Developing and building software involves many people, each with their own special set of skills. In terms of a full-stack developer vs. software engineer, full-stack developers are just a type, or subset, of software engineers. In general, a full-stack developer understands how to build software from the ground up, while most software engineers focus on only one part of the process.
What Do Full-Stack Developers Do?
A full-stack developer is a type of software engineer who has a broad skill set encompassing both the front-end (what users see) and back-end (what engineers see) of software development.
“They understand all layers of a software stack, including databases, servers, systems engineering, and client-facing interfaces,” says Andrei Neacsu, owner and CTO of HyperSense Software. “[Full-stack developers] are jacks-of-all-trades and are able to take a project through the entire lifecycle of software development all on their own.”
Some day-to-day tasks a full-stack developer may work on include:
- Writing and testing code
- Collaborating with clients and design teams to understand the purpose of the software
- Working with front-end and back-end engineers to improve the software development process
>>MORE: Learn more about full-stack engineers.
What Do Software Engineers Do?
Software engineering is a catch-all term for various specialized careers focusing on creating computer programs and applications.
A software engineer may be “responsible for the full life cycle of software development, including gathering user requirements, defining system functionality, and writing code in various languages,” says Neacsu. “Software engineers can specialize in different areas, like front-end (client-side) development, back-end (server-side) development, or even specific technologies or types of software.”
The types of tasks a software engineer handles ultimately depend on their specialization.
“Full stack engineers have panoramic knowledge of the software landscape,” says Goran Luledzija, CEO of Localizely, but “software engineers have a deep well of knowledge in their chosen specialty.”
Some common types of software engineers include:
- Front-end developers: build the part of the software that users see and interact with
- Back-end developers: build the components of software that keep it running that users don’t see
- Quality assurance (QA) engineers: test software to ensure it works correctly
- DevOps engineers: work with engineering and operations teams to make the software development process efficient
>>MORE: Explore the different types of software engineers.
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Full-Stack Developer vs. Software Engineer Salaries
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, software developers (including full-stack developers) have an average annual salary of $132,930. Since full-stack developers are a subset of software developers, these careers are sometimes lumped together.
However, using estimates from Glassdoor, we can get an idea of the salary differences between these two roles. Salaries typically differ depending on location and company, but experience level is also a major determinant of pay rates for software engineers and full-stack developers.
Experience LevelFull-Stack DeveloperSoftware EngineerEarly Career ($79,300$101,500Average for All Experience Levels$82,800$107,700Experienced (>15 Years Experience)$115,600$159,300Estimates sourced from Glassdoor and rounded to the nearest hundred.
>>MORE: Check out some of the highest-paying software engineering jobs.
How to Become a Software Engineer vs. Full-Stack Developer
Education and Background
You typically need at least a bachelor’s degree to become a software engineer or full-stack developer. A survey from Stack Overflow reports that nearly 50% of professional developers have a bachelor’s degree, but close to 25% have master’s degrees. In many cases, further education can make you more marketable and help you move up in your career.
The major most software engineers and full-stack developers choose is computer science. However, that isn’t the only option. Some schools offer programs specifically in software engineering. Additionally, having a background in a related field, like data science or information technology, can provide you with other skills that could set you apart from the competition.
>>MORE: See the top jobs for computer science majors.
The most essential hard skill for both full-stack engineers and software engineers is programming languages. Most professional developers learn to code in college, but over 10% of Stack Overflow’s survey respondents said they learned to code through coding bootcamps. (Check out our picks for the best online coding bootcamps in 2023!)
>>MORE: Explore the best SQL bootcamps for 2023.
On the other hand, software engineers need to know the programming languages associated with their specialization. For example, a front-end engineer must be proficient in HTML and CSS, while a back-end developer should have strong SQL and Python skills.
Soft skills both careers need include:
- Teamwork and collaboration
- Analytical thinking
- Attention to detail
Luledzija adds, “The tech world doesn’t sit still, so keeping pace with emerging tools, languages, and methodologies is paramount.”
>>MORE: Learn more about the software engineering career path.
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Bottom Line: What’s the Difference?
The main difference between software engineers vs. full-stack developers is that one is a subset of the other. While all full-stack developers are software engineers, not all software engineers are full-stack developers. Full-stack developers understand the entire process of creating software. On the other hand, software engineers tend to focus on one part of the process, such as back-end development or quality assurance testing.
Choosing between these career paths can be difficult.
For those weighing the two options, Luledzija advises: “Listen to your gut. If you thrive on variety and seek a comprehensive understanding of the software creation process, you might find your home as a full stack [developer]. If there’s a specific facet of software development that gets your pulse racing, then the software engineer track could be your calling.”
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