As I reach the end of week 11 of my bootcamp at Flatiron School, I’m already starting to look to my future career, despite having 4 more weeks, and two looming projects ahead. As the prospect of job hunting gets closer and closer, I can’t help but feel my anxiety spike as I look at my progress versus the progress of my peers. Imposter Syndrome is very real, and I consistently feel behind the pack in regards to my own personal development and comprehension.
With feelings like this, I began to wonder how I could ever expect to pass the seemingly endless and rigorous process of interviewing for positions. As an artist, I am WELL versed in the art of rejection. It has been a regular part of life for nearly 30 years.
Soft skills, my friends. Soft skills.
Anyone can learn to code. With enough time and hard work, anyone can learn this. It won’t necessarily be easy (it certainly hasn’t been for me), but its achievable. There are benchmarks that can be set. This sort of progress can be tracked through implementation, testing, and review.
But how does one measure empathy? Patience? Approachability?
All of sudden we’re talking about concepts that are a bit more hazy… more subjective. These are skills that are far more difficult to teach, let alone find some measuring system for them.
No matter where I end up getting a job, I know that a large portion of my first few months is going to be spent in training. I’m being provided the education at Flatiron which is giving me the skills to make best use of that training, and the eventually of code contribution.
But what about those other skills? Those soft skills? I would argue that employers are looking just as hard at those skills as your ability to crank out Python. That being said, here is a quick rundown of soft skills that I consider imperative to be a successful software engineer.
Simply put, empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’ shoes. It works on several levels. You need to be able to put yourself into the shoes of the user you are programming for. Who are they, and why are they visiting your website? What functions can you implement to best serve them?
Outside of the user/client, what about your peers? Upon starting that new job, you will have a lot of code to pour over to get up to speed. Can you see what the engineer before you intended with their code, even if it isn’t obvious?
There are numerous other situations here that I haven’t been taken into account. Empathy is required all around you. Outside of my own personal beliefs, while researching this topic, I found that most other articles placed Empathy at the top of the list (no matter how long it got!)
2. Public Speaking
I know this is a very overused trope, but public speaking is the #1 fear lurking out there. It sits head and shoulders over everything. One of my stunningly brilliant classmates had to do a presentation over Zoom for 90 people, and he really felt the heat. I began to wonder why a man who was so talented at his craft would cull such anxiety over speaking into a computer camera. I ultimately came to conclude that it is because public speaking requires the courage to be vulnerable. This can be particularly vexing in a field that is synonymous with “imposter syndrome.”
As an artist, and someone who has become very accustomed to setting foot in front of large groups of people, all I can is you need to practice. Of the many techniques I’ve tried over the years, talking to yourself in the mirror is by far the most eye-opening to weak points or uncertainties in your presentation. The more uncertainty you can remove, the more confident you’ll become!
3. Language Adaptability
The way you explain something to a client, versus its explanation to a team member, versus its explanation to a member of a different team, needs to vary greatly. The approach to each will be very different based on the knowledge of the person you’re interacting with. An excellent way to break this down is to think about 3 types of people. Those that know, those that don’t, and those knowledge-adjacent. If you can adapt your language to each of these types, you’re golden.
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Albert Einstein
Software engineers are bloodhounds. Your ability to keep hammering away at a problem is something to be valued. This skill will help you particularly when interviewing/whiteboarding for jobs. Don’t. Give. Up.
As mentioned previously, coding and language can be taught. But it’s very unlikely that a hiring manager will have any interest in working with you if they can’t have a conversation with you. That manager is looking for someone who can make their life a little bit easier in several capacities. Having a healthy, open, and positive work environment is one of those pieces. Coding isn’t a single smoking gun with a hoodie, it’s a team sport. And if no one wants to play with you, you’ll soon find yourself without a team.
Active listening is the ability to focus completely on a speaker, understand their message, comprehend the information and respond thoughtfully. Many of us don’t practice active listening, and oftentimes will start formulating a response to the speaker before they have finished speaking. This can lead to much lower comprehension, as well as hurt/bad feelings from the speaker, when they feel they haven’t been heard. Listen fully, process, and respond. They just might have an approach that you never considered.
Do you have phrases like “I was wrong” and “I don’t know” in your lexicon? If you don’t, you might want to get in some practice. No one wants to feel stupid, and no one wants to feel inferior. I would argue that adopting these phrases are actually signs of courage and strength. As mentioned before, no one knows everything, and no one is perfect. These are often monikers that we place on ourselves unnecessarily. We are human and we are fallible. The ability to admit when you were wrong or you don’t know will only increase trust between you and the person you’re speaking to. You will soon be dubbed a straight-shooter, and it will ensure happier interpersonal relationships.
To sum it up…
I find a great deal of comfort in these points. As a practicing artist with a liberal arts education background, I will be leaning heavily into these as I set foot on the path towards gainful employment. I am a smart, charismatic and kind individual who is excited to show these traits off to potential employers. At the end of the day the only thing separating you from the person interviewing you, is a title. Always remember that the person interviewing you is just as susceptible to criticism, praise, kindness, empathy, and cruelty. Keeping this idea in the back of your mind will help you to bridge gaps over the giant oak desk that sits between you and them. We’re all in this together.