7 soft skills successful web developers wish they knew earlier

Soft skills are people skills. And people skills are superpowers in the workplace, which make work & life easier for you and others.

But what are these magical skills everyone is talking about?

First of all, soft skills aren’t about coding! They are set of interpersonal skills that help coworkers work in harmony and be efficient as a team.

Let’s take a closer look.

What are soft skills?

Soft skills are different than technical skills like programming or design. 

They are part of your personality like empathy, adaptability, communication skills, and time management – to name a few.

Let’s take adaptability for example. 

It’s not uncommon that a software development technology becomes obsolete after a while and has to be replaced with another. From one side, a group of developers might insist on using that technology because they spent years getting good at it! 

However, those open to change will be absolutely okay with learning and even unlearning a software development technology (or concept).

Which group do you think employers prefer? 

Employers prefer to ask their current employees to learn new skills rather than putting up ads for new hires. Adaptability is a soft skill employers seek in candidates during an interview.

In this guide, we’ll explore 7 soft skills (among others) for web developers, which help you succeed as an individual and as a team.

Soft skills vs. hard skills

Hard skills, a.k.a technical skills, are practical skills you need to learn to get a job done, like front-end development.

Hard skills matter because employers shortlist candidates based on the hard skills listed on their resumes. That’s how you get an interview opportunity.

Hard skills are easy to define, and you can prove your proficiency via certificates, technical interviews, and past projects.

Soft skills are trickier to define and measure, though! Your soft skills are woven into your personality, and interviewers need some time to discover and measure them. That’s probably one of the reasons there is a 3-6 month probation period after you get hired.

A person’s soft skills are cultivated over time, depending on the environment they work in. 

For instance, if teamwork is a core value in your current team, you probably have that soft skill in you! 

Software developers should have a mix of both skill categories. For instance, a curious and skilled web developer with effective communication and problem-solving skills has a higher chance of getting shortlisted.

Why soft skills matter to employers?

It’s all about efficiency and teamwork.

Software developers usually work in teams. No matter how elite a software development team is, they can’t help the business without a team spirit.

According to a LinkedIn survey, 57% of employers believe soft skills are more important that hard skills!

Interviewers usually don’t ask you if you have soft skills. Instead, they put you in a hypothetical situation and ask how you would deal with it.

They also keep monitoring different signals during the interview. That said, you need to make sure:

  • You show up first for the interview – whether it’s a video call or in-person interview (time management)
  • Actively listen, and maintain eye contact (active listening)
  • Speak clearly and simply (communication)
  • Be honest, and if there’s something you don’t know, just say you don’t know, but you’re curious to know about it (integrity & curiosity)
  • Ask questions (active listening & curiosity)

8 examples of soft skills for software developers

Here are 8 soft skills all professionals (not only software developers) should learn, regardless of what they do:

  1. Curiosity
  2. Communication skills
  3. Problem-solving
  4. Task prioritization
  5. Time management
  6. Adaptability
  7. Big picture thinking

Let’s take a close look at each one of them.

Soft skill #1: Curiosity

Curiosity is a habit; It’s a habit of being absolutely okay with our ignorance on a specific topic.

Being curious is a characteristic of smart people; Curiosity makes us better learners, better listeners, better friends, and better developers.

Shunryu Suzuki has a profound quote in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind book: 

In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind, there are few.

Shunryu Suzuki 

Curious people always have the mind of a beginner.

This tweet from Elon Musk says it all:

Curiosity has led human civilizations to revolutionary inventions and discoveries. As a child, we’re derived by curiosity. We’re thirsty to learn and understand our surroundings. But as we age, experience and knowledge (and a bit of ego) take over.

Newton’s apple incident is a good example. We’ve read in the books that he was inspired to formulate his theory of gravitation after seeing an apple falling from a tree.

But what would happen if he just ignored that?

Curiosity and learning aren’t the same – Curiosity isn’t just learning how to use a specific tool but also trying to understand: 

  • Why things are the way they are. 
  • Why do they work the way they do.

Maybe an example makes it simpler.

Imagine you hear the term Vue.js for the first time; You look it up and learn it’s a framework for front-end development. You find it interesting and want to learn more; You even set up a new project to see how it works.

But your curiosity kicks in! You want to learn more. 

You dig deeper to see how Vue works internally. After reading the documentation, source code, and a couple of articles, you learn about the concept of reactivity in front-end frameworks.

Time goes by…

It’s been a while since you heard about Vue.js for the first time. But now, you’re comfortable with Vue.js! You even know how it works internally. You’re the go-to person in your team when the app behaves strangely. 

The problem with abstractions is they are tricky to optimize! But not for somebody who knows how things work under the hood.

Do you want to be this person in your job interview?

Then, be curious!

And remember, the first step in learning something is to accept you don’t know it.

The first step in learning something is to accept you don’t know it.  

Curiosity and integrity – It’s okay to admit that you don’t know something.

That’s actually what makes you stand out from the crowd in a job interview.

I love this Will Smith dialogue in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness. In this movie, Chris Gardner (Will Smith) is desperately looking for a job.

