7 Must-Have Career Skills for any Programmer
In the ever-changing IT industry, any modern-day professional is required to handle tasks with flexibility and provide the utmost quality with their service. With this in mind, it is in your favor to develop certain key skills that will turn your pile of assignments into a fully checked off to-do list!
A survey-based study conducted by LinkedIn, listing the most wanted talent traits of 2019, presents soft skills as one of four main qualities that are in demand, noting that with the rise of AI/automation changing the job market, 92% of talent professionals and hiring managers agree that candidates with strong soft skills are increasingly important.
If you are still doubting the importance of strong soft skills, consider that Google conducted an in-depth survey ranking the skills they value most based on data gathered all the way back to the founding of the company in 1998. The most productive employees are not the ones with the highest STEM expertise (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) but rather seem to be the ones who possess excellent interpersonal skills such as:
- being a good coach
- communicating and listening well
- possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view)
- having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues
- being a good critical thinker and problem solver
- being able to make connections across complex ideas
As you can see, possessing high quality soft skills are just as important as being a competent programmer. Luckily, those are also skills that can be cultivated with the right mindset and consistent effort. Not to mention, there are multiple tips on how you can raise your professional appeal, such as the ones listed below, each equipped with specific examples for optimal success rate.
Time Management and Task Distribution
From my experience working in a custom software development company, managing your time is perhaps the most important skill when working a job. Here are a few tactics you can implement to immediately raise your productivity levels.
- Keep a to-do list to avoid an important task from slipping your mind and to stay on top of deadlines.
- Break down big assignments into smaller tasks, and prioritize them by importance or difficulty, and then start working on them one at a time until finished.
- Be aware of how much work you can realistically finish. Do not take on more than you can handle to avoid burning out or having to submit subpar work due to running out of time.
- Dedicate to and write down your long-term and short-term goals. Try to plan out the next day, week, or month if possible with the project information you have. If you cannot plan due to missing information, track what you have done at the end of the day to stay accountable.
If you want to check out more techniques and practical exercises, you can find plenty in Brian Tracy’s: Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time. The title itself is a nod to Mark Twain, who famously said: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day,” as well as a principle to follow, described at length in one of the chapters.
In essence, tackle the task you are most likely to procrastinate on first thing in the morning, and dealing with everything else within the day will be a piece of cake.
Know When to Take a Break
As far as productivity goes, it only counts if you are working at a high-quality capacity. A study conducted by the University of Illinois states: “The brain gradually stops registering a sight, sound or feeling if that stimulus remains constant over time.” However, if you take a small break every once in a while, you can be sure that your active time is spent as efficiently as possible.
Some programmers have expressed an opinion that getting their eyes off the code for a few minutes takes the attention away from nitpicking at the small, distracting mistakes in the code and toward the problem as a whole and allows them to work out a good solution.
Here are a few guidelines that can help you in order to take breaks that will actually make you a more efficient programmer:
- Know when to take a break. Breaks serve the best purpose when you feel stuck working on a solution. Stepping away from a task when you start getting frustrated will help you work better when you get back.
- Make them mindful and with a purpose. Make a cup of coffee, or pour yourself some water. Take a bathroom break, or go grab yourself a quick snack.
- Give your eyes a rest. Take your eyes off the screen, and look around in a space where you can see farther than a meter ahead of you. This allows for your eyes to rest, and not get too tired or give you an unnecessary headache or blurred vision when the optic nerve tightens up.
- Movement and light exercise can refresh the blood circulation in your body. You can do some light stretches, office yoga, meditation, a few pushups, jump around—if you feel like it—or simply walk around for a few minutes. Get that blood flow back in your head, and enjoy the renewed energy. Of course, remember to do this in a place where you will not disrupt your colleagues’ workflow.
- Chatting with friends can be very refreshing and allows you to get back to work with a renewed vigor. However, you should be wary of doing this too often, as it can cause you to disrupt your working groove.
And speaking of groove, you might be wondering: “If I am in the zone, why would I want to interrupt that? What if I cannot get back in the groove?” Naturally, it is entirely up to the developer to decide when a break would be the most beneficial or if it would simply end up being a distraction instead.
