Full Stack Developer or Software Engineer – Which Way to Go?

William Imoh William Imoh

Have you ever heard the saying that all full-stack developers are software engineers, but not all software engineers are full-stack developers?

A full-stack developer is responsible for the user-facing side and the behind-the-scenes logic that makes everything work, while a software engineer may specialize in just one of these areas. Despite their differences, both roles require similar problem-solving skills, even though their toolkits may vary.

This article provides an in-depth discussion of what each role entails, their similarities and differences, the necessary skills, and the growth potential in these fields. It will also touch on salary ranges, help you determine which path fits you best, and provide roadmaps for your software engineering or full-stack development journey.

The table below summarizes the major differences between a full stack developer and software engineer

Full-Stack DeveloperSoftware Engineer
Focuses on end-to-end development of applications (both front-end and back-end)Specializes and practices in one domain and has a deep knowledge of it.
Mostly limited to just front-end and back-end developmentThere are a broad range of domain options to choose from. e.g front-end, back-end, mobile, desktop, embedded systems.

Here’s each role in detail.

Who is a full stack developer?

A full stack developer possesses the knowledge and technical skill sets to work proficiently in a software application’s front-end and back-end. The application’s front-end encompasses everything the user can see while interacting with it, i.e., the user interface. The back-end consists of the server-side logic, the database, and the server.

Let’s take a look at front-end and back-end development in greater detail.

  • Front-end development refers to everything a user can see and interact with. It is also known as the client side of an application. It is concerned primarily with the user interface (UI) and user experience (UX).

    The common languages used in front-end development include HTML, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), and JavaScript. HTML defines the markup of the web page. CSS builds upon HTML and represents the style and format of the webpage. JavaScript is a programming language often used for front-end development and adds logic to your web page. You’ll find an excellent guide and roadmap to learning JavaScript on our platform.

    There are quite a few front-end frameworks out there. Some of the common ones are React, Vue, and Angular. You can look at the front-end beginners roadmap or the advanced front-end roadmap for a more detailed guide.

  • Back-end development includes everything the user cannot see. It is sometimes referred to as the server side of an application. It focuses on the application’s functionality and business logic. Examples of back-end components include data storage, security, and handling of business logic.

    Back-end development mainly involves creating API endpoints consumed by the application’s front-end. Some common back-end programming languages include C#, Java, Rust, Golang, and Python. Check out the back-end developer roadmap.

Skills required to be a full stack developer

The necessary technical skills to be a full stack developer include:

  • Knowledge of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript/TypeScript.
  • Knowledge of at least one JavaScript framework e.g. React, Vue js, Angular.
  • Knowledge of at least one back-end language. You can transfer your knowledge of JavaScript to the back-end for back-end development with Node JS.
  • In-depth understanding of server-side rendering and web security.
  • Knowledge of APIs.
  • Understanding of database management systems and database architecture.
  • Basic knowledge of DevOps.

Who is a software engineer?

A software engineer is a specialist with a deep understanding of software development, computer systems, and programming languages. They design and create software programs and applications that solve real-world problems. Software engineers are specialists who focus on a specific aspect of software development. They produce high-quality software solutions.

There are two primary types of software engineers: applications and systems software engineers.

Application software engineers: Client-focused software engineers design and develop software users interact with. They could be front-end, back-end, or full-stack developers. They also develop applications for operating systems such as iOS, Android, Windows, Linux, and many more.

Systems software engineers: These software engineers develop systems and networks that drive the user-facing applications developed by the application software engineers. They are specialists in either hardware or software engineering or both. They can also integrate different software products into a single platform; for example, DevOps engineers can use tools like Docker and Kubernetes to deploy and orchestrate applications.

System software engineers often serve as IT or system architects who design and enforce industry tech standards. They are experts in software design and mostly design back-end systems that users do not directly interact with.

Software systems are complex, and much thought goes into building them. Software engineers use their broad knowledge to break down these complex systems, and the usual software development life cycle looks like the following.

  • They design the whole system, typically employing the principles of system design and software design architecture. They decide on the software architecture to use for the application by weighing the pros and cons of different system architectures that might be suitable. Some standard architectures are monolith architecture, micro-services architecture, event-driven architecture, etc.

