Why I Admire Full Stack People

Learning to be a better designer by studying Dave Grohl, Buster Posey, or even… that ‘Most Interesting Man in The World’ guy?

So, this isn’t going to be a tech piece about why you must be a full stack designer in order to succeed. It’s also not a story about growth hacking, hamburgers, a design teardown, or recommendations for your funding your startup. Those are all great things, but you won’t find it here — that’s not the direction I’m headed.

Still here? Awesome.

Some observations…

I feel like there’s been a lot of debate recently about what type of designer is best.

Do we need to be full stack designers? They typically handle all aspects of the design process from UX flows and wireframes, to mockups, UI, visuals, and even some of the front-end development like HTML/CSS. Or should should we focus on specializing, and really hone in on one part of the process?

Sometimes the arguments feel a little chippy:

“Full stack designers are just ‘Jacks of all trades,’ masters of nothing.”
“Specialists are like design robots. They can’t see outside their own little box.”

I’m generously paraphrasing for effect there — but there seems to be a lot of people who are really polarized on the subject, and I’m not sure why. The opinion pieces regarding why we all need to be full stack to survive also abound. It almost feels like,

“If you’re not full stack you’ll fail at this business.”

I really intended to just stay out of the whole mess, not taking sides, not participating. Dammit, I don’t write design op pieces — I should just stick to dry, offbeat humor about random subjects.

But frankly, it got me thinking — I’d like to write a positive piece about how ambitious, talented people have influenced my career. So, with half-hearted gusto I’ll throw my hat into the ring, not to participate in the battle but to say,

“Relax people, it’ll all be ok, and here’s why.”

(Bring on the writer’s remorse)

Sigh. Let’s do this…

So, who are these masters of everything?

Firstly, I offer this idea to you: Why should full stack should just apply to engineers or designers? Actually, we’ve only recently started applying it to designers. But why even limit it to the tech industry? The idea can surely apply to tons of different careers, hobbies, pursuits, and industries.

Couldn’t a prosperous full-stacker is really like the equivalent of a modern day Renaissance Man or Woman? They’re people who have the power to excel at a full range of talents, whatever their pursuit may be.

People who have achieved this level are stoked. Take the Dos Equis guy — does he look worried about being called a Jack of all trades? Hell no. He’s a master of everything. Criticism slides right off him. He doesn’t threaten the specialists, and they don’t threaten them back.

(Ok, he isn’t real. But wouldn’t that be a great life?)

What about this 90’s rock icon? What does he have to do with my design career?

Folks that know me are probably quite aware of my love for the fuzzy, frantic Foo Fighters frontman (how’s that for alliteration) — but most people don’t really know why. No, it’s not because I’m a groupie. It’s about a different kind of passion — a passion for a craft.

When Kurt died and Nirvana ended, Dave obviously took some time off to regroup. But it wasn’t long before he started twittling around, tuning up songs he’d written by himself during the Nirvana days, plus creating some new material. He had the itch to make music, and even in the midst of mourning, he felt the call. Before long he’d written up a good batch of material. He didn’t have a band in place, so he wrote for each instrument and recorded each part himself on an 8-track — drums, bass, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, added in the vocals and harmonies, and patched them together to create a final product.

Remember now, Dave’s a drummer by trade. A DRUMMER.

Probably one of the best ever. (I’m hard pressed to think of many successful drummers-turned-frontmen, aside from maybe Phil Collins.) This was no easy feat that he had just accomplished. He had a strong vision and passion for music, that much is obvious.

Love his music or hate it, you’ve got to admit that Dave has been a successful full stack musician.

And that demo tape that he just created? Yeah, that turned out to be the first Foo Fighters album. He was about to rocket back into stardom.

Is this way too type A?

Maybe a little bit. But ultimately, for a person like Dave, creativity can’t be put down. I admire that. When I found out his backstory, I was sold. DG fan for life. Recently he’s also taken on directing and producing music documentaries like Sound City and Sonic Highways, both highly acclaimed.

I feel the same way about singer songwriters — the Fiona Apples, Tori Amoses, or Alicia Keys’ of the world. They write their own music and lyrics, play an instrument, and sing all at once. If you’ve never tried it, it’s ridiculously hard. Regardless of genre, these people have have tremendous stacks of talent.

Let’s be clear — I’m not saying all people should be pressured into being perfect at doing all things.