In an interview, he tells the interviewers:

“Can I say something? Um, I’m the type of person that if you ask me a question and I don’t know the answer, I’m gonna tell you that I don’t know. But I bet you what, I know how to find the answer and I will find the answer. Is that fair enough?”

Chris Gardner, The Pursuit of Happyness
A scene from the movie The Pursuite of Happyness, where Chris Gardner is attending a job interview.
A scene of the movie The Pursuit of Happyness

Soft skill #2: Communication skills

Being a communicator doesn’t necessarily mean talking well! 

Becoming a good communicator starts with being a good listener! You listen more than you speak.

A good communicator enters a conversation with an open mind. They are eager to learn and know about other perspectives. When talking, they keep things simple; They don’t overuse jargon. It’s because they need to make sure people understand their point. 

Interviewers actively monitor such signals to measure your communication skills.

When somebody is talking, instead of composing an answer in your mind as the other person speaks, you focus on what they say because you want to avoid misunderstandings, and false assumptions.

Body language – As good communicator you should master the body language too! It’s because; Non-verbal communication is as important as verbal communication.

Just a wrong movement of your hand might change the meaning of your words. It’s like using the wrong emoji in a text message.

Storytelling – You communicate your words in the form of fascinating stories.

When the audience listens to the story, they self-relate thanks to a brain process called neural coupling.

When you hear a story, your brain neurons fire in the same patterns as the speaker’s brain! On the other hand, their brains are synchronized with the speaker’s, and they connect with the speaker emotionally.

Jim Kwik, world-renowned memory and brain coach and the author of Limitless, said “Information by itself is forgettable. But information tied with emotion becomes unforgettable.” – in one of his podcasts A Simple Hack To Boost Recall & Form New Habits.

A burst of laughter, sadness, and empathy can make people remember your words clearly.

Showing empathy – As good communicator you have empathy and connect with your colleagues emotionally

You’re not just a colleague to them; You’re a friend. 

Your team knows you care about their well-being, and it encourages them to continue communicating with you. 

Soft skill #3: Problem solving

Problems happen! They slow down the work and prevent companies hit their targets.

Problem-solving is using logic and experience to find the root cause of a problem and fixing it.

This is why employers are interested in candidates with problem-solving skills; People who act even without assigned tasks.

Here are the common steps used in many problem-solving strategies:

  1. Identifying the problem
  2. Brainstorming possible solutions
  3. Implementation
  4. Monitoring

Identifying the problem: The process always starts with identifying the problem via two steps:

  1. Recognizing a problem
  2. Finding the root cause

As a problem-solver, you start your research by talking to those affected by the problem. And ask questions like:

  • What isn’t working as expected?
  • Is it really a problem?
  • When was the last time it was working properly?
  • What if we don’t do anything at all?
  • Is there a temporary solution
  • Any recent changes?

Brainstorming possible solutions: Once you have a clear understanding of the problem, you brainstorm possible solutions with the team. 

Different people have different expertise, and they look at problems via different lenses. As a team, you’ll be a solution generation machine.

It also helps you ensure you don’t re-invent the wheel. 

Bill Gates has a simple problem-solving technique, which is to start your research by asking two simple questions:

  • Who has dealt with this problem well?
  • And what can we learn from them?

Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve tackled every big new problem the same way: by starting off with [those] two questions. I used this technique at Microsoft, and I still use it today.

Bill Gates on GatesNotes.

Once you have a list of solutions, you pick the one that checks all the boxes:

  • Is it financially reasonable?
  • How effective is it?
  • Will it cause new problems over time?
  • etc

Implementation and monitoring: When you have a solution, you plan the implementation

But this is not the end!

After implementation, the team will be monitoring and collecting feedback from people affected by the change; This is essential to confirm the solution was effective.

Everything should be back to normal by now!

Interviewers take any opportunity to evaluate your problem-solving skills. They might ask you about your past experience in solving problems. Or instead, they might give you a hypothetical problem to see how you approach the solution.

Soft skill #4: Workload management

As an efficient web developer, you know when to code and when not to!

What does it mean? you may ask.

It’s simple; You focus all your energy on making features that bring value to the customers. Nothing more, nothing less.

Here are a few things that can help you do more with less:

Never re-invent the wheel – You’ve probably heard this before. And you’ll probably hear it more often while working with a software development team.

Efficient developers only implement solutions if there’s no out-of-the-box alternative available.

For instance, writing a Content Management System (CMS) from scratch isn’t a good idea! There are plenty of actively maintained and well-tested systems in the market you can start using right away. 

Why would one make a CMS from scratch while they can have a better one for free? 

Another example is making in-house applications for internal use. For instance, making an in-house CRM system instead of investing in a SaaS solution. 

A SaaS product is a web-based application you can use online with a monthly/yearly subscription (usually on a per-user basis). It might sound like an expensive option at first. However, in the long run, you minimize your ownership and maintenance costs.

These are examples of re-inventing the wheel. Pick the quicker approach. Do what you have to, nothing more.

