The right team is one of the main contributors to the project’s success. You can go either with a full-stack team or specialized back-end and front-end developers when starting a project.
There’s no silver bullet, and all professional engineers would finish the project and launch it on the market. However, the development process would be slightly different, and depending on the specific project and its complexity, one way or the other would be more appropriate.
Full-stack teams are great for more straightforward projects and applications with unbalanced complexity between the front-end and back-end. You can hire developers with more experience in the area you need and less in the other one and complete the job with fewer people and less overhead.
On the other hand, we would suggest hiring specialized developers for a more complex project with a larger team. They tend to be more knowledgeable in their field and can develop better solutions in non-typical situations. In those projects, full-stack benefits aren’t as significant, as, for example, hiring speed and the quality of the result.
Let’s look over the pros and cons of building a project with a full-stack team.
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Full-Stack developers tend to implement features from start to finish. They are fully responsible for the production results, so they often develop better ideas for implementing and testing those features.
They know how parts of the system interact and see most of the impacted areas in the project that might break and need changes. When something isn’t working as expected, it’s their code, and they can debug it from start to finish without bothering other people. This dedication and focus dramatically improves the quality of the product and reduces the number of bugs.
Reusing part of the server code on the front-end is quite dangerous as it may expose some of the server internals and show the source code to hackers looking for potential vulnerabilities. Fortunately, full-stack developers tend to know the whole project better and design it with code reuse in mind.
Pieces worth sharing are separated into different modules from the start. They have fewer dependencies and aren’t coupled with the rest of the application code. Those are often custom utility functions, translations, TypeScript type definitions, and reusable validation logic.
Everyone knows that developers in smaller teams are far more efficient. Fewer blocking tasks, less communication, and planning involved, meetings take less time, and people are more focused on doing their job.
That’s the case with full-stack teams. The developers take independent features and implement them in parallel from start to finish, making the necessary changes everywhere in the application.
On the other hand, every feature in a specialized team starts with short sync on the API front-end team needs, how it should work, what fields are required, the best data representation, etc. Sometimes the API works in isolation, the front-end works on mock data, but the full integration doesn’t. This situation requires debugging efforts from both teams, more sync meetings, and more time to fix things.
What if the back-end went ahead? They can’t develop more and more features in isolation from the rest of the application. Some of them would change based on feedback from the UI interactions pinpointing parts worth improving.
The front-end team also can’t blindly implement everything on mocks. It won’t work as the actual application and won’t allow testing for edge cases. Those mocks become more and more complex over time and make developers put effort into an unnecessary, throw-away code. Of course, integrating the back end would still take a lot of additional work.
Since full-stack developers work on all parts of the product, they naturally have more knowledge of the whole system. Not only it lets them see what may break with every new feature and propose how to handle it, but they might have valuable feedback on the application from a product perspective.
Understanding every feature and the benefits it provides to the users enables them to generate excellent tips on improving new features before implementing them. Full-stack developers tend to see the underlying advantages, consistency with the rest of the application and help product managers and designers enhance their initial vision.
Two heads are better than one, so this discussion often leads to a much better solution than the original proposal. There’s no need for a separate meeting for this. In a startup environment, where requirements aren’t fixed and everything changes frequently, it’s often happening during the sprint planning. When discussing tasks, people propose their improvements and develop improvements for some of them.
A specialized team starts with two people: one back-end developer and one front-end. The minimal full-stack squad is just one developer.
This scales. With improved efficiency, a full-stack team can do more work in a sprint. You can achieve the same results with fewer people. For large applications, this also scales with microservice architecture and micro-frontends. It divides the application into multiple smaller projects so that different teams can work on them simultaneously.
Full-stack developers are often a bit faster than specialized ones when it comes to implementing complete features. They test the solutions on the actual app instead of spending time in Postman or back-end mocks. Even if full-stack developers aren’t ninja programmers, near-zero blocking time and less communication still drastically reduce the costs.
Full-stack development lets people frequently switch between tasks and technologies. It’s more exciting and less monotonous work. They don’t get bored that often, even when doing simple non-challenging tasks.
