February 17, 2018

Stacking the Deck | Office Hours

Michael StephensHave you read about the “Full-Stack Employee?” In a think piece published in Medium, author Chris Messina—the creator of the hashtag, no less—offers this definition: “the full-stack employee has a powerful combination of skills that make them incredibly valuable. They are adept at navigating the rapidly evolving and shifting technological landscape. They make intuitive decisions amidst information-abundance, where sparse facts mingle loosely with data-drenched opinions.” It’s a tech-heavy take, but bear with me, as Messina broadens the definition: “Full-stack employees have an insatiable appetite for new ideas, best practices, and ways to be more productive and happy. They’re curious about the world, what makes it work, and how to make their mark on it.”

Maybe you’ve interviewed these types or hired them. Maybe you’ve watched a longtime employee evolve into a full- stack powerhouse. If you haven’t encountered them, I’d argue you soon will, especially as new grads in tech-oriented library and information programs come looking for positions. As buzz-wordy as this pancake-invoking moniker seems to be, I believe the description merits some consideration as we examine our evolving workforce.

Always on

Full stacks know how to self-promote “tastefully,” says Messina, going beyond the rock star–type all-show-and-no-­content to engage and share with their audience. I’d argue library-type full stacks are those folks we see working hard at their jobs, sharing their successes and failures in Twitter chats and in other social streams, and seeking to make a mark that has meaning within the profession. They’re not the ones preening and posing at conferences or proclaiming that the next big thing is XYZ because they said so.

These folks are seemingly always on and always connected. This is both a good and a bad thing, Messina notes. Balance, as usual in all things, is a goal. Maybe the full stacks have a flavor of mindfulness that many of us have yet to find as they move among channels, messages, and queries. Or maybe this is the failure of the “rebranding of the perfect tech employee,” as Elea Chang points out in a counterpoint post. Messina, however, sees a constantly moving scale: “Being full stack is an exercise in shifting between opposite poles.”

Making room for full stacks

One challenge is how libraries can accommodate these eager employees. A library director I spoke with about these folks said, “I have a few. They’re the young ones. Let them succeed. They are so different from other employees who think they are goofing off much of the time.” John Szabo, city librarian, Los Angeles Public Library, told me, “They are also well connected to their peers, involved in formal and informal professional groups, and share a deep passion for the public library mission!”

We might, for example, explore what coworking spaces would look like in our institutions. How might the “reference workroom” become more like those spaces born out of the tech world in which disparate groups work together. What if your employees had a number of spaces to work “off desk” that mixed and mingled your staff? Maybe mixing everyone up will lead to some intriguing and fruitful partnerships between the full stacks and other staff.

Consider alternative schedules that support the services of the library but maybe with a bit more flexibility for the always on. This is a difficult hurdle for public institutions: working anywhere, anytime doesn’t fit well with the time card punching, management-ruled world of work. As Messina notes, “Just because they demand a high degree of flexibility and autonomy doesn’t mean that they get to dictate the criteria by which their work is evaluated. That’s still the role of the manager.”

I recognize this trait in my students. They are inspired, engaged, and usually go way beyond the requirements of assignments, because they care. LIS programs should nurture the development of full stacks in LIS programs in similar ways as will be done by the libraries that hire them. I’d venture that cutting-edge classes and strong foundational curricula would entice full stackers to excel.

No generalists

While Messina defines full stacks as polymaths, I disagree. Full stacks don’t present themselves as masters of every subject out there. We know that’s not possible, nor do we subscribe to that mind-set in our profession. Full stacks are different. They are conduits, connectors, discoverers. They are the people you want to let loose in your community, the ones you want to embed in community or campus organizations.

Watch for the full stacks. Maybe some will come to you with backgrounds in tech and newly minted MLIS degrees, forgoing the start-up lifestyle for a focus on people and improving services to them. Welcome the full stacks into the mix. And note that Messina argues for a high degree of empathy “ both for this new kind of employee, but also from them.” That’s something we can surely agree is beneficial to our mission.

This article was published in Library Journal's June 15, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens (mstephens7@mac.com) is Associate Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA



  1. Being one of the ‘full stacks’ is my life’s mission. Trying to find the balance that works is the challenge. Even the most switched on professional needs to occasionally have only a couple of tabs open (in their brain).

  2. This is interesting. I think everyone wants this type of employee- but I also disagree that these are the ones on twitter discussing successes and failures.

    I think it’s much more likely that these are the ones that no one outside of the local area knows about for a long time. These are the ones who read and research- but aren’t the ones doing it 140 characters at a time. Maybe we’ve looked at different library professionals on twitter.