2014-04-02

Co.Labs

How To Become An Engineer With People Skills

It's not good enough to be a great coder and a total asshole. Here's how engineers can learn to take a softer touch, especially with non-technical employees.



In the technology world developers are prized for their coding talents above all else. Little value has traditionally been given to their so called soft skills: communication, emotional intelligence, and the ability to work effectively with others. But as the pool of talented developers continues to grow, AngelHack CEO Sabeen Ali argues that it is soft skills that will make an individual developer more marketable in the future. She’s created a curriculum called "The Whole Developer" which aims to get devs in touch with the softer side of things—making them better coders in the process.

A Double-Edged Sword

The problem Ali is determined to solve usually rears its head when a talented developer suddenly finds himself with a ton of venture capital.

“You have a developer that’s locked in his room who created a really great platform,” Ali says, “and suddenly an investor finds him. The investor dumps a couple of million dollars on him and tells the developer he wants him to scale and build a company around the product. That pressure takes this programmer and pulls him out of his comfort zone and forces him to run a company, which he, like many people, has little clue how to do.”

Writing clever code, Ali argues, requires an entirely different skill set than leading a team of people at a company. But she says that it’s okay for developers not to know that kind of stuff. Most people don’t. The important thing is recognizing that while your coding skills may be a 10, your soft, or leadership, skills might only be a five.

That’s where the Whole Developer curriculum comes in. It’s a 12-week course beginning in June that aims to teach developers, designers, and business people soft skills, well-being skills, and how to become a more well-rounded human being. (We'll give you a crash course in this article.)

“Creating a company is a different beast than creating a product, something new entrepreneurs—coders turned CEOs—often find out only when they’re way in over their heads,” Ali says. “We focus on the art of communication, team building, and the importance of mindfulness and emotional intelligence. In a nutshell, we’re not just trying to create great developers, but we’re aiming to create great people.”

According to Ali, here are the six areas where coding masters can turn their hacking skills on themselves to become a Whole Developer:

Communication

“Language is our most distinctly human capability, and it underlines everything that we do,” Ali says. “Considering this, it’s surprising how neglected communication has been in the business world, until very recently. Communicative acumen can increase team harmony, diffuse conflicts, and salvage reputations.”

A big part of being a Whole Developer is communicating effectively. This goes beyond just getting along with people—it means being able to deliver persuasive, trenchant messaging that gets your point across and compels others to act on it.

Ali says that she’s often seen brilliant products come out of the hackathons she runs but then when the developer gets to the stage to present their product, they don’t have the communication skills to convey the product in all its glory.

“Salespeople, marketers, and spokespeople are masters at it, and developers would do well to learn what could be one of the most powerful tools in their soft-skill toolkit.”

When conveying your idea to an audience, frame it in a context they can understand. For example, if your audience isn’t technical, focusing on how much of an engineering marvel your product is won’t excite them. Talk to them about how they will benefit from it. See things through their eyes and communicate with them as if you were watching them explain something to themselves.

Team Building

Despite the prevailing stereotype of the developer as an anti-social recluse, the fact is that developers don’t work in a vacuum. In any organization, there are teams involved, and developers will need to interact with team members. These can be other developers, or marketers, administrators, or executives. Either way, it’s important for developers to know how to manage and navigate team dynamics.

“Developers are known to be isolated workers,” Ali says. “Because of this misconception many developers haven't had the ability to understand or take part in the full scope of work that's being created. Moreover, when placed in a leadership role the developer turned manager might take misguided approaches to forming a team, managing a team, and ultimately this leads to a non-productive work environment.”

Ali says it’s important to address any issues your team raises quickly, fully, and, most importantly, consistently. This can be done by planning ahead and exploring how you’d react to situations before they arise. Your “pre-attention” to matters will help build cohesiveness between your team. Specifically, developers turned managers should be prepared to address some of the following common issues around their teams:

“Where will each team member be more effective? What if a team member doesn’t deliver? What if there’s conflict? Is there potential for misunderstanding when working with multicultural teams? When should a leader become a follower?”