Without a doubt, a must-have quality for any modern IT professional is the ability to communicate effectively. Here are two ways to improve your communication habits:
Active listening plays a huge role. Show your colleagues they have your complete attention by maintaining eye contact and asking questions that are directly related to the subject matter. Try to avoid stating your own opinions until you are asked, as you might end up cutting them off from what they are about to say.
Hearing the speaker out without interrupting or jumping to conclusions will show them you are more interested in hearing what they have to say and will gain you the same respect when you speak.
Another good tip would be to use expressions, saying “yeah” or “mhm,” and nodding at appropriate times to display your interest. Be careful, though, as doing this too much could make you come off as fake and serve the opposite effect.
Convey Your Ideas Using Both Common Speech and IT Terminology
Develop both communicational skills within the team using technical language but also make sure you can communicate with people who are not as well-versed in the IT department. Learn how to simplify your language as to convey your ideas and present your work in an understandable way for people outside of the industry.
As a programmer, you need to not only create a good product but also communicate with clients and sometimes even the wide public that would be using your product. Mastering this will allow for more opportunities for you, even outside of the programmer's work description, and crack the door open to different positions such as project manager or team lead.
When talking, try to be as brief as you can, but still say what needs to be said. Nowadays, the probability that you will lose attention on the subject matter is quite high.
If being brief is not an option for the subject matter, try to assess the team’s knowledge of the technical subject, meet them at their level of knowledge (terminology, examples, and so on) and provide visual material to keep the focus, such as charts and graphs, make a presentation, or ask questions.
You need to consistently and constantly be looking to improve on your current organizational and working methods to better your results in the long term. Willingness to change your routine in order to accommodate your task at hand is how you make the most of your projects and submit high-quality work.
Along with implementing self-improvement techniques, keep productivity up, and fill the calmer times with initiative. Research more ways to apply your knowledge of the technology you are working with or add on to your current skill set by learning new aspects of it.
Assuming you have finished all your tasks, ask your teammates If they need help with something they are working on. By doing this, you will build a stronger bond between you and your colleagues. If not, pick a task from the backlog (it is usually full). Additionally, by keeping busy, you maintain the habit of consistent work. Remember, “A habit is built in 30 days but broken in one.”
Be available if your colleagues need advice on something they are working on. In programming, projects are handled by working in teams, and if a teammate is stuck on a certain aspect, it can delay the overall quality of the end product. And so, taking a bit of your time to help can be beneficial to the team and in correlation to you as a part of it.
Proactivity is an important quality for problem-solving along with being decisive. IT recruitment is always on the lookout for that one person who has that extra quality that makes them better than the average developer. Plus, any skill and experience adds on to your CV and skillset, allowing you to either advance in your current position or have a shot at a raise.
Having a reputation of being a consistently improving individual, as well as a team player, raises your professional value.
According to a 2017 survey, the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that “ability to work in a team” was the most commonly desired attribute among new college graduates.
Simply knowing your colleagues can raise your productivity within a team atmosphere. However, getting to know your colleagues can be a tricky task. Try to stay open-minded when communicating and getting to know them. Approach any task you need to do alongside a team member by keeping their personality-type in mind.
Here are three examples of common personality types and how to approach them based on their characteristics and strong traits:
- Task-oriented people often prefer a direct and factual approach when working with others. They like to stay focused on their task, as they feel successful when they check off another assignment. You do not want to go into deep detail or be repetitive in your conversations here. Keep any discussions short and to the point.
- Detail-oriented people, on the other hand, prefer to know everything about the project. They like to feel in control and as though they’ve done everything absolutely right. Set realistic, accurate expectations, and follow through on your end, answering all their questions before moving on. If you believe something will benefit the project, provide written, detailed information to back up your claim, as they will definitely be asking for it.
- Creative people are outgoing, communicative, and overall very good at suggesting their ideas. They have a tendency to process information by association and are really good at assimilating visual information such as pictures and graphs. They work best with smaller groups where they can take on more dynamic tasks, openly express creative approaches to problem-solving, and at the same time, have the ability to be heard.
