The Soft Skills You Need to Succeed in a Software Career

By Tom Byrne

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Don't hire someone without first tuning in for this essential advice.

Every software developer knows they need to stay on top of the latest programming languages to remain relevant in the job market. What many often overlook is the importance of soft skills to their careers.

"Technical skills usually get a person hired," says Steve Coscia, author of the forthcoming book, The Trade Technicians Soft Skills Manual. "But the lack of soft skills is what usually gets them fired." Your company won't typically train you on such techniques, but your boss still will expect you to have them, says Coscia. That means you must take matters into your own hands.

Here are the soft skills software developers need to stand out in the workplace.

Be a Team Player

Being able to work effectively in a team is a valuable skill and one that takes time to develop. "If you want to get involved in anything reasonably complex, you'll need to work in a team," says Scott Ambler, chief methodologist for Agile/Lean at IBM's IBM Rational product. Being able to resolve conflicts peacefully is one of the main skills needed to work with a team, says Coscia. One way to develop this ability is to tap into events such as local user group meetings where you can work informally with others.

Your reputation as a team player can also be developed through the small things you do in the office. Many are so small, you probably don't even think about them. Whether it's handing a project in a few days early or buying a coworker coffee, showing such consideration will go a long way toward showing that you can work effectively with others. Following up on conversations or meetings with a phone call or email is another way to send the signal that you have the best interests of your colleagues in mind, says Coscia.

Pump Up Your Presentation Skills

Brilliant as you are, if you can't get your ideas across effectively, you're at a disadvantage, says Regina Clark, a Goshen, N.Y.-based executive coach and corporate trainer who works with IT Professionals. She suggests checking out resources like your local Toastmasters chapter, where you can meet with others to practice your public speaking and presentation skills.

Modeling, or displaying ideas visually using diagrams and charts, is an asset when making presentations, says Ambler. Whether it's working on a whiteboard or paper, learning how to diagram and break down ideas visually will help you communicate with others. "Developers need to recognize that there's value in these visual ways of communicating," says Ambler.

Check out continuing education classes in modeling and pay close attention to how others higher up in the company give presentations.

Learn to Put It in Writing

It's easy to get absorbed in the nitty-gritty of technology or coding and forget that writing about your work is crucial in letting others know what you're accomplishing, says Tom DeMarco, principle of the Atlantic Systems Guild, a systems think-tank, and co-author of the book, Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams. Being able to synthesize information clearly and concisely is a skill that will be essential as you move up in the management ranks. "That guy who can write a one-page summary of a meeting is absolutely essential," says DeMarco.

Getting involved in online discussion forums is another great way to brush up on your writing skills, suggests Ambler. "Just by interacting with other people [even online], you can improve some of your softer skills," he says.

User-friendly Thinking

Many developers are good at building interfaces for other techies, when it comes to creating a user interface for non-geeks, they don't know what their audience is looking for, says Ambler. While interface design might seem like a technical skill, it's really about paying closer attention to what end users need and how they process information so that you can better meet their needs. "If you can't interact with your stakeholders effectively, you won't be able to produce the results that they want," he says.

Brushing up on interface design, whether through coursework or studying effective examples is one way of setting yourself apart from other programmers. Knowing how to demo your work is another way to show your boss and others that you're able to take complex ideas and present them simply and clearly - an important skill for every manager to have. It's not just modeling up on a white board that's important. Practice sitting at a computer with a non-tech-savvy person and walk them through a demo of your work. You'll find it's not as simple as it seems.

Thinking long-term about your programming career means brushing up not just on your technical skills but on soft skills that make managers successful. Be mindful of how you work in teams, practice your presentation skills, look for ways to work on your writing, and learn how to demo your work effectively and you'll be priming yourself for long-term success.

(Courtesy: Jane Porter, FINS)

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