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What are the Skills of a Full Stack Developer?

The Full Stack Developer has skill on many aspects of application development. He is like a wizard.

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Do you want to be a Full-Stack Developer? If so, you will need to learn some skills. Well, you are in the right place. In this post, we will give you a list of all the must-have skills for a full-stack developer.

Okay, but who is a full-stack developer, anyway? In short, it is a programmer who can build an application top-to-bottom. She can create the entire application all on its own. As you can imagine, this is something very desirable, particularly for small companies and start-ups that cannot have a large staff. If you want to learn more about who is a full-stack developer, read here.

What are the skills of a full stack developer? In shorts, he needs to have skills on the entire application stack, from runtime to frontend
A Full Stack Developer is somewhat like the wizard of developers because he can build an entire application by himself.

In general, an application has two main parts: the backend and the frontend. In addition to that, for the application to run, you need to configure a server as well (sysadmin skills). Therefore, we can group the skills of a full-stack developer into three categories. To that, we can add some preliminary knowledge you should have. This post will follow exactly this structure:

  • Preliminary knowledge (get a sense of the whole picture)
  • Backend Skills of a Full-Stack Developer
  • Frontend Skills of a Full-Stack Developer
  • Sysadmin Skills and DevOps for a Full-Stack Developer

If you don’t understand something from this guide, check this additional explanation! Let’s start!

Preliminary knowledge

Before you start diving into code, you need to have a general understanding of what you are doing, how, and why. You can learn that by studying some specific topics.

  • HTTP Communication – learn how client-server interaction happens. In other words, learn how your computer speaks with an Internet website or application.
  • Algorithms – algorithms are the way the computer thinks. You need to be familiar with how the computer takes decisions, for example by understanding if-else statements in the code. This is not a strict requirement, because you may learn it as-you-go while you learn your programming language.
  • Git – this powerful tool will help you keep your code manageable and track how you change it over time. It will also make it easier to share with other developers in the future, and it is simply the best practice for any developer.
  • A basic understanding of DNS – this will help you a lot. Even senior developers don’t grasp that sometimes, so this will give you an edge. This quick explanation of DNS is all you need.

Now that you have the basics, we can start diving into the actual coding.

Backend Skills of a Full-Stack Developer

Backend is the code running on the server in your datacenter. It runs all the sensitive stuff like payments, handling user data and so on. The frontend will ask your backend to do something. For example, imagine you logging into Facebook. First, you download the login page (your browser asks the backend for the page). Then, you provide user and password and your browser sends that to the server. It is now the backend to check that your password is valid, and eventually let you in.

Our full-stack developer has skills in two areas of the backend: processing and storing data. We call them coding and database, respectively. You need to pick at least one item from each area to be a full-stack developer.

Backend Coding Skills

In short, you need to decide what programming language you are going to use for your backend. Once you decide, you should focus on learning it. Below, you find some of the best alternatives out there.

JavaScript (Node.js)

JavaScript (JS) was born like a language for the frontend, but now you can use it in the backend as well. This is thanks to Node.js, which can run javascript on your server. If you really want to be a full-stack developer (and invest some time into that), JavaScript is your best option.

If you decide to go that way, you want to use express.js, which is a simple framework that makes things easier for you.

The pros

  • Since Javascript can run also in the frontend, you have to learn just one language.
  • Supports all new great technologies like serverless and cloud.
  • Easy to scale (make your application bigger as needed)

The cons

  • Not good for CPU-intensive activities
  • Messy to build for a beginner (you will come up with different versions of the language, TypeScript, transpiling and other not beginner-friendly stuff)
  • Good just for processing web requests
  • Only if you go with express.js, you will have to implement by yourself things like interacting with the database, user authentication and more. The framework is pretty lightweight.

C# with .NET Framework

Quite a strong language for backend, originally created by Microsoft. This is probably your best bet if you want to run in a Microsoft environment.

The pros

  • Great performance
  • General-purpose language, it allows you do integrate things beyond just web requests directly in the same application.
  • If you are in an enterprise, you can get Microsoft support
  • Widely adopted for SOAP web services, if you need to work with them
  • It supports modern serverless applications in the cloud

The cons

  • Full-features are available only on Microsoft, on Linux you have to stick with .NET core (which is limited)
  • Hard to scale

Python

A great general-purpose programming language, it can give you the possibility to create a backend. If you want to use Python in your backend, you will need a framework to serve web requests, like Flask.

The pros

  • Supports modern serverless applications in the cloud
  • General-purpose language, you can do things beyond just web pages
  • Wonderful libraries for Data Analysis and Artificial Intelligence

The cons

  • Average performance
  • Not widely adopted for web applications, it is a skill hard to spend for a full-stack developer

PHP

The good old PHP. This is the language you want to use if you are in for the quick and dirty. It can even run without compiling, but if you don’t do that you will create spaghetti code for sure.

If you want to go with PHP, I recommend using a framework like Laravel to avoid creating messy code. This Laravel tutorial is where you want to start.

