The Full Stack paradox

This whole blog thing is still new to me, but I’ve tried to have a message or at least a coherent thought as I’ve gone about it. That ends now! I’ve had a question that I’ve been trying to sort out for a while and I thought that there’s a chance I may come to some sort of a resolution by writing this out…

Even though I changed jobs not that long ago, I still get emails from the job search sites. Most of them just get trashed as I’m quite happy in my new role, but sometimes I skim through them for giggles. One listing caught my eye recently for a “full stack developer”. Around the same time I came across a really well thought out article on the myth of the full stack developer. The fundamental premise of the article was that what the world really needs now is more full stack integrators. Unfortunately I can’t find the specific article, but a quick google for “death of full stack engineers” will result in a number of similar items.

I’ve also been catching up on podcasts during my commute and while the Datanauts, whose key catch phrase seems to be “silo-busting”, were wrapping up a recent episode they mentioned in passing the concept of a full stack engineer. Knowing that one of the hosts is a network engineer and the other a virtualization engineer, I can only assume that by engineer they meant someone from the infrastructure realm. And it’s this comment which stuck me the most and is a big part of my questioning today.

IMG_2808To give a little context, I started my professional career in IT almost exactly 17 years ago. I also am writing this post from my basement, listening to Phish, while wearing a Chewbacca snuggie. You may ask yourself what the hell that has to do with anything, and honestly nothing other than trying to establish my geek creds. TMI? Maybe? But we continue onward. The real point is that I think I’ve seen a fair representation of IT shops from small to large, local to global. One consistent thing I’ve seen across all of them is that the IT generalist, aka the full stack engineer, has never been a badge of honor.

In my experience IT professionals typically want to become the Subject Matter Experts (SME). In order to become a SME, you have to study, work and focus on particular technologies. Time is a limited commodity, so by taking this directed approach your ability to become well rounded and exposed to more technologies is restricted right out of the gate. To state it a different way: As you go further down the rabbit hole of specialization, breadth is naturally sacrificed for depth.

This model has worked for IT professionals for years. If I become an expert in a technology that is valuable to my organization/career/community, then I can achieve higher levels of pay/title/prestige. All of these results fire off my reward system and engage my dopamine receptors. But what if these short term rewards run counter to a greater purpose? What if by focusing on one minute area of IT infrastructure, I miss the forest for the trees?

And it’s this world that I think we find ourselves in in 2017. Technology is changing and roles change with it. If a technology like mainframes falls out of favor, and you’ve focused only on this aspect for the last N-years, well what happens next? (I’m just kidding mainframes, we all know that you’ll never die. Please don’t hurt me…). In the world of SDDC, Cloud, serverless, IoT and whatever the next emergent technology is, how do you translate these focused skills into a world that is becoming more diverse and generalized?  Playing the scenario out, perhaps it’s the forest we should have been focusing all along. The forest is the business. It’s the goal, not the methods.

And finally we come to the question. And perhaps it’s less or a paradox and more ironic that as developers trend away from Full Stack, that we as IT professionals have to ask ourselves: Is the time of the SME past? Have we entered an age where the generalists, integrators and full-stack engineers have finally come into their own? Where these full stack engineers are the primary engines that enable their organizations to succeed?

I certainly don’t know the answer, but maybe Cracker had it right when they said  “I’m sure as hell that it starts with me”


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