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Full Stack Web Professional

Back in February 2011, I wrote a blog post called Freelancing and Loyalty, which tried to explain why I thought there was still room for jack-of-all-trades web freelancers.

I’ve used that term consistently since. I’m still a freelancer, and I’m still a jack-of-all-trades. Now, however, Chris Messina has provided me with a much better phrase to describe myself.

I am a full stack web professional.

I have to confess that there was always an aspect to calling myself a jack of all trades that made me a bit uncomfortable. The full quote is, “Jack of all trades and master of none”.

That just isn’t great marketing material. Who’s going to want to hire a “master of none”? We all want experts, don’t we?

“Full stack web professional” doesn’t have that drawback.

The term has been applied to web developers for at least five or six years now. The stack refers to the collection of technologies that brings a web experience to a user. Full stack simply means all of those technologies.

A full stack web developer is someone who is as comfortable working with client-side technology as server-side technology, adept at managing the front end – what end users experience – and the back end, the coding that tells servers how to deliver the front end.

In September last year, Gordon Fekete, wrote a good overview of Being a Full Stack Developer for SitePoint, and the comments raise many pertinent issues.

“Full stack” can also go further, meaning a developer who is not only a programmer but can work creatively with designers, information architects, content producers and directly with clients to deliver outstanding web experiences.

In his article, The Full Stack Employee, Chris Messina extends this principle to apply to web tech workers whose role at a company is to bridge the gaps between disciplines, to put design and development into proper context:

… the full-stack employee has a powerful combination of skills that make them incredibly valuable. They are adept at navigating the rapidly evolving and shifting technological landscape. They make intuitive decisions amidst information-abundance, where sparse facts mingle loosely with data-drenched opinions.

If this interests you, it is very much worthy reading Chris’s article in full.

But I don’t really want to be an employee. I want to remain a freelancer.

I want jobs, not a job.

What’s more, for me, the stack is bigger. It goes right back to planning and creating original, compelling, accurate, useful and engaging content and goes all the way forward to publishing that content, finding ways to make it reach the right people who then act on it, measuring how successful the content is and then revisiting, revising, reworking and regenerating the whole process.

Is this possible?

Well, yes. It’s what I do.

In fact, I deal with aspects of working on the web that many developers and designers see as out of their area of expertise. I deal with elements of the process as basic as selecting and registering domain names, providing web hosting facilities, managing client email and advising on the equipment that my clients use.

With many of my clients, I also take on a content role. I not only edit their content, sometimes I write it for them. In their voice and writing style.

And with most of my clients, I’m also who they turn to for web marketing advice, including search marketing and optimisation.

The full web stack.

I cover the full stack of tasks and skills required to create, maintain and extend a successful web presence for a client. From a client perspective, this makes perfect sense. I’m their web guy. It’s as simple as that.

The caveat that is always raised with me about this is the issue of depth. How can one person know all this stuff, and apply it successfully? How can anyone claim to have sufficient depth in all possible skills?

The answer lies in context. Back in 2011, Miles Burke questioned whether anyone could be “expert” in all disciplines rather than just a “good all-rounder”.

The reality is that I don’t have to be expert at everything at once. I do have to be expert at what is required on any given job. I do have to know what’s possible, and I do have to know what’s coming.

Is that possible?

Yes. It’s what I do.

Chris put it well when he said full stack workers can never rest on their laurels,

instead they must stay up on developments in their industry and others, because they know that innovation is found at the boundaries between disciplines, not by narrowly focusing in one sphere.

Significantly, my four years at SitePoint helped to hone this approach. I started as a Tech Editor and ended as a Managing Editor. That required me to edit books and articles about whatever technology a writer was addressing.

For a while there, as SitePoint evolved into eight channels of web topics, I was editing articles on HTML & CSS, Design & UX, Business & Marketing, Mobile, WordPress and articles that didn’t fit into a channel. Many dealt with technology and concepts that were new to me.

Nick Finck recently tweeted, “I have a hard time absorbing any book, article, or presentation on a topic that the creator has no first-hand experience with”. I completely agree.

At SitePoint, the only way I could work was to embed myself as deeply as possible in the topic. Nine times out of ten, over several hundred articles, I would have to learn what the writer was writing about so I could tell whether it was properly covered, accurate and technically possible.

That takes time, of course, and my seniors weren’t necessarily crazy about how I long I took to edit work, but it produced high quality content. It also won me the respect of writers, who knew I knew what they were talking about.

To go back to Chris Messina one more time, in his first paragraph he writes, “These days, you’ve gotta be a real polymath to get ahead”.

I am not going to call myself a polymath. That’s getting into Leonardo Da Vinci territory, and invites the kind of scrutiny, doubt and disbelief that can be hard to withstand.

And it’s worth noting that very few people could be successful at this. It’s extremely demanding, time-consuming, stressful and sometimes terrifying. It’s also hugely exciting, rewarding and satisfying.

But I now know it is possible for me to be as expert as necessary in whatever is required to complete a web job of any kind, especially one that draws different strands of technology together for a specific purpose.

It’s what I do.

I’m a full stack web professional.

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