What's The Deal With Full Stack Employees?

Should You Become a Full Stack Employee?
by Kit Warchol
April 06, 2016
Lately, the world at large seems to be gushing about anything and everything that's "full stack."
Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or, like, off the grid in some awesome dome commune in Joshua Tree), you’ve probably heard those buzzwords around your office. But what exactly makes a full stack employee versus a...micro stack one? And where do you fit in at this party? 

WHAT IS FULL STACK? 

The term "full stack" started in the web development world (doesn’t everything?), and so it originally applied to a very niche industry, on a very specific scale. A full stack web developer is—putting it simply—a programmer who also happens to be a people person.

The ideal full stack web developer is as comfortable working on the backend in layers of code as they are designing UX friendly interfaces. They don't even mind meeting with clients. They know how to build something that works, how to explain it to clients, and how to make it look good—an ideal top-to-bottom approach to web design and development. 
Think “Renaissance Man,” “Jack of All Trades,” or just “I wear many hats.” The real truth about these full stack employees is that we’ve seen them before. We’re just shifting how we define them. Slightly. 
As the term full stack began picking up traction across other industries, though, it came to mean something slightly different from the web development definition. The general meaning can vary from industry to industry, but basically, it’s someone typically (though not always) working in a start-up environment who feels comfortable doing a little bit of everything from design to marketing to sales to whatever.

They're adept at adapting, "getting in there," and "rolling up their sleeves"—meaning they're great at just rolling with it in general. Their job title matters very little because it often doesn't speak to how essential they are to the company. It’s their sense of innovation and ability to figure out how to get everything done under pressure that allows them to flip between Photoshop files and editorial calendars, event planning and ad sales.

These are the employees people often refer to as "unicorns" (cliché, I know) because they evolve according to company, team, and need. They're sort of freaks—and they're in high demand.

THE TRUTH ABOUT FULL STACK EMPLOYEES

They’re nothing new. Seriously. Think “Renaissance Man,” “Jack of All Trades,” or just “I wear many hats.” The real truth about these full stack employees is that we’ve seen them before. We’re just shifting how we define them. Slightly

In a recent Medium article, Chris Messina explains “Full stack employees are expected to deeply understand their domain, but also dynamically deal with shifting priorities and expectations.” Suddenly, successful careers trade on how light you are on your feet, not necessarily your background or experience. According to Messina, full stack employees are expected to be able to work anywhere, with anyone, with any technology. They’re quick learners, they’re co-working-spacers, they’re tech dorks, and they’re always dialed in. Sound familiar? 

THE PITFALLS OF FULL STACK

Not everyone agrees that full stack is the way to go. You’ve probably heard an argument that knowing “a little bit about everything” can cause problems because it doesn't force anyone to master a skill or task. Full stacking loses a sense of "expertise," turning the focus on the person and their abilities to adapt more than their honed skill set. In the end, if everyone were to decide to follow a full stack career approach, we’re threatened with mediocrity. There are designers, composers, and neurosurgeons for a reason.

Then there’s the question of time, specifically how much time full stackers spend on their careers. 

“When you include behaviors like 'being online all the time’ as core to the hiring criteria, you’re basically just asking for candidates who can work all the time – a de facto ban on people who have children, caretaking responsibilities and frankly, any other non-work interests and obligations,” says renowned UX Designer, Elea Chang

Not only could this push us all further from a work-life balance, it could also lead to the exclusion of candidates who have other priorities beyond work—essentially anyone who isn’t young and single. If you want to spend evening hours with your newborn, you're not spending them boning up on new advances in your industry.

Maybe worse though is the question of fulfillment beyond the workplace. Full stackers are known for their constancy, meaning they’re expected to pursue professional skills at all costs in the interest of their companies. That means spending less time reading and studying up on other subjects or exploring hobbies and interests that don’t benefit your work (“less and less time to actually grow as a human being” says Chang).

Think of it this way: if your goal is to become a full stack web designer, there's little room for taking a weaving class.

THE FINAL CALL

Evolving is a great thing. Some of us aren't sure we're in the right jobs or the right industry and some of us are interested in starting our own businesses some day—in both cases learning a bit of everything is key. By exploring, we open ourselves to interests and opportunities we may never have realized we wanted (who knew you had such an eye for branding?), and it helps us dodge problems and fill gaps as they happen (who knew the Director of Development was going to quit so abruptly?). 

Just be careful. As we spend more and more time at our jobs, making sure we focus some time on the things that make us tick beyond the office is key. Watch a few documentaries or take a class in something that doesn’t benefit your job and company. Learn how to cook paella. Watercolor some awful landscapes. That’s our best career advice for all you full stackers out there. 

What do you think about the idea of going full stack?