Full-stack developers are often called the “Swiss Army Knives” of software development because of their ability to perform a wide range of tasks across the software application development stages. Some are true generalists, with an even distribution of expertise across stacks and frameworks. Others have specific areas of focus or strength, while still maintaining a basic understanding of the entire chain of software. Regardless, all full stack developers have the ability to handle both front-end and back-end processes, which makes them invaluable to organizations trying to bring continuity to their web and app development.
In fact, according to The 2020 HackerEarth Developer Survey, more developers have expertise in full-stack development than in any other area, and 25% of all developers have more than one year of experience in this field. There’s a reason for this: that’s where the jobs are.
From 2015 to 2018, the demand for full-stack developers in the U.S. increased by 206%, according to a survey by Indeed. Full-stack engineering jobs were also #4 on LinkedIn’s 2020 Emerging Jobs Report, with 35% annual growth since 2015.
Despite this growth, full-stack developer jobs are not a monolith; they are varied and require unique distributions of talent and expertise depending on the specific role. This makes assessing full-stack developers incredibly difficult. It’s also about perception. Often, recruiters look at full-stack assessments in the narrow sense of assessing only full-stack developers — those who operate across the frontend and backend. In reality, developers often have specialized skills on the front or backend along with familiarity with the other components of building an application. This translates to the need for creating customized assessments for the same full-stack role, depending on the candidate’s skills and your own requirements.
With this complexity in mind, here are some of the biggest challenges that come with assessing and hiring full-stack developers:
1. Misaligned Expectations
Despite the breadth of their skillset, full-stack developers are not all the same. A one-size-fits-all approach to hiring will end in a misalignment of talent. Far too often, recruiters and hiring managers mistakenly assume that a full stack developer should be able to do it all, without understanding that some full-stack roles need specialization as much as they need an extensive understanding of the entire software chain.
There are several stacks that require specific technical expertise or knowledge of specific components more than the others. Here are just a few of the most popular stacks and their corresponding technologies:
If the recruiter or hiring manager simply screens for a general full stack developer, they’ll flood their pipeline with talent that isn’t focused on the true responsibilities of the job. Conversely, they can also set their expectations too high in regard to specific technologies, ruling out otherwise qualified candidates who happen to be less strong in non-essential technologies. That’s why organizations need to know exactly what skills are required and develop targeted assessments and interview questions.
2. The Complexity of Building Customized Assessments
Even if an organization understands the specific needs for a full stack developer position, with all these different stacks and technologies, assessing a customized combination is no walk in the park. Each organization’s technology stack is specific to them, so its full-stack assessments require a high level of customization.
For instance, the role of a full-stack Python developer may, at times, require Django + MySQL, Flask + PostgreSQL, or Django + MongoDB, depending on what framework and database the organization uses. A comprehensive full-stack assessment must be able to support all these different combinations of technologies.
Additionally, in the real world, even specialists have to be able to interface their code with other aspects of software development. For this reason, full-stack assessments can and should be customized to assess front-end and back-end developers as well — giving them a problem statement with partially completed code and asking them to create a synthesized solution with their own area of expertise.
Yet, due to the complexity of building these customized assessments, many organizations instead opt for more generalized methods of screening, which don’t always yield reliable results. Because full-stack development is rapidly evolving, it requires developers to constantly update their skillset with new frameworks, programming languages, and stacks; gauging a candidate’s past experience via their resumes isn’t necessarily predictive of future success. Assessing a customized mix of the latest technical skills is the best way to ensure that a candidate is proficient in what the job requires.
3. Difficulties Proctoring Full Stack Assessments
The final challenge while hiring a full stack developer is proctoring a comprehensive and customized assessment. Full-stack development, by its nature, touches on the full spectrum of application development — from the back-end all the way to the user-facing front-end. To demonstrate full-stack proficiency, candidates need to build an entire application from scratch, or at least demonstrate that they can. As a result, a full-stack assignment can go on for hours, days, and sometimes even weeks.
This is incredibly time-consuming and difficult to proctor for obvious reasons. However, in our remote world, it is becoming increasingly possible to monitor assignments without being present throughout. Real-time recording in the form of log files is now absolutely necessary for recruiters and hiring managers looking to monitor, review, and scrutinize actions taken while a candidate is building an application.
Assessing Your Full-Stack Swiss Army Knife
Even the best Swiss Army Knife can’t replace all specialized tools. If you need to cut a log in half, say, it would be prudent to use a saw instead. However, organizations have seen the benefits of attracting the perfect comprehensive array of skills condensed into a single developer who can do many things. Flexibility and agility are certainly important virtues heading into 2021.
Make sure you know what your perfect array of skills is, how to build an assessment that tests the right combination of those skills, and how to proctor that test in such a way that you can trust the results without spending too much time reviewing them. If you get it right, your organization will be able to solve more problems in more innovative ways. Sounds like a pretty good deal; and luckily, you don’t have to go to Switzerland to get it.
An edited version of this article was published in Analytics India Magazine.