The pros

  • Easy to learn, easy to write (however this makes it easy to write bad code as well)
  • Supported on any hosting, even the cheapest and scrappiest ones (thus cheaper to deploy).
  • Can scale horizontally

The cons

  • Not supported in modern cloud applications
  • You can easily write bad code if you don’t enforce some rules for yourself

Java

Well, what about java? It has been one of the most used programming languages for decades. In spite of this, it is not just the way to go for a modern application nowadays. That is because it takes a lot of time and code to achieve the same result. Java can still be good for some enterprise applications that require many layers, but it is not good for a full-stack developer.

Thus, no, don’t go with Java. While good on other aspects, it is not a skill for full-stack developers.

Database Skills of a Full-Stack Developer

The database is the place where you store your application data. In other words, it is where you keep user information and application information. For example, if you have an application to manage invoices, you probably will store such invoices in the database.

There are plenty of databases out there, but we can group them in two categories: SQL and NoSQL. Ideally, a full-stack developer knows at least one database of both.

SQL

SQL is a standard language to tell your database to do something. Using the SQL language, you can retrieve data from the database or add new data in the database. Even more, you can change the structure of your database!

With standard, we mean that many different database engines understand the SQL language. However, each has its own dialect that adds additional potential to the language. But, for the basics, it’s always the same. The databases that implement SQL are Relational Database Management Systems (RDBMSs). This is a type of database that tries to separate data as much as possible and leverages relationships.

We won’t go much into how RDBMSs work in the way they do, but instead, we will focus on when they are good:

  • Easy way to implement atomic operations (an operation that either succeeds completely or fails completely, but can never succeed halfway).
  • Widely adopted, you have libraries to interact with them in pretty much any language and framework.
  • Good performance on small and medium data-sets. However, the way you structure your database can have huge impacts on performance as well.

If you want an application that scales to dozens of millions of users, or even billions, going with SQL is not the right way. However, in that case, you simply don’t have a product to use out-of-the-box. You will need to design your data structures carefully, and you may even end up using distributed SQL databases. Of course, this is an advanced topic and not really the bread and butter for a full-stack developer.

Popular SQL Databases for Full-Stack Developers

Going back to the skills of a full-stack developer, those are the most common SQL databases that you can find.

  • MySQL – free to use, widely supported and with good performance. The best way to go, and you can start with this complete MySQL tutorial.
  • SQL Server – SQL database engine made by Microsoft. Again, this is good if you work in a Microsoft environment, for example with C#.
  • Oracle – the way to go for the enterprise. Expensive, but with amazing performance and outstanding support.
  • PostgreSQL – a free and open-source alternative to Oracle, it adds some advanced features that most SQL servers don’t have. However, you don’t want to rely on those features, otherwise, you will be stuck with that database forever and migrating to a different solution will be hard.

My recommendation is to go with MySQL, easy to learn and to implement, and free.

NoSQL

NoSQL, well, is the opposite of SQL. While in SQL the database meticulously arranges data in predefined structures, NoSQL is free for all. Data doesn’t come with a predefined structure and relationships between data of different types are almost unexistent. You may end up duplicating the same piece of information in multiple places in the NoSQL database.

Of course, this is a change of paradigm. If you want to use a NoSQL database like you use a SQL database, you got it all wrong. You need to rethink your application and the way you structure data. But, since NoSQL has almost no constraint, it can scale up to handle huge datasets.

Here we have one major player, MongoDB. It is free and open-source, but it is an enterprise product. This means that if you later want to get advanced support, you can purchase that.

My recommendation here is to learn a SQL database first. MongoDB is not a strictly required skill for a full-stack developer. It is something you have on-top that will set you apart from other developers.

Frontend Skills of a Full-Stack Developer

Once you are all set with the backend, you can start thinking about the Frontend. Here, unlike the backend, you don’t have much choice on what to use, because browsers all support the same things. You will have to work with HTML, CSS, and Javascript.

Let’s dive into the frontend skills of a full-stack developer.

HTML

HTML is the king of the web. The Hyper-Text Markup Language defines the structure of any page you see on the web. Even more, you can use it to build mobile and even desktop apps (if you build a PWA, here’s more on that).

HTML basically defines what is a title, what is a paragraph, what is a menu, what is an image and so on. It defines how your content is structured. In the end, your backend (or frontend javascript) will have to render some HTML to build the pages your user sees.

Thus, HTML is the first thing you have to learn about the frontend. It may even be the first thing to learn at all. Fortunately, you can quickly learn HTML, it will take about an afternoon. And, if you want to master it it will take about one or two weeks of practice. Once you learn HTML, you can move to the next skill of a Full-Stack Developer in the frontend: CSS.

CSS

CSS stands for Cascade Style Sheet, and it is all about style. In fact, HTML tells what your content is (e.g. a paragraph or a title), but not much about how you should present your content. This is where CSS comes in.

You must use CSS in combination with HTML. CSS tells how to render each part of the HTML, from sizes to colors or fonts. It even handles optimization for mobile phones and basic animations.

Like HTML, you can learn the concepts of CSS in about an afternoon. However, you will see many properties and settings in CSS, so you will have to practice for some time before you can fully start to write CSS on your own.

