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Congratulations—you’ve decided to pursue a career in software engineering! So what’s next? In order to be successful in this line of work, there are a number of technical & soft skills that every software engineer must have in their toolbox. Equipped with these skill groups, you’ll be able to advance through the ranks during good economic times, and keep your position during hard ones.
1. Technical Skills
It goes without saying that a software engineer must have top-notch technical skills. They should be ready to program, troubleshoot, upgrade systems, and document. Software engineers must be able to organize and optimize programs & tasks for technical excellence, as well as plan for speed of deployment.
Software engineers must be well-versed in all programming languages used by their organization and keeping abreast of growing trends in the popularity and usefulness of new & developing programming languages. Furthermore, they should be constantly updating and refreshing their background in best practices, as these change with software and system hardware upgrades.
Though subject to change, the most important languages are currently as follows:
- SQL: A standard language used for accessing and manipulating databases
- Python: A versatile language that can be easily interfaced with numerous other platforms
- Java: An object-oriented programming language with tons of capability for developing complex programs
- HTML/CSS: The language of the Internet, used for making web pages and keeping them consistent and easily updated
Software engineers will often need to divide tasks and set the workflow for the entire project. This can mean deciding how data is stored and accessed in a complex industrial system, determining which variables are passed between classes in object-oriented code, or creating standards that will need to be followed throughout a large program.
Here are some examples of how software engineers put their organizational skills to good use:
- Project Organization: Divvy up tasks for large programs comprising many parts
- Time Management: Reasonably estimate time, workload, and budget constraints
- Program Design: Keep track of which variables are passing between classes and subroutines
- Maintaining Consistency: Maintain a constant format across all products, making them more intuitive
Sometimes, software engineers design major components for a program and then hand off subroutines, classes, and functions to programmers. Software engineers look at the big picture and then have the programmers fill in the details. In order for this system to work effectively, software engineers must write down everything they are thinking in an organized manner, so that programmers can pick up where software engineers left off, and so that code is easily integrated.
With that in mind, we recommend you brush up on the following documentation skills:
- Technical Writing: Strong software engineers ensure that instructions, user guides, and so on are clear and understandable.
- Program Documentation: Documenting procedures ensures that another programmer can quickly add to existing code.
- Professional Communication: Clear communication ensures that all correspondence with other programmers is logical, concise and professional—as sometimes software engineers may run a team of programmers.
2. Troubleshooting Skills
Software engineers will spend a fair amount of time troubleshooting problems. Whether it is debugging a piece of code, determining why a controller keeps rebooting, or understanding why operators keep pressing the wrong button on a console, there will always be problems to solve.
Software engineers may find themselves troubleshooting hardware, such as network routers, industrial controllers, and human-machine interfaces (HMI). Most of the time, other engineers will be in charge of hardware, but softwares engineer should be well-versed in the hardware systems used at their facility. A few examples:
- Networks: Software engineers may have to figure out why a device is not being recognized by a wireless network.
- Controllers: Software engineers may need to integrate industrial programmable logic controllers (PLCs) with a particular software package.
- Sensors: Software engineers may be required to ensure data from sensors are properly stored in a database.
- HMI: Software engineers may be expected to ensure that HMIs are communicating with software and other hardware devices.
Besides debugging code, software engineers must learn to make code “bulletproof.” This means lots of testing in an effort to break the program. Software engineers must try invalid inputs, disconnecting sensors, and dealing with other problems that might cause a program to freeze or give invalid results. Examples of common software troubleshooting skills include:
- Debugging: Finding and removing compiler errors
- Run-Time Errors: Figuring out why a program crashes while it is running
- Rollouts: Delivering and managing software upgrades
Human Behavior Troubleshooting
On certain occasions, a software engineer must dive into the human mind and determine why a software and hardware solution is not working. This may involve changing a graphical user interface (GUI) to make it more intuitive, or watching the workflow of a technician and removing unnecessary clicks from their mouse in a program. Consider acquiring skills in:
- GUI Design: Designing interfaces that “make sense” to operators
- Cybersecurity: Making sure users keep the system safe from online threats
- Ergonomics: Minimizing button clicks, typing strokes, and mouse usage
3. Interpersonal Skills
Software engineers must be able to work with all sorts of people. This is particularly important when dealing with those who do not have a technical background, who may not understand the jargon and programmer-speak that software engineers use. Software engineers often interface with customers, technicians, and sales & marketing folks. They need to be able to communicate politely, professionally, and clearly.
Written and oral communication skills enable a software engineer to deliver the clearest and most effective message at all times. Too often, software engineers are thought of as aloof. Instead, through proper communication, they can help other team members understand problems, more effectively train them, and generally make the work environment more pleasant. Think of:
- Written Skills: Composing emails and developing instruction manuals and other coworker and customer-facing documents
- Verbal Skills: Giving occasional presentations and status updates on projects
Sometimes a software change will result in pushback from technicians or management. Software engineers can benefit from learning negotiation skills to make transitions beneficial to all parties and integrations as smooth as possible. For instance:
- Navigating Pushback: Software engineers may be required to explain the need for additional time or money on a project.
- Division of Labor: Software engineers may need to divide and delegate tasks among programmers.
Software engineers often find themselves as the unlikely managers of software-related projects. In this role, a software engineer may design how the program and hardware implementation will be constructed, and then delegate smaller tasks to programmers. Learning some project management, timeline, budgeting, and similar skills will take the pain out of management. We’re talking about:
- Setting Timelines: Creating clear timelines for deliverables & project deadlines and meeting landmarks along the way
- Resolving Conflict: Playing the peacemaker between coworkers, management & clients regarding project tasks, methods, and timelines
4. Adaptability Skills
Software engineering positions are ever-changing as new technology develops. Yesterday’s technical skills may be obsolete in tomorrow’s fast-paced market. The best programmer of today’s programming language will be unemployed if they refuse to upskill to the next new language. Competitive software engineers anticipate changes and are willing to learn new skills.
With the world in constant state of flux, you can be sure that market needs will change. Be prepared to learn new programming languages, best practices, and network security protocols, as well as adapt to new managers, coworkers & business models. Software engineers must learn to be flexible, taking on related roles, shifts, and projects that may not always feel like the best fit.
Willingness to Learn
As the needs of a business or industry evolve, employees must evolve along with them. Good software engineers constantly evaluate their knowledge set and actively learn new trends, methods, and techniques. They strive to help their company produce state-of-the-art solutions, instead of products that are nearly obsolete when they hit the market.
5. Inquiry Skills
A true software engineer always asks why. In fact, they often ask it multiple times to find the root causes of a problem. Software engineers must not stop with a simple patch; they are willing to dive deeper into the problem and find a solution, instead of developing a workaround. The skill is knowing when and which questions to ask to arrive at the proper solution.
The more a person reads, the more they integrate concepts from different sources. This integrative process can help boost creativity and strength in brainstorming sessions. Instead of viewing a problem from only one side, a well-read and thoughtful software engineer will approach a problem from multiple angles, resulting in better solutions. You don’t have to stop at technical manuals. Instead, you’ll benefit by diversifying your personal library with books, magazines, and trade journals that cover a variety of topics.
Software engineering is a constantly evolving field. It may be tempting to focus on a handful of programming languages to enhance your career, but there are so many skill sets outside of programming that will also benefit the new software engineer.
As economies ebb and flow, software engineers will need to stay on their toes and anticipate some of these changes to remain relevant. One programming language will fade, and the next will take its place. Software engineers must be evergreen, ready to take on the next challenge and learn the next new thing.