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5 Soft Skills to Be Successful in Software Development

Ravi Rajan is a program director working in India. He writes articles on technology trends and their impact on the basic needs of humankind

This article talks about the essential soft skills required to be successful in software development.

This article talks about the essential soft skills required to be successful in software development.

What Are Soft Skills?

If we refer to the Oxford Dictionary, we will get the following definition of soft skills,

“Personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people.”

In other words, soft skills are personal traits that help people realize their potential and showcase their talents and skills. It can be empathy, the ability to work in a team, enthusiasm, etc.

But do these skills really impact a software developer’s work? Yes, and a lot.

In a 2014 speech to graduates of the Stanford Online High School in California, Stephen Wolfram, the creator of the Mathematica software app and the CEO of Wolfram Research, reiterated the same when he said,

“People who go furthest are not the ones with the best technical skills, but the ones who have the best strategy for figuring out what to do.”

Developers sometimes need to remember that software development is a team sport, and a project is a mutual task for a group of people who must work side by side, support each other, and move towards a single goal.

So, if a person is too arrogant, has no passion for work, or is not able to communicate efficiently, this will have a negative impact not only on his work but on the whole project by delaying it or screwing up some of its parts.

John Z. Sonmez, career coach and professional speaker, promotes the same idea in his book “Soft Skills: The software developer’s life manual”. The author claims that coding is the fun part for most software developers, with cultivating soft skills being the harder one, and explains why soft skills should not be ignored.

John articulates the five vital soft skills worth following to succeed in software development.

1. Be Modest
2. Be Empathetic
3. Be Positive
4. Be a Listener
5. Provide Clarity

1. Be Modest

Pride is the downfall of many heroes.

Mr. Darcy, from Jane Austen's famous book "Pride and Prejudice “had to let go of his pride before he could earn Elizabeth Bennet’s love. Dante listed it as one of the seven deadly sins. And the famous (and often misquoted) verse from Proverbs cautions us against pride as it says,

"Pride Goeth Before Destruction, and a Haughty Spirit Before a Fall"

There is no question about it. What defines being modest is a quiet understanding that you are good at what you do, but you do not expect others to praise you excessively.

Learn to be open to constructive criticism by leaving your ego at the door. Allow yourself to listen first before passing your fountain of knowledge. Even people lesser experienced than you can come up with a new perspective or might even help solve your most unsolvable problem.

Every input is valuable regardless of the person it is coming from. Successful developers welcome and are open to hearing the thoughts, ideas, and opinions of others. Rather than seeking others to approve of them, they are more interested in seeing how others can help them achieve the project's overall success.

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2. Be Empathetic

The Oxford Dictionary defines it as the “ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

Empathy is the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions, or experiences of others. Empathy is more than simple sympathy, which is understanding and supporting others with compassion or sensitivity. Simply put, empathy is the ability to step into someone else’s shoes, be aware of their feelings and understand their needs.

And in the workplace, empathy means showing deep respect for co-workers and showing that you care, as opposed to just going by rules and regulations.

Conflicts do happen in the workplace. Sometimes you're mistaken, and sometimes they are right. Be mindful while arguing your case, and remember to keep your ego outside the door. Too much aggression can quickly become a slippery slope and can erode the trust between you and your colleagues.

Listening to others' opinions does not mean you have to agree. It is always possible you discover a caveat in your opinion you still need to think of. You may also hate or even feel the urge to mock the idea. But hey! This is not high school. You are an adult! You have earned the right to behave like one.

Listen, talk, and discuss. Trust yourself and your co-workers to see the light at the end of the conference room table.

3. Be Positive

This is easier said than done. It is not possible to be positive 100% of the time. But we can do to adjust our usual disposition and be slightly more upbeat than usual.

Your attitude is a form of expression of yourself. You can choose to be happy, positive, and optimistic, or you can choose to be pessimistic and critical, with a negative outlook on your workday. A positive attitude helps you cope better under stressful situations at work.

And if you want to develop a positive attitude at work, you must learn to be a team player. One of the most critical positive things most team players do is shouldering those responsibilities they are not keen on. Still, you understand they are necessary for the welfare of the team in the future.

Remember, a bad attitude is a severe liability in the workplace. It will prevent you from getting promotions, limit your networking efforts, and even get you fired. On the other hand, a positive attitude can open doors that you did not even know existed.

4. Be a Listener

Alfred Brendel has rightly said.

“The word listen contains the same letters as the word silent.”

The ability to listen keenly is a prized workplace skill and one of the traits of a successful developer. But only a few developers know how to practice active listening very well. Failing to understand what is being communicated to you can be costly to clients, customers, and superiors.

A recent study at George Washington University showed that listening could influence up to 40% of a developer's job performance. There is so much talking happening at work that listening opportunities get ignored.

We talk to provide feedback, explain instructions, and communicate deadlines. Beyond the spoken words, there is invaluable information to be deciphered through tone of voice, body language, and what is not said.

In other words, failing to keep your ears (and eyes) open could leave you out of the game.

And to begin to listen better, you need to be more passive. Take the time to listen to others and hear their ideas and suggestions. Making their opinion feel valued can help you improve your perception of yourself. It goes a long way in breaking the wrongly assumed image of the stereotyped developer, who is often seen as arrogant and stubborn.

It takes a lot of concentration and determination to be an active listener. Old habits are hard to break, and if your listening skills are bad, you’ll need to do a lot of work to break out of the bad habit.

5. Provide Clarity

Finally, the most essential skill is providing Clarity. To get your ideas across, you must make them simple and communicate as unambiguously as possible.

Sounds simple? Isn't it? But unfortunately, this lack of Clarity is the root cause of all troubles at work. And this is because of a phenomenon called the Curse of Knowledge.

According to psychologists Chip and Dan, the Curse of Knowledge gets in the way of providing good Clarity.

In 1990, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology named Elizabeth Newton illustrated the curse of knowledge by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: “tapper” or “listener.” Each tapper was asked to pick a well-known song, such as “Happy Birthday,” and tap out the rhythm on a table. The listener’s job was to guess the song.

Throughout Newton's experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly: a success ratio of 2.5%. But before they guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%. But despite what the tappers thought, the success of getting the message across to the listeners was very dismal. Why?

The problem is the “curse of knowledge.” The tappers already know about the song they are tapping in their subconscious minds, so even though they might not be tapping correctly, their mind thinks otherwise. Thus, the wrongly tapped( read, communicated) song tune led to a poor result.

Successful developers always confirm after communicating the message to the team. Whether verbal, written, or even comments in the code, all your communication should provide Clarity that can be understood by all team members and cannot be interpreted (or misinterpreted) in multiple ways.

Always remember, the most successful, important, and admired teams like Google, Apple, and many others all have the kind of Clarity that allows no ambiguity to develop at any point. Clarity improves a team's ability to execute, change directions confidently, and overall satisfaction.

As Paul J. Meyer has rightly said.

“Communication — the human connection — is the key to personal and career success.”


  • Soft Skills: The Software Developer's Life Manual-John Sonmez
  • Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change-Kent Beck
  • Good Habits for Great Coding: Improving Programming Skills with Examples in Python-Michael Steuben
  • Priming: Programming the Mind for Habit Change and Success-Clifton Mitchell
  • The Art of Agile Development-James Shore

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Ravi Rajan

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