In the fast-paced world of SaaS (Software as a Service) development, companies often find themselves at a crossroads, facing the "multi-tool dilemma." Much like a Swiss Army knife, full-stack developers offer a range of tools in one package. But, is this Jack-of-all-trades approach the right fit for every scenario? Does your startup need to hire full-stack developers or do you need to go “specialized”? Does the specialized developer provide the edge needed in today's competitive landscape? Let’s try to find some answers. 

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Some history & the rise of Javascript

In software and web development, there's such a wide range of technologies, frameworks, languages and skills that it's impossible to be a specialist in everything.

That's also why a sort of bifurcation historically emerged between front-end developers (HTML/CSS designers) and back-end developers (coders). The designer used to deliver HTML/CSS, and the developer integrated it into the code.

When JavaScript broke through, the front-end suddenly became much richer and more complex. Instead of just graphical skills, front-end developers suddenly needed a variety of coding skills. The knowledge required to build a modern front-end is quite substantial.

This division then became even more pronounced, resulting in many developers identifying themselves as either front-end or back-end. In some cases, specialization is extremely important. A modern web app needs both types of specialists.

The consequence is that suddenly two developers are needed to build a feature. This kind of dependency makes collaboration a bit more difficult. That's why there was a shift back towards full-stack developers, generalists who can handle both front-end and back-end. This makes it easier to deliver results because these all-rounders are in principle, more versatile.

In practice, we notice that this is not always the case. Often, front-end developers have a bit more knowledge of design, UX, and graphic design. Back-end developers might be able to write React, but the overall look is not always there.

Finding balance - It's a spectrum, not a dichotomy. 

Some context first. As always, there is no right or wrong answer and the roles of software developers should not be seen as black and white. In an ideal world, every developer should know enough to perform most tasks in another domain, with someone who knows more about a specific domain to handle the complex matters. Skills and roles can (and should) overlap. Developers and (Fractional) CTOs should not be pigeonholed strictly into one domain. 

While general knowledge across domains is important, there is also a need for specialists. Their expertise is crucial for tackling challenges that go beyond the scope of generalist knowledge. However, if there is too strict specialization, planning and development become more difficult because engineers are unable to work outside their niche, they have to wait for each other and knowledge-sharing becomes way harder. 

There needs to be a balance between generalist (full-stack) and specialist skills to complement successfully tackling complex tasks. It’s important to know this balance will have a big impact particularly in team dynamics and project management. This is why you might benefit from having a Fractional CTO on board, with an outsider point of view.

The tech-setup of your project

According to most SaaS CTOs I spoke with, the type of developers you'll encounter or need is largely dependent on the technical architecture of your project. Different project setups require different skill sets. Ultimately, the decision should align with the project's technical requirements and the overall strategy for development and maintenance, and this is where we often help our clients out.

Segregated applications often benefit from specialized developers 

In cases where you have distinctly separate applications for front-end (or mobile) and back-end, you are more likely to need specialized developers. This is because each part of the application – front-end and back-end – demands specific skills and expertise. 

For example, the front-end might require deep knowledge of JavaScript frameworks, while the back-end might require expertise in server-side languages and database management. In such scenarios, having developers who specialize in either front-end or back-end technologies can be more beneficial, as they bring in-depth knowledge and proficiency in their respective areas.

Integrated applications will benefit from full-stack profiles

On the other hand, if you're building an application where the front-end and back-end are more integrated, such as a Next.js application or a Laravel application with a Blade-built front-end, you're more likely to encounter and benefit from full-stack developers. 

Full-stack developers are adept at handling both the client side and server side of an application. In these scenarios, where the line between front-end and back-end is blurred, the versatility of a full-stack developer becomes invaluable. They can efficiently work across the stack, managing both the user interface and the server-side logic, which is ideal for more unified or monolithic applications.

Fast, high-quality delivery is the main differentiator. And in that regard, generalists usually outperform specialists.

Is there an ideal team composition? 

