ARTICLE: The Dawn of the Full Stack Employee

There once was an employee to said “It wasn’t their job.” So someone took their place.

In the digital marketing space you often have a team of specialists when it comes to the tech team. You were a flash developer (until a few years ago), a front-end coder, an HTML master, a WordPress’r or a back-end database guru. Why not – ten years ago a web build would charge a mountain of money from an uninformed client and they could afford the staff and patio drinks at 4 pm everyday (though Friday beer carts remain thankfully).

As we started to look at our own team at Powered By Dashboard in a recent transition from marketing one off builds to long-term software development I started to hear the term Full Stack Developer. This role is imperative to the start up – where visions are big, investment dollars are small and every day is a dance of what to fix and what to invent. You simply can’t afford to employ specialists and have them sit around when their skill set is not being used. Unlike a service driven business like say marketing or design you can’t simply make a few calls and drum up a new clients to extend your financial runway for a few more months. You’re all working towards refining and growing what you have. Your salaries are paid by what sales you can make of your software combined with what investors are willing to front you.

You need developers who could easily switch their mind set, work flow and code language at the drop of a hat. The kind of MacGyver wizards who could move from coding the front of a website to building the database to QA’ing on multiple devices right down to building and giving insight on the best digital media tactics in SEO or understanding conversion rates. Meet the full stack developer. If you don’t have one – you’re likely in danger of spending too much for too little return in a resource.

This got me thinking about the creative side of the coin and what I am starting to see and believe is a similar awakening. I remember seeing creative teams get their feathers in a bunch over content mangers and account teams having genuine and good ideas or god forbid writing a bit of copy. I am by no means a copywriter, however I have written my share of scripts, headlines, content calendars and marketing language.

The marketing world and its creative culture is in a massive upheaval and if you think it is only because of traditional versus digital then you are about five years behind. That is old exhausted news. It is more about the new breed of creative skilled people graduating from schools and starting in smaller firms who are beginning the shift as they start showing up with skills that cover a large range of areas. Social media managers are mastering copy writing and concept as well as account management and media analysis. Designers and illustrators are doing video and animation, art directors are drawing ideas, designing them, color correcting them and working of their own wireframes and user flows. All of it without an entire floor dedicated to studio artists who can do it for them.

I imagine it is happening in other industries as well. Where we once were a race of primates learning agriculture and narrowing ourselves to specialists we are starting to see the Entrepreneur and the start up force us all into potential Full Stack employees.

Those who find the transition the most difficult are the people who have weathered without changing for so long and are now unwilling to adapt. The “It’s not my job” line once heard form the dinosaur VP or old school ad guy are just as often coming from overly proud younger professionals and mid career alike.

It is a movement I am extremely happy to see really starting to accelerate as we all desperately try to change our purpose every few years with technology that is quickly outpacing us. Where people could spend most of their career in one place a few decades ago and never worry about being pushed out or become irrelevant we are not so fortunate. And the result is the Full Stack employee – the true jack-of-all-trades. I have always preferred to be a jack-of-all-trades. Though it means I can never claim to be mastery of one I am by no means left to being a novice. These days a Jack-of-all-trades is also adding to, leaving behind, evolving and advancing their trades (skillsets) constantly.

This got me thinking – why am I like this? I came up with three of what I’m sure is a terrifyingly long and emotionally draining list:

  1. I have little training in anything useful (art school) so I’ve always had to reinvent and teach myself just to survive with new tools and opportunities. That also means most of what I spent in school was wasted in what I could have gotten from a bit of night school and self discipline…damn it.
  2. I am hard wired to take the steepest (near suicidal) hill to climb. Many opportunities and directions have presented themselves to me that would have been money in my pocket but ultimately boring and safe. However I always take the hardest challenge with little chance of reward. Maybe I’m just afraid of being a sheep or clone of someone else. Maybe I’m dumb enough to believe it can be done faster and better or maybe I simply enjoy challenges. I would be horrible gambler.
  3. I get bored very easily and am naturally restless. Blame my dad – we both can’t sit still. The bad side of that is I have a long list of dream projects, half finished books and an even longer list of things on my plate. And the plates keep piling up which leads to self-inflicted exhaustion as a way of life. You know that high stress anxiety when you are unable to breath right – I thrive in that feeling. When I take vacations I disconnect and often don’t keep my phone on or go places with no internet – because it is the only way I know I will vacation.


Aren’t you just a workaholic?

Not true. I work my share of late nights, but rarely weekends and my family always comes first. It may be just how I’m wired, but what is more likely may be in how I choose to look at challenges.

For example, we create quite a few videos at work. And I’ve had the chance to make some big production commercials in the past that take dozens of crew to pull off and hundreds of thousands of dollars to near millions. But for most of the recent ones at Dashboard we’ve done them ourselves in-house with myself and art director and learnt (taught ourselves) as we went. Same goes for writing scripts, designing, wire framing software, understanding software documentation, user cases to the basics like cutting up direct mail pieces with utility knife on my desk freshly printed off our office Xerox. Many of the artwork in our issues of Strategy Mob magazine we composite ourselves, shoot ourselves, illustrate and yes paint. We outsource a handful for bandwidth but not much. If we think we can do it ourselves faster we will.

Here is the kicker – I expect anyone working with me to do the same. No job or ask is beneath any of us. I expect them to thrive on curiosity and ride the edge of chaos to better themselves. Believe it or not it’s incredibly rewarding.


So what do you look for in a modern Full Stack hire for a smaller firm?

You may hear during an interview that someone is up for anything. But often it is due to the hunger for a job, not necessarily a realistic expectation for someone coming into a role. But when I talk to hires – particularly ones early in their career – who are interested in working with me there are a few things I look out for:

  1. What Else can you do? I ask people not only what they can do, but what they don’t do. It helps me understand if they are a interested in being able to take on things that are out of their skill sets to learn.
  2. Variety in portfolios. The best way to not come back for a return interview with me is to come with an incredibly strong book of work that is all the same. If all you have are print ads and magazine design or only website designs – I will ask to see something else. It helps me see how you take on different asks. If you don’t have any or don’t want to show it – I already know you won’t want to stretch out of your comfort zone.
  3. Humility is mandatory. I don’t work with people who confuse critic with attack and teamwork with competition. The best way to grow and quickly learn what you don’t know is to listen to others and work together to learn how to solve it.
  4. Recklessness. If you are not someone who takes chances that may reward or fail tragically then I already know you’re too safe in your ways to push yourself. And at the end of the day – it is your self motivation to push that will make you a Full Stack Creative. Not any amount of pushing I can force on you.

Did you hear the one about the employed Cartographer?

More and more we see entire work forces drop off simply because they choose not to evolve or learn new things. I use the word “choose” intentionally. If you are unable to adapt – you are quickly pushed to the side. It’s called evolution. The strongest survival instinct always wins.

Over fifteen years ago I lied to get my first creative gig as a summer student hire. They asked me if I knew how to make websites and I said yes. Having only had a single class on designing one. I then picked up a 24-hour guide to coding HTML and learnt over a weekend for my Monday start. I was horrible. But fear and survival instinct forced me to adapt and learn every night.

I will always be more interested in talking to someone with multiple viewpoints, interests, skills and talents than someone who is the best at one thing (that’s what freelancers who can work on a global network of clients are for – though many of them are being forced to the same multi-skill direction). And if they are unwilling to bend – chances are they will move on pretty quickly.

Did you hear the one about the employed Cartographer? They used to create maps before Google.

Me neither.