Full Stack Developer vs. Software Engineer: What Is the Difference?
In the world of tech, there’s a constant buzz about full stack developers and software engineers. Are they just two names for the same talented professional who makes the digital tools and apps we use every day? Well, not quite. Full stack developers and software engineers both work with code, but their approaches and areas of expertise set them apart.
Knowing the differences between full stack developers and software engineers helps you pick the right tech career and work better with others in teams. It also lets you focus on the skills you need and grow professionally in the fast-paced tech world.
In this blog post we’ll discuss what makes these two fields different, how they go about building websites and web applications, the programming languages they use, and what tasks they usually handle on a development team. Let’s dive in!
Table of Contents
- What do full stack developers and software engineers do?
- What are the differences between full stack developers and software engineers?
- What skills are required for full stack developers and software engineers?
- Who earns more: full stack developers or software engineers?
- How do I choose between a full stack developer and software engineer career?
What do full stack developers and software engineers do?
Full stack developers and software engineers are similar in that they both work with multiple coding languages to build technical solutions, but to understand the differences between the two, let’s look at a real world example.
Imagine that you visit a café that specializes in healthy meal options. A full stack developer is like the chef who can handle every part of preparing the meals, from choosing the ingredients to cooking the dishes and even serving them to patrons. They know how to do a little bit of everything in the kitchen. A software engineer, in contrast, is like a nutritionist. They have a deep understanding of how different ingredients interact and affect the body, and they use this knowledge to plan meals that are balanced, healthy, and deliciously satisfying.
In the technical world, a full stack developer is typically responsible for:
- The front end of a website, including the design and the parts that you interact with like navigation items, forms, and buttons
- The backend of a website, including the database, web servers, hosting, and API integrations (and more!)
- The front end and backend working together to deliver a seamless, delightful, and accessible user experience, like how a chef and nutritionist would work together to create a new recipe in our example above
“Full stack simply means that you know something about each architectural layer in a non-trivial web application – and can work on any of them. You should know enough on system administration and server provisioning to create an environment where your application lives. You should know enough about back-end development to build one or more web services, at least one of which delivers your code to the browser,” Chris Millar, senior developer explains.
A software engineer, on the other hand, is qualified to work on the backend of a website, but their abilities and responsibilities extend beyond that. They also possess the skills to:
- Design the architecture of complex systems and applications
- Test and debug software issues
- Monitor and improve website security
- Handle complex database needs like load balancing and caching
- Build native desktop applications (think the Microsoft Word or Adobe Photoshop desktop apps)
- Build mobile apps
- Build systems that run on gaming consoles and TVs
- Ensure systems work across multiple formats and devices
As you can see, the work of software engineers is often quite complex and requires a deep understanding of the network of systems, tools and techniques needed to build solutions. Says Ned Lomigora, founder at 387 Labs: “Engineers have to be more systematic in their approach and take a bigger picture view than developers. Engineers are trained to apply system-level thinking in their approach to solving problems. They not only have to solve the problem at hand but also evaluate how that solution impacts the overall system while minimizing the negative impact to the system as a whole.”
What are the differences between full stack developers and software engineers?
These two prominent roles in tech have distinct areas of expertise and responsibilities, though they might seem similar at first glance. To understand the nuances that set them apart, let’s dive into the key differences.
Scope of Work
Full stack developers typically work on the entire stack of technologies that make a website or application function (the front end and the backend as we’ve discussed). Software engineers on the other hand specialize in different areas that may include full stack development skills but also include system architecture, algorithms, data structures, and more.
Skills and Areas of Focus
Full stack developers specialize in a wide range of technologies, using multiple programming languages, frameworks, and tools to handle both client-side and server-side development. Software engineers tend to specialize in specific areas like machine learning, data science, security, or systems architecture.
Full stack developers are able to complete projects where end-to-end development is required, for example building a website for our café that stores menu items, daily specials, and public events in a database. Software engineers possess the skills needed to be involved in diverse projects, from developing specific algorithms or components to designing large-scale software systems (like the behemoth systems behind Amazon.com).
