What is a full stack developer (and how do I become one)?

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March 23, 2021
5 minute read

Made famous by Silicon Valley lore, full stack developers work across an entire technology product, from back end databases all the way to front end button colors. Even in a world of no-code development tools, full stack developers are in high demand as more tech startups grow and as more companies want to build proprietary technology tools and products. Breaking into full stack development is thankfully straightforward, but not entirely easy. 

In this guide, we’re defining what a full stack developer is and providing a guide on how to become one.

What is a full stack developer?

A full stack developer is a web developer who works on both front end and back end web development. To become a full stack developer, you’ll need to be well-versed in front end development, back end development, and all the pieces in between that make each side work together. Here’s what a full stack developer is and how to become one.

Front end development gives you the chance to be creative and inventive. Back end lets you be analytical and problem-solve. A full stack developer bridges these two worlds together, making it an all-encompassing position.

You might work on the full spectrum; everything from talking to the client about their needs to delivering the final product. You work could include:

Databases: Creating the original storage for all information in the website (from basic outlines to customer data once the site is live).

Infrastructure: Basic connections between the database and rudimentary feature set.

Website construction: Building the base of a website in command line code.

Servers: Setting up online hosting so your website will be live online.

Problem-solving: Everything from identifying how best to build the site (to solve a customer problem) to troubleshooting when a line of code doesn’t produce the intended result.

Design: Everything from placement of certain objects on the web page all the way down to details like button color or font.

Mobile app development: Building a website optimized for tablets and smartphones.

Full stack developers cover a range of work and responsibilities, so you won’t be limited to just this list. It’s an all-encompassing position within the tech world, giving it more fluid and motion than strictly front end or back end developers.

Full stack vs. front end vs. back end web development

Full stack development essentially combines the work of a front end developer and a back end developer. Here are some of the key differences between the three roles:

Front end: Making the website look pretty

Key languages:

  • HTML
  • CSS
  • JavaScript

Back end: Building the infrastructure that supports the website

Key tasks and languages:

  • CMS building
  • Database management
  • PHP
  • Project management

Full stack: All of the above

Front end web developer explained

A front end developer is the person who builds the front-facing part of websites and apps that users see. Front end developers build sites using JavaScript, CSS and HTML — languages that make up the crux of what we see on the web.

Many front end developers flex their creative chops to make sites and applications look engaging, interesting, and pretty. These developers make and enhance what we see on the web and design how we interact with websites.

Back end web developer explained

Analytical and problem-solving developers tend to head to the back end. This is where databases and websites are made. It’s not as pretty as front end developers, but it’s the time and place where you can create something for function.

While front end developers may make something look engaging, they work with back end developers to make sure it works. The combination of these two positions makes sure the website works best for the user.

For a more in-depth comparison, check out Wave’s guide on front end vs. back end developers.

Front end plus back end make a full stack web developer

Sometimes these two types of developers work together to create a ‘full stack team.’ Other times one person takes on all the tasks as a ‘full stack developer.’ A full stack developer might also be well-versed in web or visual design or user experience, where as individual front and back end developers might not have this experience.

One thing to be aware of as an aspiring full stack developer is simply having all the skills does not mean you should do every task. A full stack developer is valuable for their breadth of work, but some projects might require hyper specialization or be too big in scope for one person to take on alone.

Full stack web developer earning potential

Full stack development is a very financially lucrative career, even at the earliest stages. Because technology products can be built once and sold many times, you have a near guarantee of earning a decent salary or hourly rate.

Full stack web developer salary

If you’re considering a job as a full stack developer, your salary will be based on how much experience you have, the level of education you’ve completed, and where you live.

The average salary for a full stack web developer is almost $106,000 a year. Full stack developers in Portland might earn about $101,000 but if you live in San Francisco, your salary could be almost $120,000.

Along with that, starting salaries and average salaries are not the same. When you’re entering your career, even as a full stack developer, you’re earning a fraction of what you’d be earning at the top of your career. Be mindful of this as you explore full stack developer jobs across the country.

Freelance full stack developer rates

If you’ve got a good skill base and want to earn your own money, freelancing could be a great option.

Even beginner freelance full stack web developers can earn between $50 to $75 per hour. Once you gain a few years of experience or can prove that you have in-depth skills that a client needs, you could easily jump higher, earning $100 to $300+ per hour.

The thing to remember about freelancing is that you’re running a business. You’ll have to set aside money for taxes, do your own client management, and in some cases do your own sales (if you don’t get freelance work from a marketplace or managed service). If you’re going down this route, make sure to have adequate business banking and invoicing set up so you can automate business admin and focus on your client work.

How to become a full stack developer

Are you ready to build your skills and become a full stack developer? Here’s how to get started.

1. Start with one language (then two)

A difficult thing about mastering full stack web development is the number of languages you need to learn: PHP, HTML, CSS, SQL — and so on. There’s a laundry list of programming languages to choose from. But this actually makes getting started incredibly easy because your first step is to simply learn one.

