Full Stack Developer Vs Software Engineer – Key Differences

Marlena Walburg

Many terms in the world of software development can be mysterious, unclear or confusing to the uninitiated. Additionally, some of them are pretty loosely interpreted. It is sometimes the case with job titles on the development team. However, the division of roles and responsibilities is always clear when it comes to implementing a project. That is why many people doubt whether there is a difference between software engineers and full-stack developers. Sometimes the two terms are used interchangeably. The most important thing is what both roles do. In addition, most tech professionals do many things that fall outside their standard scope of work. All this to keep up with the pace of industry development. No wonder that a full stack developer and software engineer and their tasks are so mixed. We decided to help a little to understand this issue better. Before we go any further, we also have advice for people looking for a job in the industry – read the job offer carefully. As you can see, sometimes the name of the position itself may not be what you think it is.

What does full stack developer mean?

A full-stack developer is a specialist who has knowledge about developing various layers/components of the software. A solution (or software) stack is a set of subsystems or components needed to create a complete platform so that no additional software is required to support the application. For example, a full web stack typically consists of a frontend, a backend, a web server, and a database. Full-stack developers can work using popular, selected stacks such as LAMP or MEAN. These are sets that were created as a result of the frequent assorting of their individual elements together. However, this is not a mandatory practice, and developers often arrange components by themselves or in teams according to the project’s requirements.

What is more, full-stack developers are highly sought after and desired by the market due to their diverse skills and extensive knowledge, which increase the productivity of development teams. They can perfectly understand every aspect of the software and thus meet customer expectations well. Furthermore, they are very versatile due to their experience in more than one programming language and different technologies or environments.

Who is a software engineer?

A software engineer is a professional who applies software engineering principles in the development process, i.e. in designing, testing, coding, and maintaining software. A software engineer’s career and development path usually includes engineering studies that give such an academic degree. Of course, it is not required, but it often gives the necessary technical preparation and extensive expert knowledge, which they later use in practice. Software engineers can create all kinds of software, from business and industrial applications to operating systems, games, and more. They focus primarily on the architecture of the system for which they develop the software and the structure of the project itself, dependencies, and operation. They know programming languages, tools and other technologies, they know how to match them well to the project requirements. They usually work in one specific area as team members. Although the versatility of software engineers is vast, they are often associated with more advanced languages that allow you to build powerful native applications, including desktop ones. Knowing Java, C # or Swift, creating advanced algorithms, it seems that such engineers often deal with more advanced projects.

What is the difference between a full-stack developer and a software engineer?

In fact, the differences between the two professions are very subtle. Understanding what a software engineer should actually do and what distinguishes it from a full-stack developer largely depends on the specific company and the requirements it describes. In many companies, the software engineer is considered a person who has excellent software development skills in the field of applications used in various industries, especially those requiring complex algorithms or advanced ones such as manufacturing. On the other hand, a software engineer can also be a specialist who should take care of the entire development environment and act globally. In this case, it practically does not differ from a full-stack developer.

On the internet, you can also often find a comparison that software engineers are more focused on creating native applications for desktops, mobile devices and other platforms such as consoles, and the full stack developer works mainly on web solutions. It is probably because many stacks are dedicated to building applications that access or rely on a network. It is also the market need that makes them create such solutions. However, it is worth remembering that full-stack developers are also educated enough to create purely native applications.  

What often differs is the style or scope of work of the two roles. Although both the full stack developer and software engineer have a lot of knowledge, the former deals with all stages of application development, from frontend to backend, database programming and more. A software engineer, although he also knows many programming technologies and can code applications, is often a specialist in the structure of the system, its operation and stability. He can even be a software designer that a full-stack developer will later do.

Is a full-stack developer a software engineer?

We have already mentioned that a lot in this respect depends on the terminology. In many companies, full-stack developer and software engineer are equivalent roles, having the same responsibilities and used interchangeably. Generally speaking, a full-stack developer can also be a software engineer. However, software engineering is a broad term. If you follow the definition, to be a software engineer, a full stack developer requires knowledge of an engineering approach to software design, in-depth knowledge, and skills in system design or knowledge of fundamental concepts of Computer Science. However, in many companies, full-stack developers are skilled enough to deal with what a software engineer does successfully. 

Which is better, software developer or software engineer?

In addition to software engineers, we also distinguish software developers. Basically, full-stack devs are software developers; just that is more precisely named. Software developers are, in many cases, simply programmers. However, they may also be responsible for writing the code and other responsibilities in the software development process. Don’t look for someone who accepts ambiguity. The engineer should see how his actions can cause problems downstream, have analytical skills, highly developed logical, even mathematical thinking. A software engineer should do everything that a developer does but with different design philosophy, focusing on the big picture and eliminating technical debt. A software developer, in turn, is a person who can be more creative in solving problems. They usually do whatever software engineers do but on a limited scale. Are any of these roles better? No, they are actually different, and both are needed. Note that this segmentation of development and engineering departments is more common in larger organizations. However, in a startup environment where employees often take on responsibilities beyond their professional requirements, roles are more flexible and less defined.

Which is the best software engineer or full-stack developer?

Both companies looking for developers who will create their software, and people at the beginning of their professional careers who want to choose the right development path may ask this question. In either case, the answer is: it depends. When selecting a project contractor, a full stack developer can be a one-person team to make your software. However, such a freelancer will have to have a lot of knowledge and experience. Besides, you will have to be able to manage and communicate with him properly. However, you know that he can build your application himself.

On the other hand, a software engineer is not always a specialist who can create each software layer independently. He is an expert at designing it but does not always specialize in every layer or is a specialist only in native applications. However, suppose it is part of the development team. In that case, it will be a compelling solution because you can count on engineering skills and appropriate knowledge to make your software flawless and of the highest quality. Of course, such teams can also include full-stack developers.

If you do not know what to choose as a profession, there are several aspects to consider. Typically, you will need a degree in computer science or a related engineering degree to do software engineering. For full-stack developers, it is an option, less often a necessity. A lot of full-stack devs are self-taught people who have changed their career paths. In both cases, you need a lot of knowledge and years of experience to be a specialist. It is also necessary to be aware of business needs and understand them. Extensive soft skills and user orientation are helpful. The salary for both positions is very satisfying.

What are the trends?

Some predictions and research like Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s study claim that programmers will probably be replaced by AI and a combination of other technologies. Is it certain? Hard to say at the moment. However, natural language processing, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and code generation technologies will play a significant role in coding and software development. Hence, there is a chance that robots will take away developers or software engineers jobs to some extent. Machines can automate many tasks, help in advanced calculations or create complex algorithms. However, they will not replace this human touch necessary to develop dedicated, user-oriented software. Improvement is a persistent trend not only in the IT industry. It will be hard to keep up with the changing world without it, and you can quickly go out of the way. It is also connected with the need to master the use of technologies that will gain importance in the future. Therefore, developers who want to stay current in the coming era of artificial intelligence should acquire new skills in this direction and other modern areas. So it pays off to choose an engineering path. However, developers will certainly also quickly adapt to these changes and gain new knowledge.

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