Three Key Communication Skills That Software Developers Must Master
Communication is the key ingredient to software development. Great communication means great relationships, and it all starts with mastering these skills.
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Software development isn’t just code and coffee (or tea, if that’s what you’re into). While technical chops are the baseline expectation to get you in the door, there’s a third “c” that is critical for a successful career in software: communication.
Mature communications skills are essential for software developers to carve out a role in the competitive field of software engineering. While hard skills like coding or programming will always be required for a career in software development, a good developer is well-rounded and has mastered the art of interpersonal communication, as well. Developers who ace communication within their own teams and with external clients are more likely to be seen as capable, successful professionals.
Poor communication can be just as costly (if not more so) than coding errors. Not only does miscommunication often lead to mistakes, but it leads to finger-pointing, diminished client relationships, and delayed projects. Worse, it can diminish brand reputation and jeopardize future work.
For software developers to be successful, they must master communication skills, particularly active listening, nonverbal communication, and stress management.
There are a number of ways people fail to communicate, but being a bad listener is one of the worst and most frustrating. Poor listeners attempt to complete people’s sentences, respond before they finish speaking, or try to jump ahead in the conversation. But when you interrupt or plow through a discussion, you (perhaps unwittingly) signal that you don’t value others’ input, which makes everyone feel uncomfortable. It’s crucial for coders to ensure that all team members have space and opportunity to share their viewpoints because diverse perspectives create stronger solutions for everyone.
So how do you become a better active listener? It starts with building trust. When a teammate is done speaking, try to paraphrase their thoughts back to them. You can say something like, “If I understand you correctly” and then ask them to confirm your interpretation. This signals that not only did you hear them, but that you care enough to ensure you’ve received the message as they intended. This might sound clunky in theory, but it's a quick process, and you’ll reap the benefits of these gut-checks in no time.
Additionally, active listening is about ensuring you’re totally aligned with all collaborators, whether they’re teammates or clients. Don’t simply wait for your turn to speak and share your brilliant ideas — and definitely don’t interrupt or forcefully drive the conversation to best suit your needs. Listen to your team, confirm that you’ve interpreted correctly, and move forward together. Coding and collaboration go hand-in-hand, and active listening is an excellent way to demonstrate that you’re a team player.
Do you see the person you’re talking to? More importantly, do you really see the full spectrum of their communication? Are you noticing their nonverbal cues? While it is difficult to quantify just how much of communication is pure language, experts widely acknowledge that much of communication is conveyed in tone and body language.
For example, you may be on a call with a client who is eerily quiet even though you are showing off an exciting new feature. You may notice a coworker looking down at their paper during a brainstorming session, not contributing to the conversation. There could be many reasons behind their silence, and it’s important to address it right away to ensure that all parties are aligned. Consider the impacts of a client withholding feedback or a coworker holding onto their ideas. How much time could you save by extracting your stakeholders’ true opinions now versus several weeks down the line? What if your coworker is sitting on some million-dollar or otherwise profound idea?
Nonverbal cues are a treasure trove of information, but it takes time to hone the ability to identify and interpret them. Active listening is the first step. Then, combine what you see and hear to know how to act on a cue.
Try asking open-ended questions, like, “What are your thoughts so far?” Or, depending on the context, maybe a specific question is best to tease out a response, such as, “Does this workflow make sense to you, especially how the user goes from this screen to the next one?” You will have to read the room and tread lightly with your tone to not make anyone uncomfortable. Remember, your goal is to encourage; don't force the spotlight on them if they don’t want it.
If you’re not sure, it may be best to circle back privately with that person to find out if they’d be receptive to that sort of prompting. If they prefer not to speak at all during meetings, your team might consider trying brainwriting sessions.
Software engineers have a responsibility to make prescient decisions; a great challenge, considering they are oftentimes presented with missing, misconstrued, or misrepresented information. Unfortunately, these factors can often lead to one of the leading causes of burnout: stress.
Stress is common in most professional industries, and the software development realm is not immune. Developers will often find themselves in stressful situations where a client is unhappy, their boss is asking about a deadline, or they are dealing with a surplus of work.
Being able to communicate effectively under pressure is a valuable skill that software developers must add to their arsenal.
For example, when a client is unhappy with a project that is over budget, a software developer must have the skills to diffuse the situation and communicate effectively. This can be accomplished by remaining calm, acknowledging the client's frustration and reiterating their words, and outlining why the project was over and what the next steps are.
Not every stressful situation can be solved perfectly, but by using strong verbal communication skills, software developers can handle intense situations and build a reputation as someone who is level-headed and capable.
Suffice it to say that communication is a big part of any software development career, whether it’s with your boss, your teammates, or your client. Communication styles may vary from person to person, but every coder needs to be a strong active listener, an attentive interpreter of nonverbal cues, and a proactive communicator in stressful situations. These skills may take some time and practice to master, but they’ll make all the difference between a good developer and a great developer.
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