John Sonmez, founder of Simple Programmer, teaches software developers how to be cool.
We recently asked John about the “soft” skills developers should focus on in order to find more success (and a higher paycheck) at their jobs. Here’s what he had to say:
How has the focus of your site evolved since you started it?
When I first start Simple Programmer it was just a blog where I shared whatever technical problems I was working on or ideas I had about software development. I had no plans to make it a business and I figured mostly my coworkers and friends would read it.
Little by little, I noticed the most popular articles on my site were the ones about soft skills, not the technical ones. Those happened to be the ones I enjoyed writing the most. So, eventually, I started writing more of those kinds of posts and the blog grew and grew.
Finally, a few years ago, I quit my job to focus on Simple Programmer and I further shifted the focus to what it is now, which is the place for software developers to go to improve their lives and careers.
You wrote the book Soft Skills: The Software Developer’s Life Manual. Why do you believe software developers need a manual like yours?
Everyone could use a life manual – not just software developers. No one teaches us the most important things in life that we need to succeed.
How good we are technically has nothing to do with real success. It’s mindset, strategy, discipline, people skills and all the other areas of life that are the most important. Software developers, in particular, tend to focus on one area of their life: their technical skills. They tend to lack some of the other skills and focus which will truly make them happy and successful in life.
I wanted to create a guide that could not only help software developers excel at their career, but also learn how to market themselves, increase their learning capacity, succeed financially and with people, improve their bodies and have the right mental attitude to really tackle life and live it on their terms.
What are soft skills? Why are they important to any individual’s career?
I define soft skills as everything that is not a hard, or technical, skill. So, I see soft skills as more than just people skills, but everything else that exists in life, from finances to relationships and even fitness and attitude.
Today, more than ever, soft skills are critical to one’s career, because technical skills are becoming more and more of a commodity. It’s easier and cheaper than ever before to find and hire software developers with technical skills all over the world, but it’s much more difficult to find a software developer with good communication skills who can actually communicate their ideas, lead teams and truly innovate.
What qualities of the typical software developer make them great assets in a company?
One of the most important qualities is the ability to learn quickly and teach themselves. Today, technology changes at an extremely rapid pace. It’s impossible to keep up, so software developers need to be able to learn on the spot. Just in time learning.
Another important skill is communication. Sure, you have good ideas and can code, but can you communicate those ideas? Can you convey those ideas to your team, your managers, your customers? Having great communication skills is essential in a world of disconnected, distributed teams and complex work environments like we have today.
What soft skills do you find software developers typically need to work on more?
The obvious answer is people skills. That’s really what most people define soft skills as – although I define it to be much broader. But, I still have to go with the answer because I do think that many software developers tend to lack the ability to deal with people. Being able to talk to people and build rapport with them is critical, because all communication is based on trust. Developers who have people skills can influence and lead people and accomplish greater things than the typical developer who lacks them.
I’m also going to say that health and fitness, is a soft skill that is sorely lacking, even though it’s really important – although the reason why might not be obvious. First of all, a healthy and fit software developer is going to have more energy, so they are going to be able to get more done. Secondly, they are going to have more confidence, which is going to translate into success in many of their undertakings since success breeds success.
What are the benefits to developers of focusing on things like professionalism, financial security and relationships?
There are numerous personal and professional benefits, but let’s just talk about one of the most important ones: balance.
You can be awesome technically, have a great career, make lots of money and even be in the top of your field, but what happens when you have a huge fight with your spouse, or your poorly managed finances cause you undue stress, or – worst case scenario- your heart gives out?
You can be flying high in one or two areas of your life, but if you don’t manage your relationships, your finances, your health, your mental state and other important areas of your life, that turbulence can shake your plane apart and cause you to crash right into the ground.
What else can programmers do to increase their value as an employee and get paid more?
One thing I always recommend is to take on more responsibility. Pay always follows responsibility so if you can choose between more money and more responsibility, choose responsibility because pay will follow shortly afterwards. Look for ways you can take ownership of projects – especially areas of the business that other people don’t want to deal with.
Find ways to increase your value, through leverage. And individual developer can only do so much, but a developer who inspires the team, teaches them new skills and leads them to becoming more productive, is extremely valuable.
What advice can you offer programmers who are looking to make a job switch? What’s the first thing they should do?
First, I’d say you need to examine why you want to make a job switch. What is it exactly that you are not getting that you are looking for and are you sure that a new job will fill that need?
It’s easy to be dissatisfied with where you are and think that a new job or a little more money will fix it, but often it doesn’t because the problem is not with your environment, it’s with you. So, I always advise programmers to start there – asking the difficult questions before they even embark on the search for a new job.
Often, it’s a good idea to see what you can do or how you can change your attitude at your current job, before going and looking elsewhere. But if you know you need a change, the first thing I’d advise is to set clear objectives for what you are looking for in your next job (What is the salary you want? What benefits? What kind of working environment, technologies, etc.?)
The clearer you paint the picture of what you are looking for, the easier it will be to find it and the better of an idea you’ll have of where to look and how to structure your resume and job search to match it.
What are the most common mistakes or oversights you see programmers making in their job searches?
Not being specific enough.
Don’t look for a job doing “Java development.” Look for a job doing Java development with a particular technology stack and gear your job search and resume toward that particular specialization. It’s better to match 10 jobs perfectly than to be a decent fit for 100. You’ll not only be more likely to get the job, but also to get a higher offer.
So, specialize if you haven’t already and tailor your job search as specifically as possible to match the jobs you are applying for as perfectly as possible.
What advice do you find yourself repeating to the people you coach over and over?
Fail more. Get out there, climb up the ladder to the high dive, spread your wings and belly flop right into the pool. Yes, it will sting a bit, but you’ll learn and you’ll grow and if people laugh and make fun of you, so what?
Too many people are afraid to fail or afraid to look like an idiot, but you learn and progress in life by being willing to take chances and being willing to fail your way to success. The most successful people in life are the ones who fail the most. So, if you want to win more, fail more.
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