Between our CTOs in residence, there is a (slight) common preference towards teams capable of handling a wide range of tasks without strict specialization. This approach values versatility and adaptability, with team members having a broad enough skill set to manage different aspects of the project. Such a team composition can be particularly effective in dynamic environments where project requirements may change, or in smaller teams where roles are more fluid and less defined. 

We find that in most SaaS products, the technical specialty rarely gives the competitive edge. Unless you’re a Deep Tech startup, your competitive advantage will mainly come from execution. Fast, high-quality delivery is the main differentiator. And in that regard, generalists usually outperform specialists.

Full-Stack Developers - The Swiss Army knives in software development

What is a full-stack developer?

A full-stack developer, in essence, is a master of versatility. Simply said, they can work on your front-end and back-end code, and everything in between. They're equipped to handle the diverse challenges that come with developing a SaaS product. From the aesthetic appeal of the front end to the robust functionality of the back end, from the precision of database management to the art of debugging – they fold and unfold into the roles needed, all within the compact form of a single professional.

Advantages of working with full-stack developers:

  • Versatility: Like a multi-tool, full-stack developers can flip between front-end and back-end tasks with ease, making them invaluable for small teams or startups. They're the all-in-one solution for a fledgling SaaS venture where adaptability is key. Keep in mind, they are not necessarily expert in all of those areas but rather know their way around and can help out if needed
  • Vision: Full-stack developers tend to have the bigger picture in mind and see how things relate to each other. While we expect this from our senior specialized developers (or staff engineers) as well, it’s more natural for a full-stack engineer. 
    Reading tip: Why you should invest in good, senior developers from the start
  • Cost-Effectiveness: Hiring one person who can handle multiple roles can be more budget-friendly, especially for companies watching their bottom line.
  • Simplicity in Management: Fewer chefs in the kitchen mean fewer chances of a communication breakdown, making project management a breeze.
  • Quick Prototyping: They're the go-to for turning ideas into tangible products swiftly, an essential aspect for startups in a hurry to market.

Disadvantages of working with full-stack developers:

  • Breadth Over Depth: While they cover a wide spectrum, they may lack the deep expertise of specialists, potentially affecting the quality of highly technical tasks.
  • Struggling with Complexity: As the project's complexity scales, so does the challenge for these developers to juggle all aspects effectively.
  • Hiring: The good ones are way harder to find

Specialized engineers: the Michelin-star chef in your software kitchen

What are specialized developers or engineers?

A specialized developer is a professional in the field of software development who possesses deep expertise and advanced skills in a specific area or technology. Unlike full-stack developers who handle a broad range of tasks across the entire development stack, specialized developers focus on particular domains such as front-end, back-end, database management, data science, or mobile app development. Their role is characterized by a deep understanding and mastery of their chosen specialization, enabling them to tackle complex, high-level challenges within their domain.

This focus allows them to stay abreast of the latest advancements, contribute innovative solutions, and provide high-quality work in their area of expertise, making them invaluable for tasks that require specialized knowledge and skills.

Advantages of working with specialized engineers:

  • Deep Expertise: Specialized developers are the masters of their domain. They bring a level of proficiency and finesse to their specific area, be it front-end, back-end, or database management.
  • Complexity Management: For larger projects with intricate architectures, having specialists on board is almost non-negotiable.
  • Innovation at its Peak: Staying on top of the latest trends and technologies in their field, specialists often spearhead innovative solutions.

Disadvantages of working with specialized developers

  • Hyper specialization: Specialists often have experience in only part of the stack or domain. For example, their focus could be building a design system used by other teams, or only focussed on mobile application, developing API endpoints or doing data science. They might not be interested in anything else than their expertise.
  • Cost Considerations: Hiring a team of specialists can put a strain on the budget.
  • The Challenge of Coordination: With more experts in the room, syncing everyone's efforts and maintaining clear communication becomes crucial.
  • Risk of Working in Silos: Specialization can sometimes lead to tunnel vision, potentially hampering holistic project understanding.

