Full-stack developers and software engineers are two job titles that are often used interchangeably, making it difficult to know the difference between them. These two types of roles can be found on the same team or in the same company, but they each specialize in different aspects of development and might require different skill sets depending on the project.
It’s important to understand what makes these professionals unique from one another and why both are an asset to your tech team or company.
What is a full-stack developer?
A full-stack developer is a professional with expertise in back-end programming (server-side) and front-end programming (client-side). They have an in-depth understanding of all parts of a web application or website and are expected to be well-versed in how each component works together.
Full-stack developers work on database development and implementation, server configuration, client coding, and quality assurance testing. They may also create user interfaces (UI) that facilitate data input/output.
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What does a full-stack developer do?
Full-stack developers have a range of core competencies that enable them to work across the entire stack. This includes all of the layers of technology needed to create and maintain a functioning website or application—from frontend design and development to server configuration, network security and monitoring, user interface (UI) design, and more.
Generally, full-stack developers are responsible for creating and maintaining websites, applications, databases, and other digital products. Other responsibilities include:
- Testing and debugging software to ensure its functionality remains optimal
- Collaborating with designers to take their ideas and concepts and make them a reality through code
- Coordinating with project managers to determine deadlines and milestones for a given project
- Maintaining code bases to ensure they are well-organized and easily understandable
- Developing APIs and RESTful protocols that allow two software programs to communicate with one another
- Ensuring cross-platform compatibility and optimization across a wide variety of different platforms, including iOS, Android, and web browsers
Skills of a full-stack developer
The following skills are common requirements for full-stack developers:
- Experience with databases such as Oracle, MySQL, NoSQL, PostgreSQL; web servers such as Apache; and UI/UX design
- Knowledge of modern development approaches and concepts like continuous integration, continuous delivery, DevOps, and Agile project management
Average salary of a full stack developer
According to Glassdoor, the estimated total pay for a full stack developer in the United States is around $113,324 per year.
What is a software engineer?
A software engineer applies mathematical analysis and principles of computer science to design and develop software for various platforms such as desktops, mobile devices, consoles, or television sets.
They must be able to choose appropriate algorithms to solve a problem based on constraints such as processing power, memory storage space, and operating system compatibility. Software engineers often work as part of a development team that includes business analysts, programmers, and designers.
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What does a software engineer do?
A software engineer typically speaks multiple programming languages fluently, understands how different systems interact, and focuses on creating new solutions that help businesses thrive in a changing market.
A software engineer’s core responsibilities include:
- Conducting software testing to verify if an application works as expected, including unit testing, integration testing, system testing, and acceptance testing
- Communicating project statuses and proposals with clients and cross-functional departments
- Optimizing applications by identifying areas for improvement, then designing and implementing updates
- Evaluate software functionality throughout various testing, development, and production stages and environments.
- Overseeing the development of software documentation
Skills of a software engineer
While software engineers primarily focus on programming, they are also expected to have a wide range of skills beyond just writing code. These include problem-solving, planning, communication, math/logic skills, critical thinking, and more.
Additionally, they must be able to work in both a team environment and independently with minimal supervision or direction from others. Other skills and requirements of a software engineer include:
- Writing, testing, and debugging code in computer programming languages such as Java, C++, and Python
- Familiarity with object-oriented design (OOD) principles: abstraction, encapsulation, inheritance, and polymorphism
- Experience with different testing methods such as unit tests, integration tests, system tests, and regression tests
- Understanding of the software development life cycle (SDLC) and its phases/models
- Communication with team members, customers, and other stakeholders
- Ability to analyze problems and business requirements, then assess the impact of proposed solutions on existing database architecture
Average salary of a software engineer
According to Glassdoor, the estimated total pay for a software engineer in the United States is around $116,967 per year.
Differences between a full-stack developer and software engineer
The main differences between full-stack developers and software engineers are centered around their tasks, specializations, programming languages, and development stages.
Full-stack developers often perform design and implementation tasks throughout the development project. Software engineers typically only do one or the other—but not both.
Full-stack developers tend to have experience in multiple domains, such as business intelligence (BI), data warehousing, and information governance (IG). On the other hand, software engineers usually specialize in just one domain.
Full-stack developers take care of building an application, including user interface design, logic design, code writing, and testing. Software engineers focus on designing system architectures via back-end or front-end development.
Full-stack developer vs software engineer: What are the similarities?
The biggest similarities between full-stack developers and software engineers are related to their business roles, testing needs, programming methodologies, and experience requirements.
Both full-stack developers and software engineers work closely with computer scientists, programmers, data analysts, and other technical individuals to plan, design, develop and deploy new technologies for companies. They both design, develop, test, and maintain software.
Related: Brainstorming Solutions for the Tech Labor Shortage: Interview with Rob Kim at Presidio
Both roles create testing environments that simulate real-world conditions to test products under various scenarios before being released into production. Familiarity with various types of tests and best practices is a must for both roles.
Read more on IT Business Edge: Continuous Testing in the DevOps Universe
Both of these roles need a solid understanding of programming methodologies such as Agile, Scrum, and Kanban. Software development teams use these methodologies to improve productivity, code quality, and collaboration.
Read more on Developer.com: Top 10 Programming Methodologies
Education and experience
Both roles require a bachelor’s degree in computer science, software engineering, or other STEM programs such as math, science, or engineering. Hands-on programming experience using relevant languages and taking certification courses can enhance career growth in both fields.
Related: IT Certification Roadmap
Full-stack developer vs software engineer: Which should you hire?
When deciding whether to add a full-stack developer or software engineer to your team, it is important to have a clear idea of what your team needs. Full-stack developers can do a bit of everything, while software engineers focus on narrower areas like testing or back-end architecture.
Both roles offer advantages and disadvantages, so it depends on what kind of project you’re working on. If your project requires flexibility and variety, go with a full stack developer; pick a software engineer if it requires narrow expertise or focus.
Read next: Why Low-Code/No-Code Is Revolutionizing App Development