Soft Skills for Developers: The Complete Guide

September 27, 2021 - Dom Barnard

Summary: This guide will explain 'What is meant by soft skills?' and will show you the advantages they offer. It also provides important tips on how to develop soft skills to enhance the value of your technical abilities as a software developer.

A sharp grasp of programming languages, attention to detail and mathematics will get you a long way as a Developer, especially as there are so many applications and jobs that demand your skillset. However, there are compelling reasons to grow your soft skills too.

Especially if you want to advance your career as a software developer or create your own business in this vibrant and lucrative sector.

If you assume being good at communicating and team dynamics is unnecessary in many STEM jobs, consider this. For example, research shows that 97% of UK employers place a high value on soft skills, believing them to be vital to business development and growth.

Put this another way. Hard skills get you jobs in software development. Soft skills make you more noticeable, effective, and respected.

In fact, according to a study by the Stanford Research Center, Harvard University, and the Carnegie Foundation, 85% of success in any job is the result of having strong soft and people skills. Leaving only 15% for your technical ability.

Definition of soft skills, and list of advantages

Opinions vary on what is a soft skill.

The word 'soft' is misleading. So, you will sometimes see them referred to as 'power skills'. That's because they are attributes that help you to become a better developer, but also a more effective project member, employee, leader or entrepreneur.

Unlike technical skills such as coding and testing, they are hard to quantify and measure. Largely as they revolve around your attitude and personal abilities. This also makes them highly transferrable; skills you can apply to any job in technology, or beyond.

Soft skills for developers 1-on-1 meeting

This guide includes 10 soft skills every developer needs. First, it's worth emphasising that the more of these you can tick off, the more confident and competent you will be in your career.

That's because these soft skills will help you to:

  • Mould, mobilise and motivate project teams.
  • Progress multi-party software projects effectively.
  • Communicate better with colleagues and line managers.
  • Work more effectively with clients.
  • Take briefs in a thorough and responsive way.
  • Be confident in asking insightful questions.
  • Challenge misconceptions or ambiguous information.
  • Achieve deadlines with the co-operation of others.
  • Demonstrate calmness under pressure.
  • Manage change.
  • Support your team through challenges and setbacks.
  • Source and liaise with third parties.
  • Influence and inform decision-makers consistently and well.

All of the above will impress your bosses, clients and potential investors in your business, for example. As well as underpinning your role in software project teams.

They even create a platform to better showcasing your technical abilities as a developer!

Crucially, investing in your soft skills may increase your job satisfaction and help you to gain more enjoyment from multi-party projects and working in teams.

So, here are ten soft skills developers need.

1. Emotional intelligence

Did the words 'emotional intelligence' immediately make you think of some sort of 'new age' touchy-feely stuff? Set aside preconceived notions, as this is the power skill that underpins all other soft skills developers can benefit from.

Emotional intelligence doesn't always come easy to people who have concentrated on building acumen in STEM fields. Or anyone else for that matter! It involves the way you respond to others, but also how well you know yourself.

To develop emotional intelligence, you need to consider your own personality and become more self-aware of anything that is holding you back, or which causes you to falter at times of pressure. As well as your strengths and values.

Also, consider the traits and characteristics of the people you work with. Then, grow your ability to empathise and to put yourself in 'their shoes'.

To illustrate emotional intelligence in action, how can you respond properly to client briefs without taking time to consider their pains, gains and goals?

An example of applying emotional intelligence to yourself is considering what you're like when a deadline looms or a piece of coding is proving problematic. Do you tend to become taciturn, withdrawn or even rude and defensive? Can your temper run hot?

If that's the case, what can you do to level this out and become a better project member or employee?

Understanding your own emotional responses can then extend to considering how these affect your colleagues' ability to do their job in a productive, calm and focused way. It also makes you better able to show empathy to colleagues who are struggling and provide support, so you all achieve a satisfactory outcome.

2. Leadership and getting the best from teams

Building on emotional intelligence – and a sense of empathy at work – software developers can grow their leadership abilities.

What's the difference between leadership and management in the world of technology?

"A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a moulder of consensus." - Martin Luther King Jr.

If you manage software development teams, you are orchestrating actions and working towards the completion of a task. If you lead software development teams, you use your soft skills to motivate, support and recognise everyone else. This is the way to get the job done quicker, better, or in a more unified and cohesive way.

You basically unlock the potential of everyone in the team. Or as Steve Jobs put it:

"Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do. While leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could."

This requires you to have a vision about each project and to give your team the help and understanding they need to play their part in achieving that vision.

3. Listening skills

The two soft skills for developers above rest not just on what you say and do, but also on how well you listen.

The ability to truly listen to others is a true power skill. It's the best way to develop empathy and to support and inspire software project teams.