Mohamed Yosri badreddine, Chief Technology Officer at Euro Tech Conseil explains that “software engineers are involved in the entire software development lifecycle, starting from requirements analysis and system design to coding, testing, and project management.”
Depth of Knowledge
Full stack developers have a breadth of knowledge in both front end and backend technologies, versus software engineers who typically have a deeper understanding of specific domains within software development, allowing them to tackle complex problems in those areas.
What skills are required for full stack developers and software engineers?
A proficient full stack developer is akin to the talented chef in our café example earlier. Both roles require a specific set of skills and knowledge of tools and techniques. Full stack developers need a diverse set of technical skills to adeptly handle both front end and backend development tasks:
- Front end skills
- Front end frameworks (e.g., React or Angular) — pre-built tools and components that streamline the development of web application user interfaces, making it easier for developers to create interactive and responsive websites.
- Version control (e.g., Git) — a system for tracking and managing changes in software code, enabling collaboration, tracking revisions, and ensuring code stability.
- API design and development — interfaces that allow different software applications to communicate with each other and pass data back and forth.
- Backend skills
- Operating systems like macOS, Windows, or Linux — programs that manage all applications that run on a computer, including memory management, process management, inter-process communication, virtualization and other features.
- Server-side languages (e.g., Python) — programming languages designed to be executed on a web server to process requests and generate dynamic content for websites or web applications.
- Database management (e.g., MySQL or PostgreSQL) — servers that allow developers to organize and store data efficiently.
- API development servers and cloud environments (such as AWS) — the tools needed to establish connections between software and cloud servers. This enables applications to operate on the internet and scale effortlessly as required.
In addition to the backend skills of full stack developers above, software engineers should have additional technical skills:
- Software architecture — the art of organizing a system to work effectively with other tools, ensuring it serves a clear purpose and functions correctly.
- Algorithms — step-by-step procedures designed to solve specific problems or perform tasks, helping computers process and analyze data efficiently.
- Data structures — data organizations that allow for efficient access and manipulation of data.
- Software development tools — IDEs (integrated development environments), version control systems like Git, and debugging tools to streamline development.
- Testing and quality assurance — systematically verifying and validating software to identify defects, ensure it meets requirements, and is reliable, user-friendly, and bug-free.
- Security — tools and techniques to protect websites, web applications, and data from cyber threats.
- Mobile application development — optimizing applications to run on mobile devices like the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy.
Your journey as a full stack developer or software engineer is more than just mastering the technical side; it also involves developing essential soft skills that are equally important for success in the field. These soft skills include:
- Problem solving and critical thinking — Using analysis and logic to understand complex problems and find creative solutions.
- Time management — The ability to organize multiple workloads and tasks in order to meet deadlines.
- Teamwork and collaboration — Sharing knowledge, compromising on solutions and possessing the ability to work well with others in a team setting.
- Communication — The ability to express ideas clearly and explain technical concepts to non-technical team members.
- Adaptability — Adjusting to changing priorities, conditions, and requirements with grace and professionalism.
- Empathy — Understanding and considering the needs of end users as well as colleagues and stakeholders.
- Continuous learning — Staying curious and investigating industry trends in order to find opportunities for professional development and growth.
“There is a common misconception that software engineering is purely technical in nature, that engineers are closed off from the world and are glued to their screens writing code, but the reality is that it requires good communication, creativity and lots of critical thinking,” Danielle Sarmiento, a software engineer at LeanIX explained.
Skillcrush developer instructor Ann Cascarano named three core soft skills that she considers to be essential for any developer. “Communication across teams and with stakeholders, breaking down complex concepts into simpler pieces, and adaptability — technologies change, priorities change, and you need to know how to go with the current.”
Who earns more: full stack developers or software engineers?