Being a specialist or generalist has nothing to do with seniority

The term "full-stack" can sometimes be controversial or misunderstood. It often implies a breadth of knowledge across multiple technologies, but it might not always indicate depth in all areas.

Whether or not you are a specialist engineer or a multi-allround full-stack developer, it has nothing to do with being a senior developer. So, how can you tell if your engineers are senior or junior?

While full-stack developers have a broad knowledge base, it's unrealistic to expect them to be experts in all technologies.

At madewithlove, we view a senior developer not just as someone with a certain number of years under their belt, but as a professional embodying a specific mindset and skill set. Based on our insights from "Seniority Level in Software Engineering and How to Assess It", a senior developer in our eyes is:

  • A Problem Solver: They're not just coders; they're solution finders. They have an innate ability to dissect complex problems and craft efficient, elegant solutions.
  • A Communicator and Mentor: They excel in articulating their ideas and are equally adept at nurturing the growth of their juniors.
  • Technically Proficient: Their deep technical knowledge is a given, but it's their application of this knowledge to real-world scenarios that sets them apart.
  • Adaptable and Continuous Learners: The tech world is ever-evolving, and so are they. Their willingness to learn and adapt is what keeps them, and by extension, their teams, ahead of the curve.

Some myths about full-stack developers

Myth: Full-stack developers are experts in every technology.

Reality: While full-stack developers have a broad knowledge base, it's unrealistic to expect them to be experts in all technologies. They usually have stronger skills in some areas and basic to intermediate knowledge in others.

Myth: Full-stack development is just about coding.

Reality: Full-stack development involves more than just coding. It includes understanding user requirements, database management, server configuration, UI/UX design principles, and often, a bit of project management.

Myth: Full-stack developers can replace specialized developers.

Reality: While full-stack developers are versatile, they are not always a substitute for developers who specialize in a specific area, like deep back-end logic or advanced front-end technologies. Specialized developers often have a deeper understanding of specific technologies.

Myth: Full-stack developers deliver projects faster.

Reality: While full-stack developers can handle various aspects of a project, this doesn't always mean faster delivery. Complex projects might still require the expertise and collaboration of specialized professionals.

Myth: Full-stack development is easier than specialized development.

Reality: Being a full-stack developer requires a broad understanding of multiple technologies and the ability to switch contexts frequently, which can be quite challenging.

Myth: Full-stack developers don't need to learn new technologies.

Reality: Technology is constantly evolving, and full-stack developers must continuously learn and adapt to new tools, languages, and frameworks to stay relevant.

Myth: Full-stack developers only work on small projects.

Reality: Full-stack developers can contribute to projects of all sizes. Their versatility can be particularly valuable in startups and smaller teams, but they also play important roles in larger projects and organizations.

Myth: Full-stack developers are less productive because they have too much to learn.

Reality: While they have a lot to learn, full-stack developers can be very productive, especially in environments where cross-functional skills are essential.

Myth: Full-stack development doesn’t require soft skills.

Reality: Full-stack developers often need strong communication and collaboration skills, as their role frequently bridges multiple teams and project aspects.

Myth: All full-stack developers are the same.

Reality: Full-stack developers come from diverse backgrounds, and their skill sets can vary greatly depending on their experience and the focus of their learning and work.

Conclusion: Finding the right fit for your SaaS team

Deciding whether to go with full-stack or specialized developers in a SaaS setting boils down to understanding your project's unique needs, scale, and the stage of your business. For startups and smaller projects, the Swiss Army knife approach of full-stack developers might be ideal. As you scale and the complexity of your projects increases, the need for specialized craftsmen becomes more apparent.

Remember, it's not just about filling a role; it's about crafting a team that can turn your vision into a thriving digital reality. Whether you're looking for a Fractional CTO,  a senior developer, or a full-stack dev, understanding the nuances of your team's composition is key to success in the dynamic world of SaaS.