Many Software Developers Don't Have This One Crazy Skill
I had lunch last week with an old friend and co-author. He's returned to the United States after a two-year stint abroad, and has just landed a VP-level position at a fintech company. ("Fintech" is a portmanteau of the words "finance" and "technology.") After more than a decade as a manager and team lead in software development, he's changed careers completely.
These days, instead of hiring and managing software developers to deliver on specific projects and products, he's now responsible for "talent development." He could be working in HR, given his mission and that responsibility, but he's got his own organization to grow.
His real mission is to make sure that entry-level software developers can cope with the surroundings into which they'll be thrust once hired and put to work. Let's call my friend Bob, so that I can put some words in his mouth, as he explains the challenges he faces in seeking to hire hundreds of software developers in fairly short order (under a year — or under six months, if he can make that happen).
"Of course," says Bob, "I'm interested in the candidate's technical skills. I want them to know the right languages, something about QA and test methods, and to understand the basic principles and best practices for Agile Development. But there are other things, too, that are equally important, or perhaps even more important."
He then goes on to walk me through a laundry list of what can only be described as soft skills. Items on his list include "political savvy, communication skills, people skills, and team skills." To answer my inevitable questions about what those things mean to him (or, perhaps more importantly, to his employer) he tells me a story about what he means by political skills.
"You know me, Ed," he says. "I'm a pretty nice guy and pretty collegial in my approach to coworkers and team members." He then goes on to relate that, in working with people newly entered into the workforce, or without much on-the-job experience, problems often arise.
When as a team lead or development manager, Bob says, he explains to such newcomers what he wants them to do, they don't always understand the nature of such conversations. "Too often," he says, "they think we're in a negotiation.
"They hear me asking them to do something, and they respond by trying to restructure my requests in terms more favorable to them. That's not what's going on. I'm just being polite about giving them their marching orders.
"While I do expect them to seek clarification and get things nailed down, it's not about 'You're asking X, and I'm countering with Y.' It's not about that at all."
It's Not a Negotiation, It's a Set of Marching Orders
It turns out that, for Bob, political savvy means understanding how the workplace works, and what roles coworkers are expected to fill. It also gets into how subordinates and team leads (or managers) interact, and what each party to such interaction can expect from each other in terms of information, support, and guidance or input.
In his new role, Bob wants to make the basics of such information part of the onboarding process for new employees, in as friendly and self-paced a way as possible. "Good workplace smarts are valuable," he asserts, "and I don't want to force people who've got them already to go through the basics again.
"But I do want to teach those who might lack such smarts, or who haven't used them very much, what workplace smarts are about. I want to provide some good models or illustrations, and show them the value of building their own set for themselves."
Bob believes, and I concur, that helping newbies understand their situation, and make the most of it, can't help but benefit all parties involved.
But Wait, There's More ...
A similar impetus drives Bob's desire to help less-experienced workers get up to speed on other soft skills as well. "Developers," he says, "work in teams. But while they're learning their trades in school, or in boot camps, or wherever, they're mostly working alone.
"They may have occasionally worked on team projects, but it's not the same when there's no real impact or consequences for working well together versus simply taking things as they come. I want to show them what a good team looks and works like, and I want them to understand that being part of a team means much more than simply working regularly with the same people."
To that end, Bob plans to bring new hires together for team-based orientations, to put his instructors and himself into team lead and management roles during the process, and even to introduce working team leaders and development managers during this part of the on-boarding process.
"From the get-go," Bob notes, "they'll be part of a team, and they'll be learning what it means to belong to a team, to support their fellow team-mates, and to lean on those team-mates in their turns."
A similar ethos informs Bob's take on other key soft skills. When it comes to oral and written communications, new hires will have the opportunity to absorb some basic best practices and principles. They'll also be exposed to lots of examples, both good and bad, "so they can learn from the good stuff and steer clear of the bad."
Likewise for people skills, time and resource management skills, and so forth. "I plan to package and deliver the onboarding experience as a friendly, mildly humorous, and highly informative collection of meetings, videos, reading materials, and exercises," Bob says.
The goal, he clarifies, is to help developers hit the ground running when they come out of training. "That will take some time, and it will cost our company some money, to put them through those materials," Bob says. "But I'm convinced that the payoffs will be immediate and dramatic, especially because they will help new hires know what to expect, and how to behave to do well, from the very start."
I don't know what GoCertify readers might think of all this, but I think it's tremendous and valuable. We could use quite a few more Bobs out there in the workplace, helping new hires understand what they're getting into and how to do their jobs with elan and dispatch.
This has potential value for all new hires, but particularly for those who are just getting started in the workforce, or those entering a new field from other careers or fields of work.