Of course, these are just some personality examples. There are many, and people are rarely only one individual type. You’ll need to assess every situation at hand and proceed accordingly.
When working in a team, divide the work based on each person’s professional expertise for optimal results. While it is being broken down into individual tasks, frequent meetings and other means of communication play a huge role in making sure the different puzzle pieces, each done by a different person, fit together.
Make sure to also be available to your colleagues in case they need clarification on certain details. You should be willing to help if needed and ask for help in order to finish the project in the best way possible.
Teamwork as a programmer goes far beyond simply knowing how to talk to different types of people, of course. You also want to be building a relationship that makes developers feel comfortable sharing their work with you.
Brian Fitzpatrick and Ben Collins-Sussman wrote a book describing the way that the working-in-a-team aspect of the job changes the effectiveness of the software development process. In Team Geek: A Software Developer's Guide to Working Well with Others, they paint a picture of a better working process using very helpful metaphors and cover actual ways to apply their methods when coding and working in a team.
Programming is essentially being able to come up with a solution to various problems, both small or big. When working, you should always be asking yourself why an improvement is necessary; why the current solution (or lack thereof) causes an inconvenience that needs to be changed.
Here is an example how to tackle a problem and then resolve it, step-by-step:
- Problem: I need to drink some water, and I do not have any.
- Why: Water is needed to support proper function of the human body.
- How do I resolve the issue?
- Start by isolating the source of any issue or the need for a new solution implementation: lack of water.
- Break the problem into its containing elements: Take money, take keys, lock the door, get in the car, make sure the car has gas, locate a store, drive to the store, find the water isle, choose a bottle of water, proceed to the cashing register, wait in line, pay, receive change, open bottle, drink water.
- Tackle each element until each is resolved: For example, the task take money is resolved by performing actions such as finding the bag, reaching into the bag, finding the wallet, calculating the needed amount, taking the money.
- Piece them together in the correct order, and make sure they work well together—polish the overall solution! By carrying out each task and its corresponding elements, we reach the solution: I drank the water, and the issue is resolved.
This is a simple example that can be applied to any problem: IT related or within our day-to-day lives.
Physical Strength Helps Intellectual Strength
As a developer, you probably spend a considerable amount of your time sitting at your desk working out solutions. While this can certainly be resultful, it can also be the cause of some unpleasant health hazards such as back pain, muscle soreness, eye damage over time, and not to mention circulation issues.
Here are a few ways you can work on having a better quality of life while maintaining a strong workday productivity:
- Make your snack healthier. Nowadays, you have access to just about any food you can possibly have. Make an effort to eat snacks that have a good balance between fats, proteins, and carbs, and make sure you eat enough of each group. Also, don’t forget your fibers! Here are some examples: protein bar/shake, yogurt, dark chocolate, nuts, crackers, salads, jerky.
- As we covered earlier, taking breaks, and moving around in the office with light exercises, office yoga, a massage—if available—is beneficial for feeling better instantly.
- Make physical activity a part of your weekly routine. Join a yoga class, start jogging, go to the gym, hike on weekends, or join a sport. According to Harvard Health Publishing: “Exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means. The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.”
Physical activity strongly influences the quality of your mental work capacity. We all know programmers are strictly dependant on their intellect, so making sure they think clearly is a top priority. There are various apps now both for iOS and Android that offer daily workouts designed for your specific needs with the added bonus of keeping you accountable.
Stand Out From the Pack
More than ever before, the demand to be a good employee extends beyond simply your professional experience and technical expertise. While it is true that there is a very high demand for software developers, in order to be able to compete for the best job opportunities, one should extend their quest for professional development by polishing interpersonal skills and achieving a higher quality of life.
By applying these tips for stronger soft skills to your mindset and daily routine, you will become the one who stands out from the pack. You already have the needed soft skills to a certain degree. With mindful action and dedication, you will watch yourself grow and evolve to be the best you can be.