Three ‘soft skills’ for every developer’s toolbox

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Software engineers will always be motivated to move up in their careers for better pay, more flexibility and the ability to expand their skills. What they do is in demand, and paired with all of the pandemic dislocations we’ve all seen, it’s no wonder so many people are migrating. In software, this is all part of wider trends that have been given a snappy name: “The Great Resignation.” 

A study from Udemy revealed that, even before the pandemic, nearly half of the employees surveyed quit their jobs because of their managers. There are certainly talent shortages now, but even at different times, it has been common practice to promote developers quickly to fill empty management slots, even without management experience. It can be an awkward transition when someone used to relying primarily on their technical skills needs to rapidly develop the soft skills that could make them a great manager.

The same Udemy study found that almost 90% of employees value emotional intelligence in their leaders. Becoming a better manager means figuring out how to use your past experiences and strengths because that’s what you have. Now is the time to reflect on the managers you’ve crossed paths with throughout your career, and what they did or didn’t do to make you feel supported and successful. My reflection on my own transition from individual contributor to leading a technical team has surfaced some important soft skills that help me put my team first: 

Shift to a team-oriented mindset

Engineers and developers are accustomed to heads-down delivery, with focused concentration on perfecting their craft. Although some managerial roles will maintain these elements, it’s unlikely a manager will primarily focus on developing them. Instead, the focus shifts to supporting the team holistically.

Developers have a common, very understandable fear about losing their technical edge and credibility, or being deemed “post technical.” They do not actually become post-technical. Instead, their technical expertise is just put to work differently, for example, to evaluate what is a feasible plan, vs. executing it themselves.

Becoming a successful manager requires the realization that your performance is defined by your team’s success rather than by your individual capabilities. Serving the team, not your own personal technical interests, is the best investment of your time for results.

As a manager, you should be more focused on developing your teammates’ skills, removing blockers and implementing training to help them grow. And every time you might not have the answer to a question, there’s an opportunity to empower someone on your team to position them as the expert. Because, realistically, making the whole team 1% better is a better investment overall than improving yourself by 5%. 

Embrace empathy   

Your team members may be technical people, but they’re first and foremost themselves. As much as developers work with computers, they are not machines. We’re human beings with aspirations – not resources or opaque task execution units. Becoming a manager reminds us that we’re all human, and channeling each individual’s strengths as a collective is better for getting things done. 

In a managerial role, it’s critical to create a continuous line of communication with your team members. We’re human and it’s not possible to “always say the right thing,” so focus on openness and being able to talk again. Build rapport so you understand what they want out of their career and help them develop a plan to get there.

It’s important for managers to have “strong opinions loosely held,” meaning sustaining a strong point of view to be decisive while serving as an active listener with a willingness to be persuaded differently. This lets a team get clear, unambiguous guidance that indicates where to go, without being cast in concrete.

There’s no simple pattern or method that fits each organization or team, and that’s because we’re all inherently different. Rather than being overly simplistic by “staying flexible,” managers can really aim to understand their team members and treat them as individuals. Working with actual individuals will always present options no shallow business or management book could advise you on, if you learn how to look for them.

Focus on big-picture thinking 

As the manager, you should know how your team generates value for the rest of the organization.  By necessity, software developers need to be heads-down in a lot of details; the inverse soft skill is getting out of those details and seeing the bigger picture for success. 

Developers might discuss refactoring a particular code module to make subsequent changes easier or even just fixing a bug. The larger value often isn’t actually the technology or feature. But rather the ability to develop new things faster, or reduce user friction. Managers act as “translation machines”: software engineers will deal with concepts like technical debt, the wider business will deal with ideas like user satisfaction and development velocity.   

Doing this translation requires understanding how the wider business outside of your team thinks. Being able to describe the CEO’s goals for the company all the way down to what one of your team members is doing this week, demonstrates a greater understanding of not only your team, but the organization as a whole. Why does your team’s work matter?

Practice. Rinse. Repeat.

So, how do managers develop these skills? The only way is to practice. Those with strength in any skill expose themselves to structured practice. There’s no real magic or “shortcut hack.”  Being intentional about the skills you want to build and continuously putting them into practice is truly the only way to constantly improve. 

These focuses of practice come from two places: internal and external.  In the external world, you pick mentors – someone who is either in your role with a number of years more experience or someone who is in the role you aspire to have one day – and ask for advice.

A good mentor will help you identify patterns, weaknesses, and build relationships to help you grow. Internal practice comes from developing clarity about your personal goals and motivations. The ultimate soft skill is to work on attenuating, not eliminating, your weaknesses and honing your strengths. 

David Allen is senior director of developer relations at Neo4j. 

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