Soft Skills for Developers: Your Guide To Getting and Growing a Career
What is it that separates exceptional programmers from good ones? You might think that it’s innate talent or technical knowledge. Or it could be years of experience or even the support of a great team. But have you ever wondered if it’s something a bit more nebulous, maybe a bit hard to describe? That elusive quality is called soft skills.
According to research, there’s definitely something about the role of soft skills in helping a developer become the absolute best candidate for a job.
But what exactly is the role of soft skills in a programmer’s career? And could they be the answer to growth, success, and everyday workplace challenges?
To try and answer these questions, I’ve decided to study the cold, hard data. By looking up studies, reports, surveys, and published books from the realm of business, I’ve found that soft skills definitely play a part in becoming a better employee and developer.
It turns out that they’re not just vital when getting started with a career in programming. Perhaps even more importantly, these nontechnical competencies appear to make the difference between good and outstanding work. Moreover, soft skills seem to be the key to overcoming common barriers IT professionals deal with daily, making those skills an essential part of any developer’s toolbox.
What Employers Want From Candidates
Every journey begins with an initial step. And in the context of paving one’s professional path, that means getting a first job.
Without getting the opportunity to work on real-life projects, big or small, IT professionals simply cannot gain the necessary insight and experience into how programming works. Sure, they can (and should) do as much studying and practicing as practical on their own. They can finish courses and degrees or work on personal projects to give themselves a challenge. But that’s not the same as answering a client’s demands or working together with colleagues to find the best possible solution to a problem.
So it’s clear that the real work toward becoming a professional programmer starts with getting a job. And it turns out that soft skills are just as relevant as technical know-how for doing so.
For example, take the 2016 industry-specific survey conducted in Wellington, New Zealand. It found that when faced with a choice, employers in the region preferred to make their hiring decisions based on soft, instead of hard, skills. In fact, they favored working with candidates whose technical skills were at base-level but who displayed sought-after personal traits. The reason? It turns out that most positions could afford detailed on-the-job training. Soft skills, however, can be extremely difficult to acquire.
Interestingly enough, the data from New Zealand is in line with global findings as well.
In January 2021, a group of researchers published a study titled “What Skills Do IT Companies Look for in New Developers? A Study With Stack Overflow Jobs.” As a valuable statistical resource for anyone in the IT sector, the paper studied more than 20,000 job opportunities for programmers over three months in 2019, identifying the most sought-after skills. In addition to technical knowledge, these opportunities focused heavily on soft skills. The most commonly mentioned personal traits included:
- Communication—listed in 32% of the job opportunities
- Collaboration—with the word team appearing in 22% of the job posts
- Problem-solving—found in 15% of ads
Similar results can be seen from other published studies.
“Understanding Soft Skills Requirements for Mobile Applications Developers,” published in 2017, identifies responsibility, the initiative in meeting challenging work, positive attitude to work, and coding habit as preferable candidate qualities. And “Soft Skills – An Important Key for Employability in the ‘Shift to a Service Driven Economy’ Era” from 2013, points out that employers want programmers who are self-learners, expressive, and service-oriented.
Common Workplace Challenges in the IT Industry
The resources quoted above bring up some fascinating data about the value of soft skills in programmers’ careers. But the thing is, getting a job is not the only reason to invest in personal growth.
It turns out that some of the most common workplace challenges in the IT industry have to do with soft skills such as communication, collaboration, work habits, problem-solving, and self-reliance. And there are several reports that show how impactful personal competencies can be in overcoming those frequently occurring difficulties.
First and foremost, there’s the 2018 Statista report, which studied the difficulties met by global open-source developers. According to this document, programmers pointed out the following obstacles they regularly faced:
- 49% said they struggled with a lack of training opportunities.
- 27% complained of silos (the unwillingness to share information) between departments.
- 22% didn’t have access to the necessary hardware tools.
- 16% faced a lack of essential software.
Then there’s a case study published on arXiv in January 2021. It looked at the workflows of multidisciplinary teams. Quite interestingly, it found that AI developers often had trouble conveying highly technical information and details to their nondeveloper collaborators and stakeholders. The researchers identified four common communication gaps, including:
- Knowledge gaps due to mismatched expertise
- Difficulty establishing trust across disciplines
- Problems with setting and managing stakeholders’ expectations
- Communication gaps from a shared mental models lens
Finally, this deep-dive into the importance of soft skills couldn’t be complete without GitLab’s 2018 Global Developer Report.
One of the most insightful documents of its kind, this document mentions the following struggles as being common among IT professionals:
- 31% of developers and 23% of managers said project expectations and requirements were not set upfront.
- 67% of programmers stated lack of transparency.
