Software engineering is a broad field that contains multiple subdisciplines. Naturally, with so many different domains, different skill sets are required depending on the specific area you work in. For example, having good UI/UX skills is a great bonus if you’re applying for a front-end developer position, but the same may not be the case for a back-end role.
I’ve often observed that developers, especially those who are new to the field, tend to focus on their technical skills: data structures and algorithms, design patterns, database maintenance and other similar things.
Today, though, when companies hire software engineers, they aren’t just looking for technical skills. You may have come across instances where a person with just okay programming chops got promoted ahead of more technically savvy colleagues. More often than not, that’s because technical skills are just one part of a software developer’s job; soft skills are equally important.
Of course, the ability to code is one of the core traits a developer must possess. And it certainly goes a long way toward propelling your career further. When it comes to moving up to the next level or landing that dream job, however, you need plenty more skills.
Whether you’re a developer who’s just starting out, you’re looking to make a move upwards from a mid-level position or an interviewer seeking that ideal candidate, these are three traits you should prioritize.
3 Overlooked Skills for Developers
- Problem Solving
- Testing and Debugging
Often, developers who have just arrived on the programming scene and are completely new start acquiring multiple programming languages, frameworks and shiny new tools.
Given the multitude of resources available on the internet, it’s not new developers’ faults that they want to get hands-on with every new technology. And to be fair, knowing the syntax and concepts of various languages does open more job opportunities. This technical focus comes with a downside, however.
Many aspiring programmers end up spending all their time chasing solutions , be they from Google, StackOverflow or elsewhere. Unfortunately, this creates a bunch of good Googlers who aren’t great problem solvers. Unsurprisingly, these developers lack analytical skills and strategic thinking , which becomes a roadblock when they encounter a completely foreign problem. That’s why beefing up your technical skills isn’t really the best use of your time.
At their core, most languages have the same underlying concepts. Each of them has a pseudo-English syntax, conditional statements and other constructs.
That means switching from one language to another doesn’t take a huge amount of effort. Languages come and go. Problem solving is the meta-skill that you need. It’s way more important than having a bunch of programming languages in your arsenal. So, how do you start working your problem-solving muscle?
For starters, one way to get better at problem solving is by not rushing to the code when you have an issue to fix. Solve the problem on paper first. Try breaking it down into smaller problems. There’s a reason interviewers commonly use pseudo-code to assess candidates.
It’s also worth noting that no developer can remember everything. Even the most senior person Googles things from time to time. So, it’s fine to look up answers on StackOverflow or other tutorials. But understanding how things really work rather than just copy-pasting stuff is crucial.
The ability to take up complex problems and efficiently simplify them is a highly underrated skill. One sure-fire way to build this skill is by working on your own projects. A project based-approach teaches you to break a problem down into smaller units. This helps you learn the fundamentals of development more deeply while providing the added benefit of training you to identify patterns. This pattern recognition ability teaches you to diagnose problems quickly, meaning you know what will work and what won’t as soon as you look at a new problem.
Learning programming languages is to a developer what mastering esoteric vocabulary is to a writer: It’s nice enough, but you shouldn’t spend all your time memorizing the dictionary. You must have a foundational knowledge to start communicating. Beyond a certain point, though, what matters is the art of expressing your thoughts rather than flowery language. Such is the case for the developer; someone who knows how to solve problems offers much more value than someone who just knows a bunch of languages.
Testing and Debugging
It’s not a mystery that developers hate writing tests for their own code. And they always have a love-hate relationship with software testers.
As a result, testing is one area that developers often overlook. A lot of this has to do with the fact that developers tilt toward being optimistic rather than realistic in nature. Talk to any iOS developer, for instance, and I doubt you’ll hear them mention the XCTest framework. Don’t be surprised if they haven’t used it at all.
Optimism means that plenty of developers have an emotional feeling for their code and think it’s bug-free. More often than not, then, the person writing the tests isn’t the one who wrote the code. Nevertheless, testing is an important aspect of the software development cycle.
But how does a developer convince themselves to write tests? For one, testing is the only way to prove that your code works. Secondly, it saves you from testing old features, and it ensures that the code doesn’t break anything. Finally, another important benefit of writing tests is that they help developers cover the edge cases in their code, thereby making it robust.
Having good testing skills makes a developer stand out. Sharpening your testing skills also helps you think critically, catch bugs and improve debugging skills. In fact, that’s another important skill for your toolbox as a developer.
Mistakes do happen, after all, and that’s where debugging comes in. If testing is like being a policeman for your codebase, debugging is being a detective.
Debugging is a methodological approach that requires practice to master. You can start honing this skill by having no preconceived notions or assumptions. Assumptions are the blind spots of coding. I’ve seen umpteen times when developers (and this includes me too) have wasted hours on debugging all because they assumed a faulty piece of code was correct. To avoid such blunders, question everything until you can prove it’s right.
Besides squashing bugs, debugging also improves your speed in both reading and navigating through an unfamiliar codebase. Honing your debugging skills will make you a better developer overall.
Leave aside software developers, interviewers also often overlook debugging too. One way they can assess candidates’ skills in this area is by giving hypothetical scenarios. Even better, modify their coding tests with a bunch of bugs and see how they handle things.
There’s a good chance that software developers will spend more time debugging software than writing new features. A person with poor debugging skills can eat up a lot of time and create bottlenecks in release cycles. So, I cannot stress enough how important it is to be good at debugging and to find developers with these skills.
When you’re working as a developer, there’s a good chance that you’ll be on a team with project managers and designers. You might even be in for some pair programming. This makes communication a highly relevant and underappreciated skill for developers.
I’ve seen firsthand so many software engineers who solely focus on their technical skills while completely ignoring the natural language through which we communicate every day.
The ability to communicate both orally and in writing is paramount. Offering demos, giving presentations and running scrums all require excellent communication skills.
This ability isn’t just limited to explaining your point of view to peers, either. Knowing how to put others around you at ease, handling constructive criticism, resolving arguments without getting aggressive and active listening skills are all crucial parts of being a good team member.
You might also face situations in which you need to collaborate with coworkers who lack highly detailed technical acumen. At these times, being able to talk to non-technical people with clarity matters as well. The ability to explain your work such that a layperson can understand it will make you more versatile and, ultimately, more valuable to your company.
Good communication skills will also help when you’re on the job market. Interviewers often treat a taciturn candidate as a red flag. They may see it as reflective of an inability on the interviewee’s part to express their thoughts. So, always make sure to talk and ask questions, especially when you’re stuck on a problem.
Writing is another valuable skill that developers too often overlook. Good documentation, well-argued email pitches and clearly articulated project proposals all depend on excellent writing skills. Software developers also tend to work remotely a lot, which makes written communication very important since that’s how you interact with other team members.
Good writing skills also improve your coding abilities. Having meaningful variable and function names and useful comments that give context to the enclosed code goes a long way toward ensuring that your codebase isn’t a painful mess to follow. Good code isn’t always the most clever and efficient. On the contrary, code that is simple, clear and easy to comprehend.
In the end, your colleagues won’t judge you by your codebase. Instead, the way you communicate with them will go a long way toward making a good impression. After all, any robot can write a piece of code. It’s the soft skills that set you apart.
Level Up Your Soft Skills
When it comes to software engineers, it’s true that writing code is the most important skill to be even considered for job positions. Soft skills are highly underrated, however. Problem solving, critical thinking, communication and collaboration all play a huge role in programming jobs today. It might seem odd, but working on soft skills also contributes to improving your software engineering skills as you become more empathetic and strive to write code for actual humans. More importantly, it opens up a door of opportunities to further advance your career.