stack web development: A computer screen full of code

JavaScript full stack development is a likely choice when you’re using a MEAN tech stack. With MEAN gaining popularity over LAMP, more and more mature companies and startups are looking for full stack JavaScript developers. Let’s look at why.

The Pros

  • It’s a common language throughout the stack so anyone on the team is skilled to work in any part of the stack.
  • You can share code and libraries across all the tiers in your web application, making your development process easier and faster.
  • Because JavaScript is a lightweight language, it’s fast and performant. 
  • JavaScript is free and open source. Your company saves money, and it’s available for anyone to learn, increasing your ability to hire qualified developers.

The Cons

  • Node.js doesn’t pack the power to process heavy-duty algorithms like some of the competing technologies. However, you can use microservices or threading to get around this limitation.
  • It’s not perfect, but no tech stack is perfect. You’ll have to learn where JavaScript is a little more fragile and find creative solutions.
  • Full stack JS development hasn’t been around as long as some of the other tech stacks. This means you’re not going to find as much information in user forums as the other stacks. It also means integrating with other technologies might be a little tricky.

Choosing the Full Stack Path

A man holding a mobile device with web icons around it

We’ve shown you around the anatomy of web application and talked about the full stack developer’s versatility to work in any area. Now it’s up to you to decide if you want to take on a full stack web developer role. 

If you’re thinking of an exciting career as a full stack developer, be prepared to devote the time necessary to learn multiple languages along with every aspect of your product’s architecture. 

The development team at December Labs is well-rounded with both JS full stack developers and specialists in both front- and back-end languages. Our experienced team can handle your needs from concept and design through execution. Contact us, and let’s get started today!

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