You can learn from either taking online developer courses, coding bootcamps, or potentially even through your current employer’s professional development offerings. After you learn your first language, learn another one. And if you can, one after that. The more programming languages you know, the more enticing you’ll look to hiring managers, regardless of whether you’re a front end or back end developer.

2. Focus on one end first

Before you can become a full stack developer, you’ll need to work well in both front end and back end settings. Rather than know both sides a little bit, take some time to learn one end really well at first.

For instance, if you’re more of a problem-solving and analytical thinker, start off learning the ins and outs of back end development. Learn as many back end languages and programs as you can. Create and finish back end products and put them in your portfolio to show them off. Then focus on switching to front end. Or switch this and make beautiful front end designs first before switching to databases and other back end languages.

3. Experiment with other languages

Once you’ve had the chance to learn the job of either a back end or front end developer, you can take some time to level up your skillset.

If you’ve been mostly a back end developer, learn a new front end language. If you work for a company or firm, talk to front end developers about what they do, their workload, and typical workdays. Ask your manager to incorporate more front end development projects into your projects if possible. Experiment with front end design and be open to learning when you’re not at work.

This is the time to build your portfolio to be more inclusive of all your skills, even if you’re not as well-versed in one end as you are in the other.

4. Accept full stack projects

When you’re comfortable, start accepting projects as a full stack developer. Give yourself a little bit of time to get acquainted with the new workload. Before, you might have estimated a different timeline to complete a project. Now with a longer list of responsibilities, you’ll need to adjust your expectations. The best time to try this step is when you’re feeling comfortable in at least one language each, back end and front end.

Make sure to share the fact that this is a ‘stretch task’ with your manager, team, or client. You may have to adjust expectations or, in the case of freelancing, work for a lower rate at first. However, a good way to think about this is that you’re being paid to learn (in both freelancing and employment). So be open with your needs and ask for help when you need it. The key when asking for help is to ensure you’re learning how to do it yourself, not expecting someone else to do it for you. Also don’t be afraid to check out resources - there are tons of resources for developers between Github, Hacker News, Stack Overflow, and more.

5. Consider getting certified

If you’re feeling confident in your skills and want an external badge you can display, you may also want to try getting certified in your areas of expertise. This shows potential clients and managers that you’re an expert in your field. Portfolios can also do this, but a certification carries the weight of passing an objective examination, whereas some people doctor their portfolios. Depending on your line of work or employer, gaining certifications may also have the opportunity to give you a pay bump.

A good thing about certifications is they often test a variety of skills, so you earn the certification with your core skill but may also learn something new along the way.

6. Choose freelancing versus employment

Once you’ve got your base skill set, portfolio, and potentially even certifications, you’ve got to choose how you want to make money. The most common options for beginners are either to get a full-time job or try freelancing.

Employment is a great option for people who want to be part of a team, work on an already existing project (in most cases), and learn from more experienced peers. Finding a job is fairly easy since there’s high demand for full stack devs on sites like LinkedIn, WeWorkRemotely, or even major job boards like Indeed. Freelancing, on the other hand, can be more financially lucrative and is great for people who like to work independently on a wide range of projects. You can find freelancing work on marketplaces like TopTal, Upwork, Fiverr, or more niche platforms just for hiring developers like CodeMentor.

The other thing to note is that you don’t have to choose one or the other and be stuck with it. You can work full-time while freelancing on the side. Or you can switch between the two as your career progresses. If you’re choosing the side hustle route, just make sure your employer doesn’t have any rules against it. In many states employers aren’t allowed to ban you from freelancing on the side if you’re still performing at your job, but you should still check just in case.

7. Continue building your skills

Once you’re well-versed in full stack development, it’s important to keep learning. If there’s a new language, find time to get acquainted with it. If you have some skills that need some work, use this time to hone them.

Building your skills doesn’t just mean strictly focusing on the languages included in full stack web development. Chase your passions - try a no-code tool, experiment with video game design, or move into something more visual like graphic design. The job of a full stack developer is to build functional and wonderful websites; the more life experience you have outside of your job skill set, the better you’ll be at your job.

The bottom line

A full stack developer is someone who has a wide range of skills and knowledge. Rather than working in just the back end or front end, they’re knowledgeable enough to work in both. It’s one person who is able to do the jobs of multiple people.

But becoming a full stack developer isn’t easy or for everyone. Before you get started, make sure you’re prepared to handle the workload of both front end and back end developing. Learn new skills and hone the ones you have that work best for full stack work. Adjust your expectations and realize that your timeline might not be the same now that you’re doing more work than you were as a front end or back end developer. As you continue to do full stack projects, learn how you can improve your production and work with people who you believe do great work.

Show off your full stack projects on your portfolio for future employers or clients to browse. As newer and better projects wrap up, ask for client testimonials to put on your website. The more you can show off your value to potential managers, the more in-demand you look. Even if you’re working for yourself, you can use your online portfolio as one of your biggest assets to getting hired. Continue to build on your skills and show you’re a valuable asset to your team to increase your pay, rise in your company (or build a profitable freelance business), and become more knowledgeable as a full stack developer.