How to Become a Full-Stack Web Developer

If you’ve spent much time thinking about becoming a web developer, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the term “full-stack web developer” thrown around among coders or in job listings. You’re probably also wondering exactly what a full-stack web developer actually is, how you might become one, and what you’d do on the job.

What Is a Web Developer?

One of the first sources of confusion is the mistaken use of the terms “developer,” “programmer,” and “coder” in an interchangeable fashion. If you’re not familiar with the industry, it can be challenging to figure out what differentiates each of the three professions. A good way to understand the difference is to think about the following.

  • How deep into the system is the person working?
  • What is the scope of his or her efforts?

Programmers are generally working on code that operates the deepest inside systems. In extreme cases, such as working on video card drivers, they may be dealing with machine assembly code while trying to get every last ounce of performance out of a component. In other words, a full-stack web developer is usually going to be doing a less deeply involved job than a programmer.

A developer is looking at things from a broader perspective than programmers do. Developers have to ask questions about how different systems interact. In the case of full-stack web developers, they may have to address questions about putting together everything from database security to the user experience.

Depending on the organizational chart at your job, you may or may not work independently. At smaller organizations, individual web developers often are responsible for the installation, deployment, and maintenance of website systems. Within a larger operation, a web developer may act as a traffic cop directing people and resources while trying to keep the big picture in mind.

What Is the Full Stack?

The full stack refers to all the software that’s required to make a single functioning system work. In the absence of any other terminology, a full-stack web developer is someone who works with the LAMP stack. LAMP stands for the Linux operating system, Apache web server, MySQL database, and the PHP programming language.

Notably, newer stacks have emerged in recent years, such as the Node.js stack that leverages the JavaScript language to do the job at the server and language interpreter levels. Ruby on Rails and Django are popular frameworks that bring together other software stacks.

It goes unspoken in the industry, but the stack also encompasses elements that power the user interface. In the web development world, that mostly means what runs in the web browser. This introduces things like working with these languages.

  • HTML to code pages
  • CSS to handle on-page element design
  • JavaScript to provide interactive features

Low-level hacking of these components is usually a programming task, and that should not be included in the job description of a developer. For example, working inside the Document Object Model to provide functionality above and beyond what comes with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript is a programming task. As a developer, you’re welcome to fiddle with it if you want to, but it’s not your job.

Conversely, a good deal of coding will be needed here and there to do your job as a developer. Someone working to deploy a website using the WordPress platform, for example, will likely have to tweak some PHP code to provide customization. You can expect to look at and work with a lot of code, but you should rarely be asked to develop a large codebase from the ground up.

Developers should have basic desktop administrator skills in their skill set. While not absolutely essential to some jobs in the field, you should know how to get around inside an operating system using a remote terminal. This is helpful when dealing with troubleshooting, especially when systems have completely failed.

Your employer may or may not have a server admin on site. At smaller organizations, it’s common for the full-stack developer’s job description to overlap with what would normally be a server administrator’s domain.

It’s also a good idea to develop some familiarity with how website domain names are set up. This should include how to register and transfer domains, and you should also learn how to configure and deploy name servers to direct domains to specific machines.

Tools of the Trade

Unsurprisingly, most full-stack web development work is done on computers. At a minimum, you should have a laptop that you’re comfortable working on. It’s wise to have a development server set up to test things on, but these can be configured using old desktops. Many developers also like to have newer desktops in their offices to provide a more robust work environment for tasks like editing images.

With the increasing emphasis on mobile design, a phone is also very important to have. You may want to purchase models that allow you to test on both Apple and Android web browsers. Developers also have to check for compatibility issues with web browsers running on laptops and desktops, and you should at least have installs of both Firefox and Chrome on all your machines.

Your phone will also be helpful in dealing with many social media tie-ins. For example, Twitter integration requires an authentication key. The key is almost always sent via text message. You’ll encounter similar issues with other social media platforms, too.