These are people who love what they do and you can see that they live for it. Their passion for learning all parts of their craft is admirable. Being well-rounded doesn’t seem like a chore, it feels natural.

So, wait, are you sure this approach relates to designers too?

I’m not saying designers should always work in full stack mode with an I-should-do-it-all-because-I-know-how-to-do-it-better-than-everyone-else attitude. (My condolences if you work with someone like that.)

As a designer I try and make the effort to learn a variety of different skills. I know my strengths, but it’s also satisfying to take on whole projects from beginning to end. Working this way can definitely lead to some confusion when it comes to narrowing down a job title.

What am I? A UX designer? UX/UI? UI/UX? Mobile? Product designer? I really don’t know anymore. But who cares. It doesn’t change the work I do.

If you have enough desire to learn, then why not give all aspects of the design process a real go, and see if it’s for you? If I hadn’t done that myself, I never would have discovered how much I enjoy UX design.

My journey has been part focus and part random chance.

I came from a Graphic Design background, so that meant lots of full color print work, typography, Pantone books, etc. But when I wanted to get into tech, the first job I landed was as an Interaction Designer.

I’ll be honest, I was worried.

“I don’t know if I can design in boring shades of gray skeletons and empty placeholders without wanting to shoot myself — this sounds depressing as hell.”

I didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity, so I told myself that trying other things might help me to discover what appeals to me. If it ended up feeling like the wrong fit, I could always try something different.

You know what, though? I was good at it. (Well, maybe that’s subjective — I think it’s more accurate to say that I enjoyed it.) I found it to be analytical and creative at the same time. It was a great mix.

Figuring out user flows, trying alternatives, solving problems, and incorporating research — it was a lot like my original life working in the lab. There’s definitely a bridge between science and design, people!

It didn’t all come easily, but I’ve been working hard at it.

Some people seem like they were born naturals.

And they don’t look like they have to try as hard as us regular mortals. Let’s say you practically come out of the womb playing baseball. You start off playing third base and it feels natural. It’s your niche. Does that mean you’ll never try another position? Should you just stick to what you’re good at forever?

I’ll insert my glowing commentary about Buster Posey playing all positions in one collegiate game here. (Another full stack human being that I admire immensely.) He was willing to try out a variety of different roles over the years. Overall he’s a bit of an anomaly, but that’s why I think he’s amazing.

I had never been a huge baseball fan, and growing up in SoCal I was definitely not a Giants fan. But the first time I saw Buster play I was hooked. He obviously has a well-rounded set of skills, but he also surprised everyone by quickly emerging as a team leader in his rookie season. Where most teams would’ve seen a grunt, his teammates saw a captain.

He’s definitely a full stack baseballer.

Growth, learning, and even failure keeps things interesting.

When I first started studying art, I tried out Industrial Design — and I can’t even begin to describe how horrible I was at it.

Asking me to draw objects with (expensive) markers and (fancy) pencils, rendering (pesky) shadows to imbue realism — it felt like being thrown into a pot of boiling (lava) water.

I remember one project in particular was to draw and render a toaster. Mine turned out looking like a sad, gray blob with two slightly askew slots at the top.

I just wanted to curl up in the corner and cry. But the guy next to me was another story. He was a great artist — this was obviously his niche. His drawing looked so I real I could throw a pop tart in it. Real as hell.

Honestly, most of us mere mortals have a limit to what we can learn. Everyone has their strengths and limits. I never took another rendering class again — I knew it wasn’t for me. I’ve never been good at drawing by hand so this wasn’t a big surprise. But I later discovered graphic design and stuck with it.

Ultimately, full stack isn’t for everyone.

This is where the specialist can thrive. If we’re talking about a Thoracic Surgeon, he/she had better be a specialist. I’m not putting my life in their hands if they’re not.

They don’t need to be skilled at performing every kind of surgery. They just need to be the best at that one thing. But it doesn’t that mean they can’t paint or write poetry in their free time — they can be well-rounded in other ways!

Build and explore, kiddos.

I’m not interested in taking sides in the debate that one way is “better” than the other. People are unique and so are their strengths.

Some people do best to focus on one talent, others can’t help but explore.

I personally admire full stack people. That doesn’t mean I feel pressured to be one. Or to be a perfect one. In the end, it’s got to be about knowing your strengths and what you want to build upon. It’s as simple as that…

Now, can we all just relax?

(I think Dave would support that.)

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