- 58% had trouble replacing ingrained practices.
- 50% had to deal with resistance to change.
- 26% felt like they lacked leadership support.
- 21% worked in an organization that nurtured a risk-averse culture.
How Soft Skills Offer a Solution
We understand the nontechnical difficulties programmers have to overcome as part of a regular workday, and we know the traits employers want from their IT staff. So let’s look at the concrete ways soft skills can help launch a developer’s career or, even better, drive it to new heights.
Emphasizing Soft Skills To Establish Your Personal Brand
The fact that businesses want (and even prioritize) soft skills when hiring shows that professionals must learn how to present their marketable personal traits to potential employers. Yes, self-presentation and self-promotion can be difficult. However, when done right, they can determine the course of an entire career.
For example, an organization with a strong growth culture won’t just consider a candidate’s aptitude to do a given job. More likely than not, such a company will be looking to find individuals with the potential for moving up the ranks, with a possible leadership position in their future. And soft skills will, naturally, be the best way to determine whether a candidate is a good match.
Therefore, when developing your personal brand (and you must come to terms with being more than “just” a programmer—you are a professional entity of its own), you need to identify and show off your most prominent values.
What is it that makes you special and sets you apart from your peers? Is it your ability to thrive under pressure? Your knowledge of a foreign language? Or could it be your positive experiences of working as part of a team?
Whichever of these traits you recognize in yourself, it’s crucial that you know how to present them—both in person during interviews and through digital communication methods.
When building a portfolio website to showcase your work (or sending out CVs and cover letters), pay attention to the small details you use to describe yourself. Even something as elementary as mentioning a specific collaborative experience can be a determining factor in landing a job.
Practice describing your experiences, successes, and past challenges. Point out the lessons you’ve learned from previous projects, as well as the tools and solutions, you used to overcome obstacles. Being adept at painting a picture might just be the thing that helps you land a job or promotion.
Sure, self-presentation is difficult. But do it right (while remaining honest, of course), and you’ll have an instant leg-up on your journey to a dream career in programming.
Asking for What You Need
According to the statistical data quoted above, lack of training and leadership support plague programmers. Moreover, 40% of all employees leave their positions due to insufficient development opportunities. This is an unambiguous signal that there’s a real need for all professionals to take a more active role in career growth.
But how good are we at actually advocating for ourselves? It turns out that most of us only fare so-so.
According to Linda Babcock, author of the book titled Women Don’t Ask, women’s salary requests are at least 30% lower than men’s. And even when asking for a raise, they’re 25% less likely to receive one. Sally Helgesen’s work suggests that women and men often have different ways of quantifying achievement. According to the author, women are often willing to accept personal sacrifices to better contribute to team success.
So how can all programmers advocate for themselves better?
Well, the first step is to learn how to value their own work. In the book Soft Skills to Advance Your Developer Career, author Zsolt Nagy suggests a three-step course of action for negotiating better working conditions:
- Finding out the value of your work on the market
- Developing clarity about your values and what you offer to an organization
- Preparing and practicing the offer you’ll make to your superior
And yes, Nagy’s focus seems to be money-oriented. But, the same principles can be applied to any need that’s not being met at your place of work—be it training, mentorship, equipment, team support, or better overall working conditions.
In a competitive industry such as IT, it can be easy falling into the trap of putting the organization’s goals ahead of your own. Especially when thinking that the experience will be worth the sacrifice. But remember, taking care that your needs are met is just as important.
Think about it this way—even highly personal behaviors like sleep and physical activity can have a profound impact on your professional path. And research has shown that 40% of women have had to quit their jobs to regain a bearable work-life balance.
So don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. Be it a higher salary, a training opportunity, or time off for some much-needed self-care, knowing that you’re getting what you deserve is, ultimately, what’s going to drive you to reach your full potential.
Of course, when making a demand, you must prepare for the possibility that it may not be met. In this case, you’ll have to decide whether that is something you’re willing to live with or if it’s a sign that it’s time to move on to new career pursuits.
Overcoming Communication Gaps
Let’s reflect on communication, the most sought-after soft skill in developers. According to data, teams often have to deal with discrepancies between members’ technical knowledge. For this reason, the primary concern for programmers looking to become better collaborators is learning how to present their ideas successfully regardless of their conversation partner’s background.
One way to further your communication skill is to think about how you convey information. Do you tend to speak quickly in highly technical terms and expect people to catch on, or do you slow things down and go back to basics? A 2003 research study showed that speech rate and complexity affected comprehension in both younger and older adults. Moreover, a 2011 study from the University of Phoenix found that even email structure (sentence complexity, greetings, and word use) affected the efficiency with which team members communicated within an organization.