If you plan to work as an independent developer, it’s a good idea to have some separation between the business end of things and your personal hardware. While it might be easier and cheaper to use personal hardware in the first year of your business, you’ll find that you get the best tax benefits from segregating personal and business hardware. If you go to work for a company, it should provide you with the necessary hardware to do your job.

Basic Skills of a Full-Stack Web Developer

All the hardware and software in the world doesn’t mean much if you lack the basic skills to make use of it. Fortunately, a lot of the skills and personality that make good full-stack web developers are seen long before they look at a single line of code. People who thrive in the field are often

  • Willing to dive deep to figure out problems.
  • Comfortable working on puzzles.
  • Unhappy letting issues go, even if they’re minor.
  • Creative and open to unusual solutions.

Games feature heavily in the backgrounds of developers. You’ll encounter many people who work as web developers who play games like chess and Go, where it’s essential to remember a lot and calculate your way through problems.

Many developers also grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons and similar games where immersive worlds had to be fully understood in order to succeed. The emphasis on cooperation in games is helpful, too, because the lone hacker is largely a myth and certainly not of much value in the corporate world.

Other forms of problem solving overlap with the personality traits of web developers. People who have worked on cars, especially doing engine repair, are often able to pick up quickly on how the different web development components work together.

It’s essential to be able to hold a good bit of information in your mind for several hours when working as a full-stack web developer. You might have to run down a tangled problem like figuring out what’s killing an asynchronous web request from a bit of JavaScript code. This can mean peeling back layers of security, user interface, web browser functionality, and code. You have to be able to think about how the browser and server talk to each other to diagnose what might be going wrong.

You also better love reading. Web developers often have to dig through reference materials and documentation for frameworks, programming languages, servers, and other components. There isn’t a PHP developer on the planet who hasn’t spent a couple of hours trying to track down why a particular deprecated function doesn’t work anymore and what solution has replaced it.

Being able to go back and forth between a problem and documentation is a critical skill. Web developers will often have to read through a reference and then try to apply what they’ve gleaned from it. This often calls for doing tweaking and then rereading the reference materials to identify a more specific issue that turns up once you’ve made a small adjustment.

Getting a Foot in the Door

One major upside to the profession of full-stack web development is there are many ways to put your name out there. First, you should have no problem building a professional website that gets attention. Second, it’s easy to prove you know what you’re talking about by just listing your skills on a résumé. There aren’t many people who can say they can set up a full-stack LAMP server with a website on an Amazon Lightsail instance, for example, unless they can actually do it.

As you search for businesses that need your skills, it’s important to focus on what their setup is. You don’t want to come into an Angular work environment if you’re exclusively a Ruby on Rails person, for example.

Likewise, you should keep up with developments in your slice of the web development universe. People who haven’t updated their skills since PHP 5 are going to have a tough time keeping up with code written for PHP 7. Be prepared to be a constant student because the learning never stops, even once you’ve nailed down a long-term job position.

Web development is a very rewarding field. If you’re someone who enjoys working your way through puzzles, games, or real-world problems, it’s a trade that never lacks for ways to keep your brain working. Those who can combine those impulses with professionalism and teamwork have the ability to thrive in the industry.

Did learning about how to become a full-stack web developer interest you? The Web Application Design and Development program transforms beginning computer coding students into entry-level, full-stack web developers. The Web Application Design and Development program focuses on the main programming languages, including HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Java, Python, SQL, and PHP.

Career Services at Hunter Business School

Hunter Business School Career Services staff members help students jump-start stimulating and gratifying careers in the web design field by helping the prospective employee make the transition to the workplace as quickly and easily as possible.

Placement services include job interviewing skills, résumé preparation, cover and thank you letter writing, job internships, and career counseling and support. Graduates are always welcome back to Hunter for assistance from the Career Services department.

Contact us today to find out more about how to become a website developer on Long Island.