To to be a successful developer, you need to understand how to code. You might need a computer science degree. Maybe an interviewer is asking if you’ve built your own app before.
But every job, technical or not, also requires non-technical skills, such as running an effective meeting or managing a prickly client — and those are less likely to be taught in a programming bootcamp.
Inspired by a May guest post by Jim Keller, a founding partner of Center City-based web agency Eastern Standard, in which he describes why tech experts so often struggle to become leaders (and what they can do about it), we posed this question to readers: What non-technical, soft or unexpected skills have you developed in your career? How did you learn them?
As Tim Kulp, VP of innovation and strategy at Maryland-based Mind Over Machines, told us, “technical skills can be built” — but others should matter to devs, too.
“With the dominance of online training, open-source projects and constantly evolving collaboration tools, technical skills are easier to build now more than ever,” he wrote in an email. “Soft skills, the kind a liberal arts education or humanities focus build, are not so easy to find in the tech community. As a hiring manager, soft skills are often a deciding factor on who gets the job. I am a huge advocate for bringing liberal arts people into tech and would strongly encourage those with a humanities or liberal arts background to consider careers in tech.”
Read more from his response and those of six other technologists around the Mid-Atlantic below.
The best non-technical skill I’ve learned in my career is how to network. If you’ve heard my story from me speaking at [Women in Tech Summit Northeast] this past spring, then you know that having a mentor has helped me gain invaluable networking and interpersonal skills. Relationship building has been the foundation of which my career has flourished but as a technologist and an introvert it is often times hard. I have learned that networking all starts with just a conversation. And that a simple ask to meet over coffee goes a long way.
- Ashley Turner, academic technologist at Swarthmore College and organizer of skills-building organization Philly Tech Sistas
Almost anything you are trying to do or need know has been done by someone, somewhere before; it’s just a matter of finding it. Crafting your question in a way that causes your search engine to produce the answers you are looking for is something you have to play with for each case. This skill is something you have to learn on your own by simply trial and error.
Sometimes it’s as easy as copy/pasting your complete error into Google and the first link is a Stack Overflow question with that exact error and a million answers. Sometimes you have to be a little more abstract and use key words about the software you are using and the issue you think you’re having. Either way, Googling is a necessary talent, and not something I ever really picked up until working in the technical field.
- Marissa Murphy, DevOps engineer at Baltimore-based dev agency Fearless
My career started out in immigration law which is very non-tech. That’s the place where I honed in on, what’s considered in the tech industry, “soft skills.” As a paralegal I learned empathy. Listening to my client’s stories and building a rapport with them helped me keep them at the center of everything I did. I learned how to spot problems and how to think critically and strategically to solve them. I learned how to communicate with various groups of people through language barriers and cultural differences.
All of these skills make me a better UX designer. I can’t credit the tech industry for teaching me these vital skills, especially when they are undervalued by calling them “soft.” It takes a lot of hard work and effort to empathize, think critically, problem solve and communicate effectively.
- Shyanne Ruíz, UX designer and strategist at nonprofit public health institute Public Health Management Corporation
Tact at work is necessary when interacting with the client on a daily basis. We all want to be honest with an opinion we uphold but the way we do it is important. In addition to that, there is a way, time and place to share one’s opinion without burning bridges or destroying relationships. I have learned to respect everyone’s opinion and input to achieve a common goal. This way our professional and personal relationships are preserved. No matter how right you think you are, it is very important to be thoughtful about other people’s opinions and feelings.
- Yaw Owusu Takyi, web developer at Potomac, Maryland-based human capital management firm Blueprint Consulting Services Group
I find it extremely important to truly listen to my coworkers and understand what their words actually mean — not just assume I understand. I’ve learned that it’s beneficial to be quiet and listen when working with my team instead of communicating what I “think” they mean. And, I’ve seen how truly listening has lead to better communication which leads to more successful projects.
Working on oneself is always a work in progress and I find myself surrounded by people who are striving to improve themselves, which encourages me to do the same. I am continuing to develop my communication skills with practice and remembering The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I give my coworkers the respect they deserve by not only hearing them but listening to them, which creates a happy work environment.
- Seth Lieberman, developer at Chester-based remodeling services company Power Home Remodeling
You have to be a problem solver — outside of the code. In my time at Booz Allen, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, I quickly learned leading a team was more than communicating back and forth. I had to become a listener and problem solver on a personal level.
We’re all human. We all have emotions and you learn you can’t simply discount feelings or perspectives. As I really took heed to this, the more comfortable I became at managing and consulting. I learned to identify the gaps and find ways to create effective solutions for both the individual and the business problem.
My motto since I can remember was “Be expressive. Be creative. Be known.” If you want to be known and not get lost as a number in the computer lab, developing and mastering soft skills is incredibly important.
- Frank Goodman, COO and CTO at D.C.-based app company Happied
My career started with soft skills. In college I was religious studies major, specifically focused on world religions. To grow my technical skills, I regularly went to Borders bookstore and picked up new programming books on the weekend. One weekend I found a book on using Microsoft PowerPoint that actually had little to do with PowerPoint and a lot to do with storytelling (“Beyond Bullet Points” by Cliff Atkinson). The book changed my perspective on presentations and I started to use the concepts for my company’s lunch-and-learn program, then client presentations and eventually meetup presentations.
From there I really focused on storytelling and the power of impactful stories. I grew storytelling through lots of practice, deeply observing others and reading tons of great materials (ranging from how to tell stories to mythological stories from around the world). To this day I use storytelling frameworks in my presentations such as using Norse mythology to explain the role of artificial intelligence in cybersecurity or using the hero’s journey to explain employment challenges to the Federal Reserve.
- Tim Kulp, VP of innovation and strategy at Owings Mills, Maryland-based software and data solutions consultancy Mind Over Machines