Hackajob CEO: Why soft skills matter for an enhanced developer experience

This is a guest post for the Computer Weekly Developer Network written by Mark Chaffey, CEO of hackajoba tech careers marketplace that aims to put power back in the hands of those working in tech.

It works as a reverse marketplace, meaning developers can choose to accept or decline requests from employers and discover roles of interest that are tailored to them.

Chaffey writes in full as follows…

There’s been a talent shortage for software developers practically since the profession’s inception.

In fact, the term “developer” was popularised following the introduction of the IBM System/360 mainframe computer in 1964 (only two years before ComputerWeekly launched). This computer introduced standardised architecture across different models. Consequently, software development became more systematic and the term “developer” began to encompass a broader, more holistic role in the creation of software – therefore more in demand – while “programmer” came to encompass more technical aspects of writing code, at least originally.

Today, the problem persists and I work with hundreds of companies looking to overcome the developer shortage. But turnover is a major problem, especially for tech talent. According to our Hiring Trends 2023 survey, over 75% of tech talent is unhappy with their roles and have looked for a new job in the past six months.

Perk jerks

I see countless companies offering attractive perks and benefits, but tech talent is often more interested in the interpersonal elements of the organisation. Knowing how a company’s sprint cycle works is more important to longevity than whether there are snacks in the breakroom.

There is a growing understanding that nurturing soft skills is equally, if not more, crucial for enhancing the developer experience (DX).

Here’s what it looks like in practice:

  • Redefining soft skills in a technical context
  • We know that focusing on soft skills works.

A 2017 joint study from Boston College, Harvard and the University of Michigan suggests that soft skills training increases productivity and retention by 12%, with a 250% ROI.

Furthermore, the natural result of soft skills, company culture, is a major reason why software developers choose to stay at a company, nearly 50% according to the same hackajob report.

However soft skills are often only associated with interpersonal abilities, such as communication and teamwork. In a technical context, soft skills encompass much more.

Besides effective communication, developers require creativity and adaptability to tackle complex problems and adapt to evolving technologies. Problem-solving and critical thinking are cornerstones of effective development, enabling software developers to build efficient and elegant solutions.

Moreover, empathy is a catalyst for collaborative innovation. Understanding the end-user’s needs and empathising with team members’ challenges fosters a more productive and harmonious work environment, leading to better products and higher job satisfaction.

Focus on play

To nurture soft skills effectively, organisations should create a developer-centric environment that encourages creativity and continuous learning.

Humour, mindfulness and emotional intelligence play a vital role in mitigating burnout and enhancing productivity. Organisations can offer resources and training to help developers manage stress and build emotional resilience, such as:

  1. Mentorship programs: These provide opportunities for knowledge sharing and skill transfer. Experienced developers can guide and support their junior counterparts, leading to a stronger sense of community and personal growth.
  2. Hackathons, but with a focus on cross-functional collaboration: Instead of solely promoting technical competitions, organisations can encourage developers to collaborate with other departments, fostering a more holistic perspective on problem-solving.
  3. Role rotations: These can enhance skill diversification and empathy building. Allowing developers to experience different roles within the organisation helps them understand the challenges faced by their colleagues, leading to more cohesive and empathetic teams.
  4. Cultivating a culture of continuous learning, creatively: Foster an environment of upskilling, learning and continuous feedback loops of constructive critique. But don’t stop there; organisations can learn from other industries and apply soft skill techniques from unlikely sources, drawing inspiration from fields like art, psychology, or education can lead to fresh approaches to problem-solving and team collaboration.

Developing your developers

Mark Chaffey, CEO of hackajob.

The very computing system that gave rise to the term “developer” is a good metaphor for how companies should invest in their own developers.

The IBM System/360 mainframe standardised architecture, leading to systematic and cross-functional software engineering practices.

Similarly, organisations that want to invest in soft skills must think about that from a holistic and cross-functional perspective.

Developers should not be isolated; rather, they should be working with diverse teams that foster creative thinking and continuous learning, increasing employee satisfaction and retention.

IBM went all-in on the System/360, quite literally. They discontinued all other computer lines and focused solely on the cross-functionality of the System/360. By 1971, IBM’s revenue swelled to $8.3 billion, up from $3.6 billion in 1965.

Safe to say it worked out.

So, will you go all-in on cross-functional soft skills for your tech teams?


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