Specialized developers might block the other team, and that’s enough pressure to make them work faster and even overwork. Or they might be blocked instead and have nothing to do. Working at a variable pace often leads to more burnout.
When burnout, people feel drained and tired. They don’t have enough energy to get even simple work done and view their job as more stressful and frustrating, distancing themselves from doing it. Lack of creativity and difficulties in maintaining concentration make developers almost useless, contributing to burnout.
You don’t want burnout in your team.
A front-end developer has to know HTML, CSS, a few UI frameworks, and a bunch of front-end packages. A back-end developer needs experience with NodeJS, various databases, message queues, maybe AWS or GCP, and dozens of back-end packages.
A full-stack developer has to know everything above. Among two developers with the same years of experience, a specialist spent more time working only with his technologies. Specialists had more opportunities to master CSS tricks, play around with different component libraries, or learn the depths of AWS and databases.
More profound knowledge enables them to write better code for each separate part of the project.
While developing most of an application in one programming language isn’t always a bad idea, sometimes writing back-end in C# or Java might be beneficial. Those languages have been used in enterprises for quite a long time, leaving behind piles of valuable legacy code. Integration in the same environment might be easier, but you aren’t obligated to do it directly from a new back-end. It’s possible to create lightweight proxies and communicate with them from a new code instead.
Complex projects generally require larger teams where full-stack development no longer has that many benefits. On top of that, complex tasks demand more skilled developers, and it’s twice as hard for full-stacks to be on par with specialists.
While almost every full-stack developer was a specialist before, they tend to monitor best practices and new technologies less as they’ve progressed. There’s not enough time to keep up with both front-end and back-end while programming 9-5.
Specialists have more tricks in their sleeves to develop intelligent design decisions for more complex tasks. Their more profound technical knowledge and focused experience make them more manageable.
Most developers start their career on either front-end or back-end. There’s no such position as a junior full-stack developer. How can they know everything without real experience developing production applications?
To become full-stack, a developer must master one specialization first and then learn another one. Not everyone wants that, as many people aren’t willing to leave their comfort zone, adjust, and always learn new things. Due to these facts, there are probably far fewer full-stack developers than the specialized ones combined.
The demand for full-stack developers, however, is high and constantly growing. More and more companies realize their benefits and want them in their teams. Building a startup from scratch with a specialized team would be too expensive, so they’re looking for full-stacks too. Those rapidly changing environments can’t afford to hire many people, so everyone in the team should be versatile and able to adapt.
This discrepancy in the market makes hiring good full-stack developers a much more challenging task. It also drives the salaries up, so large specialized teams can even be more cost-effective. For small projects, all the benefits still outweigh the increased costs for individual developers.
What happens if someone leaves your project? Well, in large enterprises, most likely, no one would barely notice. In small startups, however, everyone’s usually responsible for a subset of the project. While this practice does increase the speed of development, it also increases the bus factor. Other developers have to dig into their code when someone leaves and figure out how it works before implementing new features.
While we mentioned that developers implement features from start to finish in full-stack teams, everyone should equally know different application parts. The same applies to larger applications divided into multiple projects with separate subteams, where every developer should know their team responsibilities.
The high bus factor has nothing to do with full-stack development. It’s a problem for small teams and far more critical for specialized developers. Losing half of your back-end capacity with four developers would be more problematic than losing only 25% with full-stack. However, small full-stack teams are far more common so it’s a drawback for them.
Full-stack development is not a silver bullet.
Choosing the right team composition mostly depends on the type of application. Large enterprises have more than enough reasons to go specialized. They already have different technology stacks, complex projects, and value time to hire a big team.
Startups, on the other hand, would benefit from universal developers. They need small, efficient teams to keep up the pace and appreciate every feedback on the product while finding the product-market fit.
In LeanyLabs, we start most projects with full-stack teams and add specialized developers later on as the complexity gradually grows. If you aren’t sure what would be the best team for your specific application, leave us a message, and we’ll get back to you.