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Building Bridges, Shipping Code: Top Engineer Soft Skills (And Why They Matter)

Technical skill proficiency is a prerequisite for success as an engineer. But any technical leader would likely tell you another set of abilities—soft skills, like communication and collaboration—are just as essential for individual and team success. 

More than three-fourths of employers say soft skills are as critical as technical knowledge for engineers. And over 50% of employers say communication, collaboration, and problem-solving are the most valuable soft skills in the digital age.

In this article, we’ll dig into top engineering soft skills, why they matter, and how you can help yourself and your team develop them. 

Engineering soft skills in context: why they matter

Engineers, developers, and technical employees of all kinds work in teams. Collaboration is essential—and the presence of words like “stand-up” and “sprints” in every engineer’s lexicon underscores this fact.

The upshot? According to 97% of employers, employees with valuable soft skills are more effective in their roles. Beyond day-to-day work, soft skills are also helpful for career advancement. Effective software engineering leaders and mentors communicate well, make fast decisions, and delegate tasks. 

Moreover, engineers with strong soft skills can significantly impact your company's projects, atmosphere, and capacity for innovation. Some examples:

  • Proactive internal and external communication creates a positive work environment and leads to more successful projects
  • Collaboration helps cross-functional and distributed workforces successfully work together and complete tasks
  • Problem-solving, adaptability, and research are necessary for keeping up with the constant evolution of technology and toolsets, including AI and programming languages

In other words: Soft skills aren't just essential for keeping projects on track. When teams develop the right behaviors, they can help encourage the dynamic, innovative cultures companies need to thrive in a competitive technical ecosystem. 

9 soft skills you should look for in your next SWE hire 

While screening for technical skills proficiency during the interview process is usually straightforward, evaluating soft skills is more nuanced. To build a team of top tech talent, technical leaders should screen for essential soft skills that contribute to individual, team, and company success.

Below, we've highlighted the nine crucial soft skills for software engineers to cultivate, including

  • Collaboration/teamwork
  • Communication
  • Creative problem-solving
  • Adaptability/resilience
  • Intellectual curiosity/willingness to learn
  • Openness to feedback
  • Organization
  • Research
  • Empathy

Let’s explore the importance of these skills and how engineers can demonstrate them. 

1. Collaboration/teamwork

Whether it’s building a website, platform, or product, software engineers are expected to work in teams. Cross-functional collaboration with technical AND non-technical team members is necessary for success.

Train your engineers to effectively work together and listen to other viewpoints by:

  • Providing resources and training for them to master tools for project management and collaboration
  • Creating opportunities for team members to discuss successes and challenges outside of stand-ups
  • Implementing peer reviews so team members can share feedback and learn from each other

2. Communication

Successful task completion relies on effective communication and adequately exchanging and understanding information.

Verbal communication occurs during meetings, presentations, and collaborative projects. Written communication is also necessary, especially in distributed workforces, where the team does work together in one workspace.

Encourage your team to communicate often for successful task completion and adequately exchanging and understanding information. For example, well-written, concise documentation supports productivity and asynchronous communication.

Useful communication skills to consider when hiring or training include:

  • Being straightforward when sharing information
  • Listening, then rephrasing for thorough understanding
  • Asking questions to obtain more information or get clarification
  • Choosing appropriate channels to communicate depending on urgency and circumstances

3. Creative problem-solving

Problem-solving skills are one of the most in-demand for developers to work effectively. Engineers should be able to:

  • Strategically work through problems - Engineers need to have a data-oriented and problem-solving mindset to complete simple and complex projects). For engineers, this often looks like “understanding what you don’t know.” Being able to approach a problem strategically—and knowing when to ask for help—is a skill in itself. 
  • Simplify tasks -  Occam’s razor says that the simpler solution is usually best when faced with two solutions of varying complexity. In other words, agile engineering teams should embrace simple ideas over complex ones. This principle applies to everything from writing and reviewing code to running tests and improving and maintaining software. 
  • Use tools and platforms strategically - With so many evolving resources for engineers—including project management, coding, software testing, and program analysis software—your team should be clear on which ones to use for different situations. 

4. Adaptability/resilience

A 2022 study found that software engineers' most common challenges are unplanned work and problems and unclear direction. Engineers can overcome these roadblocks and appropriately handle stressful situations by being adaptable and resilient.

Resilience helps engineers adapt and use critical thinking and creativity during unexpected circumstances, like a buggy code or miscommunication during a project. With resilience and adaptability, employees can modify processes and incorporate various tools and skills, like problem-solving and teamwork, to complete tasks successfully.

5. Intellectual curiosity/willingness to learn

Technology is in constant evolution. Moore’s Law—an observation (and prediction) that the number of transistors on a computer chip would double every two years—is often referenced as a metaphor for the larger global pace of technological innovation. 