  • After deciding on the system architecture, the next step is defining the tools. The tools include programming languages, database management, version control, and cloud systems (Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, or Amazon AWS). Several factors affect the choice of the tools: existing knowledge and expertise, cost, suitability of the tools to the application, and so on.

  • After choosing the tools, the next step is to define the different entities and their relationships. This is usually done with an expert experienced in the domain where the application to be built will be used.

  • Building the system involves several iterations. Still, the target is usually to produce the minimum viable product (MVP), the application’s basic functionalities. A lot of software testing is done by quality assurance personnel and the application’s users.

It is important to note that this process is iterative.

Full-stack developers and software engineers are in high demand in various sectors. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in software development are expected to grow by 25% between 2022 and 2032.

Also, according to Statista, full-stack developers and software engineers are among the top technical positions demanded by recruiters worldwide in 2023. Indeed reported that the average software engineer’s annual salary is $105,624, and that of a full-stack software developer is $124,120.

Skills required to be a software engineer

While software engineering requires a strong specialization in a domain, the following core skills are required for the role:

  • Knowledge of computer science fundamentals, software development, and system design.
  • Knowledge of a programming language
  • Strong analytical and problem-solving skills
  • Knowledge of operating systems
  • Understanding of networks and security
  • Knowledge of cloud platforms and DevOps systems
  • Knowledge of testing and debugging processes/systems

Choosing your path: Key differences to consider

You might be wondering which specialization you should pursue. When choosing a path, consider the following points:

  • Focus and expertise: Full-stack developers have broad expertise. They are experts in both front-end and back-end development. The opposite is the case for software engineers in practice. They specialize in a particular field and thus typically have a deeper, more specialized knowledge. For example, they could focus on only front-end development and have extensive knowledge of that aspect.

  • Accessibility and entry point: Two major pathways exist to becoming a full-stack developer or software engineer: self-taught and a formal education with a degree.

    For the formal pathway, you will be taught and develop a strong computer science background, which is the core of software development. Self-taught developers learn specific, industry-relevant skills on their own time. One advantage of the formal education path is gaining hands-on experience while studying through internships.

Software development and engineering open the door to many employment opportunities. Individuals can work in other tech fields, such as data science and analytics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. There are numerous opportunities for career growth in both fields, starting with internships and progressing to senior levels, which come with years of experience and expertise.

Common ground and shared skills

Despite the differences between full-stack developers and software engineers, they share some common grounds and skills as they are both crucial in the software development lifecycle.

  • Collaboration and teamwork: Full-stack developers and software engineers primarily work in a tech team comprising other developers and engineers, designers, product managers, QA testers, etc. They must collaborate with other team members to achieve a goal.

  • Technical knowledge: Both specializations require a good understanding of core programming principles such as object-oriented programming (OOP), separation of concerns, clean code, SOLID principles, etc. They also require strong problem-solving and analytical skills, which are critical in the roles and in getting the job done.

  • Lifelong learning: This is a common ground shared amongst all fields in tech. As tech continually and rapidly evolves, they must stay up to date, which involves continuous learning to stay ahead. They continually update their technical and soft skills to remain relevant in the tech industry.

  • Job description: Full-stack developers and software engineers share some common responsibilities, which can be reflected in their job descriptions. Some of these responsibilities include:

    • Collaborating with other front-end, back-end, and full-stack developers to improve efficiency and identify and resolve blockers.
    • Collaborating with cross-functional teams.
    • Implementing new software features.
    • Conceptualizing and designing software architecture for the front-end and back-end.
    • Documenting the software development process.
    • Troubleshooting, debugging, and upgrading existing systems.
    • Complying with project plans and industry standards.

How do I become a full stack developer or software engineer?

As you’ve seen, becoming a full stack developer requires various skill sets. roadmap.sh provides a step-by-step guide on how to become a full-stack developer and by signing up, you will be able to:

  • Keep track of your learning progress and share it on your public roadmap.sh profile.
  • Draw your roadmap, either as an individual learner or for Dev teams.
  • Generate new roadmaps with AI.
  • Collaborate on official roadmaps.

Recall that a software engineer, as defined above, specializes in different areas in the software development cycle. roadmap.sh provides learning paths for various software engineering specializations. You can also sign up for the computer science, data structures and algorithms, software design and architecture, and system design roadmaps.

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