Practising good listening is not just about staying quiet. You need to use your body language and prompts to show you are open to ideas and constructive criticism, giving people your full attention and putting them at ease. Also, being proactive by asking open-ended questions and inviting feedback.

Listening skills in a group

When you receive software specs, project feedback or amendment requests, it can be helpful to defer judgement and give the information proper consideration before you respond. However, it is important to demonstrate you have listened, even if you choose not to use the information or opinions supplied.

When people know you are accessible and open to feedback, they are more likely to alert you to issues early enough to nip them in the bud. They will also bring ideas for improvements to you.

Some of the greatest innovations come not from the boardroom or work on a computer, but from colleagues bouncing ideas around in a non-judgemental environment.

4. Verbal communications

This is one you probably expected to see on a list of soft skills for developers. No matter how good you are technical, you will need to explain your rationale and goals in client meetings, team briefings and presentations to decision-makers.

The ability to speak well in a business setting starts with empathy again. Don't just focus on what you want to communicate, but also what your audience want (and need) to hear.

Then, practice delivering spoken reports confidently and cohesively. Never hesitate to use notes to frame the way you deliver business intel and questions regarding a software or systems project.

You don't have to be a polished and professional speaker, you just need to get your message across clearly and succinctly. In a way that shows understanding, warmth and interest in your audience's reaction.

5. Written communications

This soft skill works on a similar principle to the one above. Don't get hung up on technical details and the minutia of your work, if that's not what's required.

Before creating emails, proposals and reports, for instance, consider your target audience's level of understanding and the things they will be most invested in reading about. Then, find the best ways to inform, educate, persuade or influence them, in a jargon-free, quick way.

In a nutshell, writing skills when you are a developer start with deciding the response you want. Then, you work backwards!

6. Problem solving / critical thinking

This leads to one of the most important attributes of successful software developers. One that could also fall into the category of hard skills.

You need to develop sufficient confidence in your technical abilities to respond an agile way to new briefs, innovative specs or roadblocks in your work. Problem-solving is clearly part of everyday life for software developers.

Good communications skills can help you to deliver, demonstrate and 'champion' your solutions in verbal or written reports.

Emotional intelligence helps here too. Knowing your own stress points, signs of fatigue, areas of confusion and so on, helps you to respond better to problems and complex tasks. From self-awareness and self-management, comes an improved ability to apply level-headed logic, determination and considered reasoning to every task, minimising distractions and wasted time.

7. Adaptability and positivity

To solve problems in this STEM sector, you need to be willing to learn new things when the project stretches your existing knowledge and technical abilities. AS well as to perform well in collaborative situations.

If you do have gaps in your understanding – or you need time to iron out issues that are blocking a project – how confident are you explaining that to clients and colleagues?

Showing yourself to be adaptable and versatile can be valued attributes, especially if you present solutions, improvements and changes in a positive way. It is amazing what you can 'sell' to people if you frame it confidently, and use the SMART model (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound).

8. Negotiation and conflict resolution

What happens if your client or project team don't agree with your ideas, methods or outcome?

The powers skills you need are tied up with others in this guide. If you use emotional intelligence, you can better consider the motivation and views of others and adapt and compromise with agility.

Negotiation and conflict resolution

However, you can also calm yourself, and focus on delivering well-constructed and reasoned points to negotiate the outcome you want. Or, to defuse tense situations.

9. Creativity and ambition

Some of these soft skills involve having a high degree of confidence in your dealings with people, and this is certainly one of them. It involves being ready and able to share your ideas with decision-makers and colleagues, even when they don't always find a positive reception.

You could add more key attributes into this section too, such as courage, timing and a sense of humour!

Use communication skills to present your ideas with conviction and passion, choose the right moment to do that, and be ready to 'take it on the chin' if the response is not what you hoped for. If you can sprinkle all of that with good humour, it's a potent formula for being consulted and listened to when you next step forward with ideas and suggestions.

"The ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do." - Steve Jobs

10. Consistency and Accountability

No matter how innovative, communicative and empathetic you are - and no matter how advanced your technical abilities are - you will answer to someone. Your project team, line manager, client or investors in your software venture.

Regularly reporting back to them, in a transparent and honest way, keeps projects running smoothly and effectively. Being open about issues can secure support and engagement in rectifying gaps, overlaps or blocks.

If you prove you are dependable and accountable, your ideas will be listened to more readily and you can motivate and inspire teams successfully.

Are soft skills instinctive or learnt?

The answer to this is to a certain degree both!

Your personality is a factor. However, look at the first in our list of soft skills for developers and you can start to find ways to manage your own characteristics, triggers and growth areas.

Then, use online training resources to build soft skills you can apply to your software developer role.

The best software developer employers will also provide you with opportunities to develop your 'power skills'. as they will appreciate how vital they are to achieving corporate business goals.