Once you feel on top of it, you can experiment with less or sass. Those are enhancements of CSS that help you do more. However, to do that you need to have a great understanding of Javascript.

JavaScript

This is the king of the modern web. Whenever you browse a website or use an application, you don’t expect the entire page to refresh. In other words, you don’t expect it to go entirely blank for a second and then load the next page with your result.

You expect what you want to appear right away, as smoothly as possible. Even more, you expect everything else to stay there (e.g. the menu on top of the page). Javascript can do all of that.

Javascript has two main roles in the frontend. First, it handles smooth animations and transitions between pages and parts of the same page. Second, it queries the backend for information, and then present it to the user. In other words, the backend only provides the information, with no style or additional metadata. Then, Javascript in the frontend takes the data and packages it inside HTML and CSS.

Of course, to do all of that you need to use some compiled javascript, not just some random code inside a web page. You need to use a framework.

Javascript frameworks

There are many options out there when it comes to Javascript frameworks. The most popular ones are Angular.js, React, and Vue. Personally, I am happy with Vue (also in combination with Quasar Framework), but there is just no right or wrong framework here.

Just be sure to learn first HTML, CSS, and plain Javascript before diving into that.

Don’t use JQuery!

JQuery is simply the wrong way to go with Javascript. It was a good idea maybe in 2006, but its days are over. This is because the modern frameworks allow you to gently represent in code user interface components, and JQuery doesn’t do that. Instead, makes you manually modify and reference pieces of HTML. And, even worst, JQuery is a heavy component!

Don’t do that. You may be tempted, particularly if you know someone who is used to work with JQuery, but don’t fall into this trap. Remember, anything that can be achieved with JQuery can be achieved with any modern framework. The only difference is that with the modern framework it will be easier, faster, and better.

Thus, no. JQuery is not a skill for full-stack developers!

Sysadmin and DevOps Skills

At this point, you have all the preliminary knowledge. You know how to write the code for your app, both in the backend and in the frontend. However, a key point is still missing. You need to publish your application so that people can use it.

This means you will have to configure a server to host your application, possibly in a secure way. All the skills of a front-end developer that help you publish your app are the sysadmin skills. On top of that, you want to have some DevOps skills, as they will help you automate the process of publishing the app.

Sysadmin Skills

Most applications you create will be available over the Internet, or generally through HTTP(S). This means you need to know how to set up a web server.

A web server is a software that receives requests from the users and directs them to your application. Think of it as a shell around your app. There are many options out there, but most notably we have Microsoft IIS (Windows only) and Apache, which is open-source and cross-platform. We also need to mention Nginx, another open-source project with great performance.

Apache is a great product, reliable and popular, so I would go with that. The fact that it is so popular means you will get a lot of support online from other users. Furthermore, if you are on Windows, you can download XAMPP, an installer that will give you Apache and MySQL at the same time. If you want to do that, check out this tutorial on a XAMPP installation.

Natively, Apache supports PHP as a backend language. If you are going with another language, you may have to do something different. For example, if you go with Javascript, having Node.js in your machine may be enough.

Cloud Skills and Serverless

Developers, Developers, Developers develop.

Steve Ballmer (former Microsoft CEO)

No jokes, one day the CEO of Microsoft came onto the stage singing exactly that. Even if he ran Microsoft with mixed results for a decade, this is something he got so right.

Developers just want to write code, they don’t want to mess with configuring servers and tasks alike. And, ideally, no full-stack developer should spend most of its time configuring servers. Cloud comes to the rescue.

Cloud providers like AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud allow developers to publish their code with a few clicks. Imagine you have a web application: instead of configuring a server, you just upload it to the cloud and you are done.

Of course, it is a little bit more complex than that, but it is something worth learning. Here are the top cloud skills for a full-stack developer you should learn.

Going into the cloud is a complex topic, but one worth exploring for full-stack developers.

DevOps Skills

DevOps comes from Development + Operations, and it means integrating those two functions closely. In other words, it means that the developer takes care of configuring the server with code.

That’s right, imagine you write a procedure the computer can follow to set up your server. This is what DevOps is all about. Automation. On top of that, you should consider unit testing, which is some piece of code that verifies your main piece of code is working.

All this automation makes the development faster and easier because as soon as you finish coding on a feature, you can spin it to your production servers with the click of a button. And the company will love that because faster release cycles mean you waste less time, so you are more productive.

DevOps is a huge topic. But, if you are considering that you should start learning Docker, Kubernetes, Helm and a Continuous Integration tool like Jenkins or Azure DevOps.

If you want to learn more about this, you should start with this DevOps and Continuous Integration tutorial.

Full-Stack Developer’s Skills in a Nutshell

Being a great full-stack developer is no easy task. You will need to have many different skills, and you will have to take care of your application from top to bottom. From the code to the data structures, not to mention publishing the application.

Yet, full-stack development is rewarding, and it is your most important skill for your side-projects. In fact, if you want to create your own application, game or service, you can do it. All by yourself. This is a huge power, so go get it!

Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded ICTShore.com with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.
Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded ICTShore.com with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.

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Alessandro Maggio

2020-07-23T16:30:42+00:00

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