By Nathan Sykes April 20, 2018

When JavaScript Isn’t Enough: How Developers Can Better Their Communication Skills

You’ve spent a lot of time, and probably money, developing the technical skills a developer’s life requires. But how much thought have you given to your communication skills?

It would be a mistake to assume you won’t need them or that they automatically improve with age—because they definitely don’t.

So what can you do about it?

Part of the challenge is breaking down who you talk to about your work and what the priorities are in each “type” of interaction.

To help you with this, let’s take a look at some things you can do to improve how you communicate with managers, co-workers, people you’re training, and even people who don’t come from a development background.

Communicating With Managers and Team Leaders

Communicating with your manager is where things can go either brilliantly or quickly off the rails.

Lots of us are used to doing the bulk of our work hunched over monitors, plucking bugs from code or tweaking graphical layouts. Our social skills tend to get a little rusty. But if there’s a conversation where you really don’t want to, figuratively speaking, phone it in, it’s a status update with your manager or team leader.

When in doubt, try the humble approach. We’re all wired to seek out recognition for our work and praise for our accomplishments. But what you don’t say is often much louder than what you do say.

When communicating with managers, steer away from self-aggrandizement and remain mindful instead that you’re part of a group with a shared goal. Not only will your manager see you as someone who takes the team aspect of work seriously, but also the proactive effort on your part of remembering that you’re part of something larger than just yourself can improve how you work with your team.

Your success is your team’s success. On the other hand, if you try to overplay your role, your manager could see you as a negative influence on company culture.

Another thing to keep in mind is the frequency of your communication. With few exceptions, the development world agrees that managers won’t need an update on every line of code.

Here’s one way to look at it: Unless there’s a schedule already worked out that governs how often you communicate, plan on doing so only as often as is necessary to foster trust. Your manager has a lot of responsibilities on their plate, so getting all of the gritty details about your work is far less important than them knowing their trust in you was well-placed.

One of the most important factors in establishing trust and a connection with your manager is learning how to speak their language. Maybe your manager is someone who needs to see hard numbers and figures, while you’re more comfortable discussing broad ideas.

Learn what your manager tends to focus in on when they speak and communicate back to them in a way that reflects that.

Communicating With Your Co-Workers

Co-workers are a gift and a curse, aren’t they? At their best, they’re a treasure trove of hot tips and best practices that might make your work and life easier. At their worst, they can prove to be … distracting.

You’re not going to have control over every interaction that comes your way, but you definitely have full control over how you respond when they do. As part of a team of professionals, there are a handful of fundamentals you should keep front of mind as you communicate with your co-workers:

  1. Radiate humility always, in all of your exchanges.
  2. Foster a positive outlook on life, even if it doesn’t come naturally to you.
  3. Listen and take nothing for granted. For all of your experience, it’s almost a certainty that somebody else can do something faster or more cleverly than you.

That last one is especially important, because it encourages us to become ongoing learners.

Communicating with your co-workers should first and foremost be an exchange of ideas, or else, what’s the point? Even if somebody’s coming to you for guidance or advice, don’t assume you can’t learn anything of value from the exchange.

Communicating With the People You’re Training

One of the most frequently underutilized gifts in the trainer’s toolkit is empathy. As a developer, you will probably find yourself in the role of a trainer/mentor more than once, and it’ll be up to you to make sure the team member under your wing comes away with practical knowledge and actionable takeaways.

And that makes your communication style absolutely critical, which is where empathy comes in. We all see the world a little bit differently because we’ve all had different experiences. You have reached a level of proficiency with your subject matter that means certain basic concepts don’t have to be explained to you any longer.

It’s extremely easy to assume the folks you’re talking to—especially junior employees you’re training—are operating with the same basic knowledge and the same assumptions you are. You might gloss over critical details without knowing you’ve done so, simply because you’ve committed them to muscle memory already.

Put yourself in the trainee’s shoes. Think back to how you felt when first starting out. Were you feeling overwhelmed? Did it feel like you were more imposter than employee?

Despite how comfortable you are now in your role as a trainer, you were once exactly where they were. Use this to your advantage!

The fix here is to slow down and really think through even the smallest steps of the work you do. What’s not obvious? What takes a little longer to become intuitive?

The fact that you have as much experience as you do means you can create a rich and effective training experience and pass on little-known tricks and intuitive leaps that might’ve taken you years to stumble upon.

Communicating With People Who Don’t Understand Programming

There’s a good chance you’ll find yourself explaining what you do to someone for whom programming isn’t a primary language. There’s also a good chance you’ll have to exchange notes and feedback with these folks in writing. This can get tricky.

Programming languages are blunt instruments. As a developer, you’re forgiven the occasional lapse in social niceties, but if you’re talking to clients or somebody who’s not terribly familiar with what your work requires, it’s easy for condescension and impatience to set in—or just run-of-the-mill terseness.

One part of your responsibility is to carry around the language necessary to explain what you do, at least in broad strokes, to interested parties. Your work is wonky and a little mysterious, and there’s some fun to be had with that.

But always be on the lookout for more effective ways to describe how you work and how you go about solving problems.

As developers, we have to remain mindful of the divide between the world of coding and the world of business. It can be difficult to envision, much less communicate, how those two worlds influence each other when it comes to deadlines, profitability, security, transparency, and everything else that goes into running a successful company.

Look at it another way: Even physicians have to explain, sometimes in great detail, the work they do to people who don’t know the terminology or the procedures—but the human body is a common reference point. The subject matter is immediately relatable because there’s common ground. Part of improving your communication skills is looking for that type of common ground.

In the digitalized era we find ourselves in, common ground between developers and those not familiar with what you do isn’t as hard to find as you might think. People are interacting with more screens and tech gadgets than ever; use technology’s ubiquity to your advantage.

If you can show them the website or app that your work contributes to, do that! Explain in basic terms how what you do translates to what they’re seeing.

If you’re working on a project that doesn’t have a user-facing user interface, or if it’s something used only internally, try explaining your role as the technology’s teacher. While their computer/phone/etc. might function on its own, that ability doesn’t come to the machine naturally. Someone has to teach it to behave a certain way using the language the technology understands, and that’s you!

Communication Is Everything

The benefits of good communication in the workplace are numerous. It creates stronger teams, makes sure cross-company departments are all on the same page, increases productivity, and can improve both employee and customer satisfaction.

Development requires a well-rounded technical skill set, certainly, but never forget that the gift of self-expression is absolutely one of the skills you need.

If the workplace is a microcosm of the larger world, it means improving communication everywhere starts here, with just a little more mindfulness about how well we carry ourselves in conversations and how well we listen.

About the author

    Nathan Sykes

    Nathan Sykes is a business and tech writer from Pittsburgh, PA. When he’s not thinking about IoT and cloud computing you can find him watching the Pittsburgh Penguins. To read more posts by Nathan, check out his blog, Finding an Outlet, or follow him on Twitter @nathansykestech.