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is not a new concept—Eastern religions have espoused the power and importance of being mindful and present to one’s actions for thousands of years. More recently, however, mindfulness has started to gain a foothold in the West.

“Mindfulness is a simple concept,” Ali says. “Be aware of, and present in, the current moment, and be attentive (mindful) of your every thought, feeling, and action.”

But that concept is surprisingly difficult to practice consistently. Like any skill, it requires steady practice over a long period of time to master. However, unlike many skills, mindfulness is accessible to almost anyone—even simple breathing exercises, done for 10 minutes at a time, make for good practice.

And there are numerous benefits, Ali says, “clearer thinking, better decision making, and a sharply honed intuition among them. Mindfulness is also especially useful during crises, allowing the practitioner to maintain a level head and not let external circumstances affect his or her decisions.”

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence is the ability to identify, assess, and control the emotions of oneself, of others, and of groups. When people talk about being able to “read people” or even just “being perceptive,” they’re referring to their degree of emotional intelligence.

Lack of emotional intelligence often leads to poor interpersonal skills, poor networking, and a general unawareness of how one's actions and words affect the people around them, Ali says. On the contrary, those possessing a high EI often perform better in work and are better able to create and lead projects, according to an increasing body of scientific evidence backing its usefulness.

“Emotionally intelligent people are able to navigate social situations and adapt to different people and groups,” Ali says. “Even more than traditional intellect, emotional intelligence is a huge predictor of success. It explains why the most charismatic candidate—even if he or she is not the most intelligent or even qualified one—gets the job or promotion. It’s a highly useful, even critical, skill for the Whole Developer to possess.”

EI is grown through mindfulness. As you become more aware of your own thoughts it becomes easier to see the meaning behind other people’s words and actions.

Work/Life Balance

The sad fact is today many of the boundaries between work and life are blurred. Our devices leave us connected at all times, leading to increased “work creep” in our personal hours. But just as multitasking has now been proven to be detrimental to work, being always connected to work can be just as damaging.

“Too much of anything is detrimental,” Ali says. “Just as too much chocolate will make one sick, and too much Vitamin A can be lethal, too much work is detrimental to one’s mental, and eventually physical, health. Being able to balance work with other interests—education, hobbies, and a social life—will lead to a happier, more fulfilling life for the Whole Developer.”

Ali says the Whole Developer has an opportunity to set an example for the industry, to show how living a healthy, well-rounded life actually results in more productivity, not less. She notes that turning off all our gadgets—even gadgets we are hacking together ourselves—will allow us to relax and refocus on the more important things in life, such as personal relationships. This allows our personal batteries to recharge, making us more creative and happier in the process.

“And a happy worker is a more productive worker,” Ali says.

Social Responsibility

“We all have an inherent duty to act and engage with our surroundings and each other in a responsible and compassionate way,” Ali says. “When I talk about or think through the idea of exposing people to code, I also think about the implications and the ramifications of when you teach someone how to code. What else do they need to be aware of because, ultimately, computer programming is very, very powerful. In some places you can even look at it as a weapon. If people are not taught properly the framework, a frame of reference behind what you’re supposed to be using this for, how you use it, how it integrates in the rest of life, then it could take a very strong positive and turn into a very strong negative.”

Therein lies the final, and perhaps most important tenant of the Whole Developer, Ali says. “We all have an inherent duty to act and engage with our surroundings and each other in a responsible and compassionate way.”

In the workforce, this relates to working with others—not making the project or objective at hand all about you, but rather collectively advancing yourself and your peers to a higher level.

Outside of the workplace it relates to how we interact with one another, and the relationships we build to create an ever expanding and intertwined network of friends, family, acquaintances, and community.

“The idea of social responsibility rests on how we interact with and affect those around us,” Ali says. “From maintaining personal relationships to contributing to the betterment of one’s community, social responsibility must be ingrained into the Whole Developer’s very DNA.”

[Image via Wikimedia Commons]




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