Staff Augmentation

Fullstack vs Specialized Roles

Daniel Soto Rey
Tres Astronautas
April 1, 2024
10 min
Key Points:
  1. Cost-effectiveness: Hiring a full-stack developer appears economically advantageous initially.
  2. Communication Simplicity: Direct communication with one person reduces misunderstandings in projects.
  3. Quick Results: Development progresses swiftly without coordination delays among specialized roles.
  4. Productivity Impact: Multitasking can reduce productivity by up to 40% over time.
  5. Knowledge Retention: Risk of losing critical project knowledge with the departure of one person.

In the complex world of software development, companies often face a difficult decision: Do we hire a full-stack developer to be our "jack of all trades" or do we hire a team of specialists? Do we hire a general doctor to operate on our heart and brain or do we hire a cardiovascular surgeon and a neurosurgeon? The appeal of one person handling everything, seemingly economical and simple, is undeniably strong. But as software projects grow in complexity, it is essential to evaluate whether the short-term convenience of the full-stack approach truly outweighs its long-term implications.

Why is choosing a full-stack developer so attractive?

There are many reasons why a company starting a software team or a new project is attracted to full-stack developers.

  1. Cost-effectiveness: This is perhaps the most obvious. On paper, it may seem like a cost-saving measure, combining multiple roles into one salary. Paying for a team with specialized roles can be up to x4 times more expensive initially.
  2. Simplicity in communication: With one person handling multiple aspects of a project, there is a direct line of communication, reducing the chances of misunderstandings. It's easy to talk to one person; talking to a team and getting them to agree can be very challenging.
  3. Quick results: Without the need for coordination between roles, the initial phases of development can progress quickly, as there is no need to wait for the opinion or deliverable of another team member.

So why aren't all teams full-stack?

As attractive as it may seem to form such a team and take advantage of all these benefits, the medium and long-term implications can be much more daunting than the initial benefits. The challenges that arise as the project grows in complexity and size can undo everything gained at the start of the project.

  1. Multitasking can reduce productivity by 40%: While most full-stack developers are used to dealing with the entire burden of a project by themselves, as it grows in complexity, they will increasingly have more responsibility for the stability of the system. Systems tend to become more complex over time (Learn more about entropy in software). Over time, the burden of being responsible for everything and not having a team to support architectural, design, optimization, and other decisions can cause a developer's performance to degrade to the point of being a burden to the team.
  2. Teams are up to 5 times more productive than individuals working alone:: Ironically, what starts as an advantage ends up being a problem in the medium term. Depending 100% on one person to implement a change means that you cannot make progress in parallel. Any new functionality, change, or improvement will have to go through a bottleneck of one person, which will make it increasingly slower to release updates over time.
  3. Losing an employee's knowledge costs up to 213% of their annual salary:: One of the highest risks and least managed when choosing full-stack teams is having all the project's experience in the hands of one person. If that person, for any reason, will not continue in the project (which is very likely in the software market), they will take all the knowledge and experience gained up to that point. No matter how well their work is documented and a handover is done, the cost of retraining one person in all aspects of the software at the same time can exceed the initial savings. Not to mention the risks of a poor knowledge transfer that will be almost impossible to detect without other roles validating the developer's knowledge in the project.

The combination of all these points can make the long-term costs of full-stack development add up to more than what is initially saved. The risks are too high, embarking on such a development can significantly reduce the likelihood of success of a software project, not to mention the frustration of complexity, delays, and countless long-term losses.

So are specialized roles the best option?

Specialized roles are designed to provide focused expertise in each aspect of a project. By segregating responsibilities, many of the challenges faced by the full-stack approach are addressed directly:

  1. Collective Knowledge: Multiple minds working on a project diversify experience and knowledge, greatly enriching the final result with different perspectives, making the built product much more complete. Additionally, if any team member is absent or unable to continue, the project is not paralyzed; a quick replacement can be found who can intervene in the missing area and can be quickly induced by the other members who have worked hard on the project.
  2. Distributed Workload: Each specialist, whether a UI designer, UX designer, frontend or backend developer, or systems architect, manages their segment, ensuring that no one is overloaded.
  3. Specialization and speed: With each iteration, the specialized work of team members will allow for refinement, optimization, and constant improvement of the result of each part. Over time, this is reflected in more speed of change. Implementing new features becomes more comfortable, as it can be divided into parts that work in parallel and quickly integrate changes to deliver value constantly to users.

On the other hand, not only does it confront the challenges of full-stack development directly, but it also presents other great advantages:

  1. Collaborative Validation: Having a team of specialists encourages cross-validation. Ideas are evaluated, refined, and tested by various experts, ensuring a higher quality result.
  2. Documented Work: Teams tend to be, by obligation, better at documentation and creating understandable systems, guaranteeing a smoother onboarding of new members and future scalability. They often have documented deliveries with clear artifacts that endure as a fundamental part of the project's history.

For all these reasons, at Tres Astronautas we only work with specialized teams:

3A Team

We have decided to prioritize long-term results over small early gains, which as we see, end up being losses in the future. Experience has shown us that this is the best way to build reliable and quality products and to create a work methodology that guarantees the success of a project.

If you are interested in learning more about the experience we have had with these different ways of working, write to us! We love sharing knowledge and hearing about the experiences you have had in your organization!

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