As a software development instructor, I get this question a lot. It’s a reasonable question, and one that all of us have when we are embarking on a new learning journey. Education, particularly for complex technical skills like web development, is a major investment in time, energy, and opportunity cost. It’s human nature to want to look to the future and get some idea as to how long it will take to reach your goals. After all, most of us are facing other constraints in our life and are thus motivated to gather as much information as we can before making learning decisions. Unfortunately, despite getting this question all the time, I just don’t think it’s possible to put a concrete number on how long it takes to learn full-stack development. Let me explain why this is hard and why I think that it’s best to go against human nature and try to set the question of duration aside entirely.
The main reason why this is a hard question to answer is simple: people are different. I have been in software for more than 15 years, and teaching software development for more than 5 of them, and one thing I am sure of is that no two students are alike. At Launch School, where I teach, we have a full-stack curriculum that I have seen some students complete in as few as six months, while other students take several years. The reasons vary — some students have more time to study than others, some are coming from technical backgrounds that lend themselves to programming, and some students are just out of school and have fresh study habits while others haven’t touched a textbook in decades. What’s important is that no matter their background, any student who adopts the right approach can be successful in learning to be a full-stack developer, even if the time it takes varies. The advice I give students on this issue is to focus on the process rather than the future. Mastering software development takes time, and if you want to launch a career as a developer and land a top job, you have to put in the time upfront.
What’s important is that no matter their background, any student who adopts the right approach can be successful in learning to be a full-stack developer, even if the time it takes varies.
It’s worth taking a moment to consider what skills you need to be a full-stack developer. This is an entire discussion on its own, but in short, you need: core programming skills; front-end skills to handle how users interact with an application; back-end skills to handle how your application conducts its business logic and interfaces with the data store; and, database skills to ensure that your application’s data is handled appropriately. Taken together, these are the core elements of any modern web application. You can see this in the below diagram:
As you can see, being a full-stack developer, which means that you can handle the development of all elements of a web application, requires a large skillset. It’s no wonder that getting to this point takes time. This is why I encourage people not to focus on “how long” it will take to learn everything, and rather, to take a consistent and incremental approach to learning.
In truth, you can probably learn enough full-stack web development to create a rudimentary application in a month or two; however, there is a big difference between being able to put together an application from a collection of prefabricated pieces and being a professional full-stack developer. In order to set yourself up for long-term success in a career as a developer, it’s important that you focus on fundamentals. Individual tools, and frameworks, and libraries are constantly changing, but some things never change — those are the skills you should be targeting.
In order to master fundamental skills, you need depth over time. Learning to depth is a long process and students sometimes find it difficult to focus on this process rather than jumping ahead to when they will be “finished.” You can see this in students’ confidence levels regarding their ability, mapped over time. In my experience, it looks something like this:
In the beginning, as students are first exploring the world of programming, they experience an initial high when they realize that programming isn’t as out-of-reach as they might once have thought. However, that is only the first stage of the learning journey, because very quickly it becomes apparent that mastering fundamentals is a difficult process. We call this “the plateau”, which is when students have to focus on the process of learning, even when progress is harder to measure. This pedagogy is at the core of what we do at Launch School — we practice mastery-based learning, which says that learners should focus on mastery of skills, rather than arbitrary timelines.
Set a long-term goal and move towards it intentionally, but do so without preconceived notions about how long it will take.
All of this is a way of saying that it’s not really possible to predict with certainty “how long” it will take a given learner to become a full-stack developer. There are too many factors that differentiate one student’s experience from another’s. Full-stack development, as we have seen, encompasses a large range of skills — mastering them all takes time. My recommendation is to set a long-term goal and move towards it intentionally, but do so without preconceived notions about how long it will take. In this manner, you can focus on mastering fundamentals, and in due time, you will find that you have not only reached, but exceeded your original goals.
This article was originally published as an answer to a question on Quora. It is re-posted here for Medium readers with the same question.