Focus more on value than feature – The Pareto principle (a.k.a 80/20) says roughly 80% of your achievements are owing to 20% of your efforts.

Or we can put it this way: 20% of your app functionalities solve the problem of 80% of your users.

In 2002, Microsoft learned that approximately 80% of system crashes in their software were caused by 20% of the errors they had detected.

It meant they could only solve 20% of the bugs, to solve 80% of system crashes.

Your focus must be on adding value with less work. And that’s only possible by working on the most valuable features first.

Measure twice, cut once! – Coding isn’t just typing symbols into a code editor. If you’re thinking of a solution while watching TV, you’re coding – but you haven’t put it into characters yet.

One of the mistakes some programmers make is jumping on writing code without thinking and asking questions.

If you jump onto a solution without thinking, you might end up spending hours debugging an unexpected behavior. Or even worse, refactoring the whole code because you got something wrong from the beginning.

Technical interviewers always measure this quality in you. So how would you solve a coding interview problem?

If they give you a hypothetical problem to solve, don’t rush to the code editor. 

Ask as many questions as you need. Always ensure you fully understand the problem before approaching a solution. Asking questions in an interview has two benefits:

  1. It implies you’re a curious person, and you know what you’re doing
  2. They’ll happily give you helpful pointers to solve the problem

Rest enough – You might have heard some developer talking about being up all night to get a project done.

Let me tell you the truth; If a developer stays up all night to get something done, it simply means they failed to meet a deadline. They couldn’t get it done during the day, so they had to make it up during the night.

Some say caffeine is a developer’s fuel. It’s not if you ask me.

It’s not caffeine that can keep you going, it’s your sleeping habits and routine.

By having enough sleep, controlling your caffeine intake, and eating healthy, you’ll have enough energy to get anything done and a brain that’s 100% present all the time.

So find a routine and stick to it. Your brain will thank you for it.

Soft skill #5: Time management

According to employers time management is one the most important soft skills for a professional.

In software development, there are usually two reasons a deadline is missed:

  • The time estimation wasn’t accurate
  • Task prioritaztion wasn’t on point

Breaking down complex tasks into a set of small & achievable sub-tasks helps you understand the complexity of a feature; How long does it take to implement? What components are critical? What resources do you need?

When a task is broken down into pieces, you can prioritize work at the feature level.

Complex tasks get us distracted – We usually get pulled towards social media when facing a challenge at work; Oh, let me check Twitter for 10 minutes and get back to work. 

But maybe we’re just looking for a getaway to feel comfortable again – at least for a short time. 

If a task is simple enough, we’ll more likely finish it quickly. And once you get it done, you feel a sense of pride, and you want to achieve more. 

After doing a couple of tasks, you’re in your focus zone. Nothing can stop you at this point until you tick off all the items on your to-do list.

You can also try time management techniques like the Pomodoro technique. Or you can make it even fancier by using a sand timer to do your work in 30 mins intervals with 5 minutes-rests in between.

When you master your time management skills, make sure you allocate your precious time to the tasks that bring value to the business.

Soft skill #6: Adaptability

Loyalty is one of the best human qualities. Loyalty doesn’t apply to software technologies, though. 

Just because you spent your precious time learning a piece of technology, it doesn’t mean you should be using it for the rest of your life!

Throughout your career, you spends years on mastering tools that become obsolete at some point.

But that’s absolutely okay! In fact, that’s how it works! That’s how you gain experience.

You should always be ready to learn, re-learn, or even unlearn stuff.

Why do you think companies hire people who are willing to learn?

It’s simple! 

They know abstraction becomes obsolete from time to time. Rather hiring new people, they can use the potential of their current employees and ask them to acquire new skills instead.

Soft skill #7: Big picture thinking

Big picture thinking is a thinking strategy, which provided a whole new perspective. It equips you with a wide-angle lens through which you can see the long-term effects of a plan and the potential for success. 

To have a wider view, you should be aware of what problems your company is trying to solve and how customers use the services.

Sometimes business problems are actually software problems, or at least you can tackle them with technology. And nobody understands the technology better than the people in the tech team.

“Give your developers business context”. These are the words of Mark Porter, the CTO at MongoDB. In his article, he introduces an interesting concept, which he calls the “Innovation tax”. 

He defines the Innovation tax as:

Companies pay this tax when they fail to understand the nature of the work developers do or provide a safe and productive environment for them to do it.

He adds:

Don’t insult the intelligence or maturity of your developers. They can – and must – understand the business rationale for their work. In fact, painting the strategic target for developers will result in a better work product as they align their key decisions in the architecture and design experience of your software. Once they understand the business context, they’ll find better ways of achieving it bottoms-up than any tops-down leader, even a CTO like me, possibly can.

So even if the company doesn’t provide you enough business context, do it yourself! 

Keep asking until you have a good understanding of the whys and hows behind a feature.

Trust me, sometimes you can propose a simpler solution.

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Hey 👋 I'm a software engineer, an author, and an open-source contributor. I enjoy helping people (including myself) decode the complex side of technology. I share my findings on Twitter: @lavary_

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