The most successful software engineers harbor an innate curiosity to learn new things. This helps them continually leverage new tools and technologies like Generative AI to increase their own productivity. 

More broadly, figuring out how to solve problems, like debugging and refactoring, also requires intellectual curiosity. Daily engineering tasks require research. Engineers must focus on being proactive about learning from external resources, mentors, and peers wherever possible.

6. Openness to feedback

Companies that prioritize regular employee feedback have 14.9% lower turnover rates than those that don’t. And four out of ten employees who receive little-to-no feedback actively disengage from their work.

Put another way: constructive feedback is necessary for successful projects, job satisfaction, and career growth, so engineers must be open to receiving it. 

Engineering managers should both hire for and cultivate the following behaviors in their engineers: 

  • Actively listening to feedback during projects and reviews without getting defensive
  • Asking questions for clarification when assigned a task or while working 
  • Recognizing areas of improvement (e.g., better understanding of software like generative AI or design tools)
  • Taking action to incorporate feedback on future projects

7. Organization

Software development is a fast-paced profession. When organization skills lag behind, employee outcomes suffer. For example,  a lack of time for focused work led to 67.7% of software engineers reporting burnout. 

Organizational practices to look for and encourage so your team can successfully complete tasks include:

  • Developing and following plans for creating, reviewing, and troubleshooting code
  • Prioritizing tasks by taking a structured approach to manage workload and strategically allocating time toward various projects
  • Tracking progress to stay on top of workload and delegating jobs as needed
  • Minimizing distractions by having a designated workspace (especially if working from home) and time blocking to allow for focused work and break

9. Empathy

The purpose of software development is to support human experiences—and using empathy to consider human aspects enhances engineering outcomes, according to Hashini Gunatilike, a Ph.D. candidate and former quality assurance engineer. 

When engineers create products, they rely on empathy to better accommodate the wants and needs of users. For example, taking a user-oriented approach to software development by creating personas is helpful because it allows engineers to have a specific person in mind and empathize more easily while developing. And in an environment where AI-driven automations look to increasingly remove humans from processes, connecting with the human side of users is vital.

Engineers should also be able to collaborate with their teams, bounce ideas back and forth, and understand the priorities and goals of different teams. Cultivating empathy for team members and understanding various perspectives enables better cross-functional collaboration among all sides of an organization.

How you can help your engineers develop soft skills

Many software engineers tend to over-index on technical skills, tacitly supporting the idea that soft skills either come naturally or are picked up in the workplace. 

Experience is a great teacher, but the benefits of soft skills are clear for both teams and individuals alike. That’s why it’s worth a company’s time, resources, and effort to help engineers develop the soft skills necessary for success in the workplace.

So, how do you help engineers develop these skills? While not exhaustive, the following list includes how engineering team leaders and managers can facilitate soft skill acquisition for their internal teams: 

  • Continuous training/education - Training courses can help employees grow existing skills and develop new ones. You can hold weekly, monthly, or quarterly soft skills training using self-paced online content, interactive workshops, or live discussions between team members. You can also use a blended learning approach with these options.
  • 1:1 coaching or mentorship - A program where employees can work one-on-one with a coach or mentor can help them set goals for developing skills and create a plan for reaching them. Mentors can be employees who work well with others, display leadership skills, or have a proven track record of success in your company—even if they don’t work in technical roles.
  • A  supportive culture - Create a work environment that encourages your team to share their skills and learn from others. This is a bit more lax than a structured mentorship program and allows peers to learn from each other. Support a mentorship culture by encouraging teamwork and feedback and praising mentoring success. 
  • Teamwork - As engineers work together, they expose themselves to how others demonstrate soft skills. Promote teamwork with pair-programming tasks and changing up teams for different projects.
  • Quarterly reviews - Formally check in with employees to discuss goals with skill development and learn how you can best support them. Deloitte’s performance management program follows four statements about how an employee is performing in their role. After each project or quarterly, leaders check in with the employee, respond to these statements, and offer feedback.
  • Regular feedback - Share consistent positive and negative feedback to help employees understand what’s working and what needs course-correcting. This can be a more informal way to touch base with your engineers often and ensure they understand what you want them to continue doing versus improve. It’s also important to give them the opportunity to ask questions and share their thoughts to ensure you’re on the same page.

CodePath helps early-career talent develop crucial soft skills

CodePath maps its curriculum and program to industry demand, including soft skills development like collaboration and problem-solving. Our real-world, project-based curriculum also helps students explore and improve organizational and adaptability skills that empower their intellectual curiosity

Looking to hire your next SWE?  Explore your options with CodePath to build your team of diverse, skilled engineers.

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