Software Engineers Need Soft Skills, Too
Updated: Jun 27, 2022
I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes product engineering teams effective. Having a well designed database schema, smartly separated domains, and easy-to-read code are all ingredients for consistently shipping high-quality features. But getting the computer science-y stuff right is just table stakes! Being a Software Engineer in the professional world is much closer to those painful group projects you might remember from your middle school days than your final undergrad exam. In all my years in the industry watching teams struggle and thrive, I’ve learned that software engineers need soft skills too. Over-emphasizing proficiency in obscure technical knowledge and undervaluing collaboration skills can leave companies asking “we hired great engineers, why is nothing getting done?”
Here are four key soft skills that I look for when hiring at Ethena that I think all Software Engineers should practice to make them more effective team members.
One of the first questions I ask every new hire at Ethena is “do you have a todo list?” At least half the time, I get a sheepish “no.” I’m used to it at this point, engineers relying on their Tech Lead or Product Manager to keep them on track. And at Ethena, we wouldn’t be able to function without great project management software and strong workplace rituals that utilize it (we’re currently using Monday.com*). But a clean Jira board is no substitute for individual engineers using personal todo lists and calendars effectively. There are just too many little things floating around a modern workplace that never make it through backlog grooming—little requests like being asked to follow up on an email or check if we’re still using a column in the codebase. Plus, having good organizational hygiene can reduce stress in and outside of work by reducing the amount of brain power spent worrying about open loops.
Communication, Written and Verbal
The modern workplace is an interconnected superhighway of flowing information. Whether it’s the constant hum of chatter on Slack, the tech doc for the next big product initiative, or giving an update at standup, engineers are always communicating at work. The quality of those conversations can make or break an engineer’s impact in the workplace, with strong communicators being force multipliers in a team setting. These engineers help keep everyone on the same page, and with their help, projects get done quickly and with less confusion along the way.
A specific challenge we technical folk face is learning to communicate at the right level of detail. See, engineering, like ogres, has layers. As technical experts, we are both blessed and cursed with knowledge of how a system functions under the hood, but most other members of an organization—and even other engineers on your team—probably just want the TL;DR. It’s important to practice jumping between levels of complexity when communicating and checking in often with your coworkers to see if they want more or less detail.
One of the benefits of working with computers is that they are fully predictable and able to be completely understood. Humans are anything but! And working on a product team means dealing in equal parts with our silicon- and carbon-based coworkers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen “team drama” bring projects grinding to a halt. Far too often, the cause is an engineer with an inflated ego who won’t accept constructive feedback and who, unfortunately, also happens to be the one person who knows how that mission critical system works. I’d trace this pattern of “difficult engineers having elevated importance within their teams” to their organization not valuing emotional intelligence early and often. If no one wants to work with the engineer, and the company doesn’t have a strong stance on these skills being table stakes for employment, don’t be surprised when they’re asked to go off into the corner and work on that key system for 6 months . . . far away from everyone else. At Ethena, there is no room for jerks, and we “swarm” on projects wherever possible, giving engineers with strong interpersonal skills the opportunity to thrive.
I know what you’re thinking, what a boring last “skill” that doesn’t even sound like a skill . . . but this is my list, not yours! As engineers, we are attracted to computer science because we would rather write a quick script than do a bit of busy work (often resulting in more total effort, but who’s counting?). My career is full of little examples of diligence, or lack thereof, that had huge consequences down the line. An engineer double-checking an environment variable can be the difference between a successful product launch and a dramatic, all-night PagerDuty call. Or maybe diligence is being willing to do some additional QA after that last-minute bug fix which definitely didn’t affect anything else.
The engineering team at Ethena has a saying: measure twice and cut once. So far (crossing fingers) it has helped us avoid disaster and maintain impeccable uptime for our customers, all while shipping daily. Taking our time and working methodically also contributes to a healthy work-life balance at Ethena. When folks are rushing or tired, they make mistakes. But when teams work together with diligence, high quality features get built quickly.
Sound familiar? If these values or anything else on the list resonate strongly with you, let us know! We’re hiring!
*I’m enjoying its flexibility and the interface is wonderful to use, but talk to me when we’re 20 engineers for a real review of how it scales in an organization.
Matt Dean is the VP of Engineering for Ethena, Inc.