Moreover, think about how you use language. Do you explain through metaphors and analogies? Research suggests that these figures of speech drive learning and information retention. With this information in mind, it could be quite handy to add them to your repertoire. It’s also helpful to think about how you can back up abstract ideas with visual aids. We know that the human brain retains visual information 60,000 times faster than words. So why not use images to your advantage?
It’s also a good practice to put yourself in your colleagues’ shoes. Perhaps you could help them understand your reasoning better if you offered some insight into your work process.
For example, one of the teams from the arXiv study found that they could improve inter-team understanding by allowing developers to chat by the side of their code. This way, each individual could get a much-welcome context when looking at other people’s work, increasing the chance of making the right decisions for the project.
Think about it. It’s a fascinating way to look at the nature of communication—even more so if you consider that developers’ social competencies have a direct link to the quality of their work.
Leading Instead of Managing
While we’re on the subject of collaboration and its impact on team achievements, let’s look at an article published by the Informing Science Institute. According to a 2009 research paper, project success is influenced by company structure. More specifically, it appears that leadership is more relevant for achieving goals than management style.
But what does this finding mean?
Well, it draws attention to a distinction that career experts have been addressing for a while: Managing is not the same as leading. The key difference is that while leaders have followers that believe in their vision, managers have workers who merely complete assignments.
So how does one become a leader?
Well, according to Marshall Goldsmith, for a person to become a visionary who’s capable of bringing others together, they must be ready to:
- Ask questions
- Listen to the answers
- Acknowledge successes
- Involve people in the decision-making process
- Make difficult changes based on feedback and experience
- Repeat the process regularly
Moreover, ensuring cohesive team dynamics rests on the foundations of trust and honesty. That includes daring to be vulnerable, being prepared to give up total control, and mustering the courage to change ingrained practices.
Looking at the resources quoted above, it’s evident that developers who want to take on higher-level roles must first come to terms with their own strengths and weaknesses. They must muster up the courage to ask for help, and learn how to truly listen to feedback (even when it’s not positive). And they have to understand that inspiring people means putting personal wins aside and focusing on team accomplishments instead.
Ensuring Better Results
Unrealistic deadlines, unplanned obstacles, and organizational oversights aren’t exclusive to the IT industry. However, they present a challenge to a great majority of programmers. It is for this reason that the soft skills of time management, self-discipline, adaptability, and ability to seek motivation have such a big impact on one’s career.
But the one skill that often gets overlooked (or unfairly put in the same category as communication) is attentive, critical listening.
Whether developers answer to team leaders or clients directly, knowing how to get to the essence of things has a huge impact on the success of a project. And to do so, they must learn how to be curious and critical.
When discussing listening for instructions, experts always suggest an active approach. But note that critical listening doesn’t just mean being attentive (as if there’s going to be a test afterward). More importantly, it involves taking notes, asking questions, and finishing the meeting with a spoken and written summary.
Something as elementary as sending a post-meeting email with the main points discussed can help avoid communication oversights. Plus, it can be of great help in putting together to-do lists and project planning. And when you shine in your current job, it helps you prepare the way to get the next job.
Accepting Failure and Managing Risks
Finally, we have to address the fact that each job has its ups and downs. And learning how to handle the low points is just as critical a skill as having the technical knowledge to create a great product.
Think of it this way: One in five developers work in risk-averse organizations. Sure, avoiding complications altogether may look like the best way to ensure the success of a project. But it can also be an obstacle to breaking barriers.
Exceptional programming work depends on innovation. And innovation means working with unknown elements.
Whether you’re experimenting with new coding languages, deconstructing accepted ways of thinking about a problem, or trying to find the best way to answer consumer needs, you’ll have to bite the bullet and put yourself out there. And, more often than not, that means accepting the fact that you may not get the results you were after.
That’s why knowing how to assess and mitigate risks offers a great advantage in handling (and successfully finishing) jobs. By being critical enough to understand the downsides of a direction (such as using open-source software) and being objective enough to weigh the pros and cons of a decision, developers can become more efficient at risk mitigation, allowing them to achieve bigger gains than by simply sticking to standard practices.
Taking Control of Your Career With Soft Skills
As you can see, there’s no lack of evidence that personality traits matter in a developer’s career whether through landing a job, overcoming common organizational challenges, or simply becoming better with every job done.
Therefore, IT professionals must understand the importance of personal development. By learning how to be objective about their strengths and weaknesses, as well as identifying areas that need development, they can substantially affect their professional success.
It’s worth noting that developing soft skills takes not only determination but courage and vulnerability as well. After all, becoming a better version of ourselves cannot come around without being aware of our drawbacks. And usually, those are the most difficult parts of ourselves to accept.