There's No Full Stack

Software engineers use terms like "backend" and "frontend" to describe areas of expertice and focus, and the thought is that these terms map roughly onto "underlying systems and business logic" and "user interfaces." The thought, is that these are different kinds of work and no person can really specialize on "everything."

But it's all about perspective. Software is build in layers: there are frontends and backends at almost every level, so the classification easily breaks down if you look at it too hard. It's also the case that that logical features, from the perspective of the product and user, require the efforts of both disciplines. Often development organizations struggle to hand projects off between groups of front-end and back-end teams. [1]

[1]In truth this problem of coordination between frontend and backend teams is really that it forces a waterfall-like coordination between teams, which is always awkward. The problem isn't that backend engineers can't write frontend code, but that having different teams requires a handoff that is difficult to manage correctly, and around that handoff processes and management happens.

Backend/Frontend is also a poor way to organize work, as often it forces a needless boundary between people and teams wokring on related projects. Backend work (ususally) has to be completed first, and if that slips (or estimation is off) then the front end work has to happen in a crunch. Even if timing goes well, it's difficult to maintain engineering continuity through the handoff and context is often lost in the process.

In response to splitting projects and teams into front and backend, engineers have developed this idea of "full stack" engineering. This typically means "integrated front end and backend development." A noble approach: keep the same engineer on the project from start to finish, and avoid an awkward handoff or resetting context halfway through a project. Historic concerns about "front end and backend being in different languages" are reduced both by the advent of back-end javascript, and a realization that programmers often work in multiple languages.

While full stack sounds great, it's a total lie. First, engineers by and large cannot maintain context on all aspects of a system, so boundaries end up appearing in different places. A full stack engineer might end up writing front end and the APIs on the backed that the front end depends on, but not the application logic that supports the feature. Or an engineer might focus only a very specific set of features, but not be able to branch out very broadly. Second, specialization is important for allowing engineers to focus and be productive, and while context switching projects between engineers, having engineers that must context switch regularly between different disciplines is bad for those engineers. In short you can't just declare that engineers will be able to do it all.'

Some, particularly larger, teams and prodcuts can get around the issue entirely by dividing ownership and specialization along functional boundaries rather than by engineering discipline, but there can be real technical limitations, and getting a team to move to this kind of ownership model is super difficult. Therefore, I'd propose a different organization or a way of dividing projects and engineering that avoids both "frontend/backend" as well as the idea of "full stack":

  • feature or product engineers, that focus on core functionality delivered to users. This includes UI, supporting backend APIs, and core functionality. The users of these teams are the users of the product. These jobs have the best parts of "full stack" type orientation, but draw an effective "lower" boundary of responsibility and allow feature-based specialization.
  • infrastructure or product platform engineers, that focus on deployment, operations and supporting internal APIs. These teams and engineers should see their users as feature and product engineers. These engineers should fall somewhere between "backend engineers," and the "devops" and "sre" -type roles of the last decade, and cover the area "above" systems (e.g. not inclusive of machine management and access provisioning,) and below features.

This framework helps teams scale up as needs and requirements change: Feature teams can be divided and parallelized and focus in functionality slices, while, infrastructure teams divide easily into specialties (e.g. networking, storage, databases, internal libraries, queues, etc.) and along service boundaries. Teams are in a better position to handle continuity of projects, and engineers can maintain context and operate using more agile methods. I suspect that, if we look carefully, many organizations and teams have this kind of de facto organization, even if they use different kind of terminology.

Thoughts?

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