As programmers or aspiring programmers, we often focus on the technical skills we need to build software. We work on improving our programming skills, picking up new frameworks, or reading technical books to improve our knowledge of computer science.
However, those technical skills will only get us so far. As with most careers, we need to expand our learning and also focus on professional skills. And actually, these skills will make the technical side easier, as we’ll have more clarity on what we need to do to solve problems.
In this post, we’ll go over what non-programming skills programmers need to use in our jobs.
First and foremost, we need to be able to communicate with our fellow programmers, analysts, product managers, and customers. Without clear communication skills, requirements get lost or misunderstood. As a result of poor communication, programmers might build the wrong solution to the problem. Or their solution might make things difficult or clunky for the user because the programmer didn’t understand the problem correctly.
A lot can go wrong with communication. And since communication is the most important skill that we’ll cover, let’s break it down further.
Listen With Empathy
Active listening skills require effort and practice. And oftentimes, we listen with the intent to respond or with the intent to look like we already know something we actually don’t. However, without good listening skills, we’re going to have a really bad time.
Taking it a step further, I promote listening and communicating with empathy.
Now, listening with empathy doesn’t mean always agreeing with the other side. It means listening fully and giving the speaker your attention. And it means that you look at the problem from their perspective so that you can understand where they’re coming from. Then, once you’ve heard their message, restate it in your own words and follow up with questions. And don’t jump in with your solutions or ideas until you understand their side.
When you listen with empathy, you not only get the information you need, but you also build a relationship with the person you’re talking to.
Ask Probing Questions
When we get requirements from customers or product managers, we need to ask questions to make sure we understand the problem we’re solving. And we will need to learn how to ask questions that get us more information. We do that with probing questions.
For example, if you’re working with your product manager to define a new application feature, asking yes and no questions may get you some clarity around requirements. However, you may miss out on important details or backstories that the product manager doesn’t know you may need.
Asking probing questions may be difficult at first. If you can’t think of good questions, start by asking “Can you explain the background a little bit more?” or “Can you tell me more about what you mean?” Then give the speaker time to fill you in on additional information. Often, this will be information that they know but perhaps didn’t realize that you needed as well.
You want to be able to share ideas in an unambiguous way so that you can be assured that everyone is on the same page. And we need to figure out what unspoken assumptions exist. For example, product managers may assume that reporting components automatically come along with the work you’re doing. However, you see that as a separate stream of work.
So, when gathering requirements and reviewing stories, ask questions to pull out unspoken assumptions. And make sure tasks and stories have clearly defined acceptance criteria and examples of what successful behavior looks like in the application.
In short, eliminating ambiguity will make sure that everyone understands the problem and solution in the same way.
Clearly Share Your Ideas
Sharing your ideas and viewpoints also requires skill. Whether you share them verbally or in written form, you need to make it clear. Use language that your target audience understands. And be overly specific on what you mean so that, again, we eliminate ambiguity as much as possible.
Communication has multiple facets. And it’s a skill that you’ll be improving over your whole career. Take time to assess your communication skills and see where you can improve.
2. Time Management
Whenever we’re writing an application or building a product, many tasks compete for our attention. And we need to be able to organize our day to complete the tasks efficiently.
Time management also requires prioritization. It’s not enough that we have planned out our time accordingly. We also want to make sure that we’re working on the highest priority and highest value tasks first.
When managing your time, follow these tips to get started:
- Prioritize your work so that you’re working on the most important tasks first.
- Give yourself blocks of time to do in-depth programming and deep thinking. Block off your calendar when you want uninterrupted time.
- Don’t try to multitask. Context switching between tasks will make all of them take longer, and it will leave you feeling frazzled.
- Divide large, and sometimes overwhelming, tasks into smaller chunks. Making progress on small parts of a larger problem will help you complete them and feel motivated by being able to see your progress.
3. Independent Learning
Another of the non-programming skills programmers need is the ability to learn. The ability to learn will get you far in programming. And you’ll need more than the ability to learn new technologies or patterns. You’ll also need to learn new business rules and product domains.
Whenever you’re going into a new company or product team, take good notes, do some research, and get a solid understanding of the problem space that you’ll be working in. And then, to really solidify that knowledge, teach someone else. For example, find a buddy at work with whom you can continue the learning cycle by teaching each other things you’re trying to learn. Or write a blog about it, taking extra care to be very clear and explicit in your writing so that everyone can understand it.
Another tip that will help your independent and continued learning involves lists. Make a list of things you want to learn or words and statements that you don’t fully understand. Then take time to investigate and cross them off your list once you’ve mastered the concept.
For programmers, learning is something we’ll have to do our entire career. There is rarely a point where you feel like you’ve really completely figured something out. So, see if there’s a way you can make it fun and develop your learning skill along the way.
Last on our list of non-programming skills programmers need, self-awareness will help you assess your skills and interpersonal communications. Being able to look objectively at how you work with others and what your strengths and weaknesses are will get you ahead.
Many people don’t take the time to see how their actions affect others. As with listening with empathy, we need to periodically see what we can do about improving ourselves. Do we communicate with compassion and inspire others? Or do we knock them down to show our superiority? And do we make sure people feel included in activities and welcome?
These questions and more will help you see how your behaviors affect others. And ultimately, we all want to work with others that respect us and that we have fun working with. So be the person that you want to work with.
To succeed in programming, you’ll have to develop those technical chops. But those skills won’t make you successful on their own. Take time to develop your non-technical skills as well. Knowing what non-programming skills programmers need and fostering them in yourself will help create a long and successful career in programming, where you’ll build relationships and improve yourself along the way.