Both roles, full stack developers and software engineers, are lucrative in the tech industry. But there is a subtle difference in their pay ranges, which can be attributed to the specific skills and responsibilities associated with each role.
According to Indeed, full stack developer salaries in the United States range from $81K to $201K per year. You can anticipate an extra $5,500 each year, which may come from cash bonuses, commissions, tips, or profit-sharing. Meanwhile, salaries for software engineers range between $73K and $187K per year, with about a $5,000 cash bonus annually.
There are several factors that could have an impact on the amount of salary for both full stack developers and software engineers:
- Experience: It won’t come as a surprise that the more years of experience a professional has, the higher their earning potential. For example, a software engineer with less than 1 year of experience can make about $110K, while software engineers with over a decade of experience typically earn an annual average salary of $148K.
- Geographic Location: Tech hubs like Silicon Valley tend to offer higher compensation due to the cost of living and demand for tech talent. In California, full stack developers earn about 14% more than the national average, with San Francisco being the top-paying city.
- Specialization: Specific skills or technology expertise can command higher salaries. For example, knowledge of Clojure (programming language) currently pays 30% more salary to full stack developers on Indeed. And software engineers who know Scala (a versatile programming language) tend to earn 24% more than their counterparts, based on Indeed job postings.
- Company Size: Larger companies often offer higher salaries and more comprehensive benefits packages than smaller startups. In the field of software engineering, Meta, Apple, and Google are among the highest-paying companies.
Career Paths and Opportunities
Both roles offer great opportunities for career growth in the tech industry. Indeed’s list of the best jobs for 2023 names full stack developers, data engineers, and cloud engineers as the three most in-demand, flexible, and well-compensated positions.
The new report from Deloitte shows the growing demand for cloud services and ongoing technological advancements have elevated full stack developers, known for their distinctive skill set, to become some of the most sought-after professionals in various industries, spanning technology, finance, retail, and healthcare.
“Even though FSDs [full stack developers] are abstracting away the implementation complexity, their knowledge of security, operations and infrastructure just adds more strength to their armor. As polyglots [multilingual ability], it can be relatively easy and even necessary for them to achieve more and learn more languages as technology evolves,” Paul Barnhill, managing director of cloud engineering at Deloitte Consulting LLP wrote in the report.
“I think that future full stack development is going to involve more AI integration and may require developers to have greater knowledge of DevOps and cloud services,” Skillcrush developer instructor Ann Cascarano added.
Just like full stack developers, software engineers have a wide array of job opportunities beyond traditional tech companies and IT providers. Several niche industries are rapidly undergoing digital transformation and are in urgent need of professionals such as software architects, developers, analysts, machine learning engineers, cybersecurity experts, and data scientists. These sought-after roles are particularly prevalent in diverse sectors like finance, healthcare, retail, security, research, government, automotive, gaming, education, and transportation and logistics.
Meanwhile, the high demand for applications like automation design, plant design, product design, and 3D modeling has led to the growth of software engineering. In 2021, the worldwide software engineering market was worth USD 47,272.06 million, and it is projected to grow at a rate of 11.18% annually throughout the forecast period, reaching a total of USD 89,282.13 million by 2027.
How do I choose between a full stack developer and software engineer career?
Choosing between a career as a full stack developer and a software engineer requires thoughtful consideration and self-reflection. Knowing your own strengths and interests will serve as your compass in this decision-making adventure.
What are you naturally good at, and what gets you excited in the tech world?
Does the idea of juggling both front end and backend development sound appealing, or would you prefer going deep into one area?
Does being closer to the visual side of projects sound exciting?
What transferable skills and experience do you already have in your toolbox?
Do you dream of managing big tech projects, diving deep into coding, or maybe even launching your own startup?
In conclusion, it’s important to consider the differences between a career as a full stack developer and a software engineer when making your choice. Understanding these distinctions can help align your decision with your strengths, interests, and career objectives. But keep in mind that both roles require versatile skills and ongoing learning in the rapidly evolving tech industry.
That’s it for now, until next time!