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7 keys to succeeding as a software engineer

Tigran Sloyan Co-founder & CEO , CodeFights
Developer at work

Demand for software developers is growing fast, and programming skills are in high demand. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, software developer jobs are expected to grow 17% between 2014 and 2024, much faster than the average rate among other professions.

Attracted by strong employment numbers, high salaries, and the opportunity to build something that changes the world in ways big and small, more people than ever are flocking to this field. But succeeding as a developer requires more than just coding skills.

The best engineers bring many characteristics and qualities to the job that make them stand out from the crowd. Here are my top seven recommendations. 

1. Play well with others

There are countless media portrayals of lone-wolf programmers who stay up all night coding furiously by themselves. This pop-culture stereotype represents them as brilliant but emotionally stunted, able to pull off heroic feats of code-slinging but unable to connect with the people around them. 

This temperament doesn't work well in real software development teams. Programmers who are team players are much more likely to be successful in their careers than lone wolves. As a software engineer, your job is to solve problems and create a great product, not just to write as many clever lines of code as possible. That means communicating with all kinds of people: other developers, quality assurance professionals, project managers, sales representatives, customers, etc.

The better those relationships are, the better your own work will be, which is why it’s so important to treat others with empathy and respect. You want to be the kind of developer who lifts up everyone around you, rather than someone who only works well in isolation.

2. Stay humble

Successful developers don’t bring their egos to work—they stay humble.

No matter how good you are at what you do, you’re not always going to be right. Other team members might have constructive criticism during code review that could make the code better. Or your code might have bugs that you discover only after shipping the product.

When this happens, you have to be okay with other people pointing out and correcting your errors. You also have to accept responsibility for your mistakes and be willing to learn. That’s why humility is such an important quality for developers to have. The ability to take criticism and corrections from others and channel that feedback into improving will make you a much better developer in the long run.

3. Stay vigilant (don’t get complacent)

Successful developers keep their skills sharp. Just like Stephen Curry, who continues to put up 1,000 shots in practice every week, successful developers put in time and effort to practice their skills and exercise their coding muscles. Many professional developers frequent websites such as CodeFights to try out new languages or keep their knowledge of different algorithms or data structures fresh.

To be the best developer you can be, find opportunities to practice and push yourself harder than you do every day at work. Doing this regularly will keep your skills sharp and maintain you refreshed, interested, and on top of your game.

4. Get invested

Developers who feel a personal sense of investment, pride, and ownership in their work tend to be more successful than those who don’t. Outstanding developers are much like outstanding artists. What they are creating is not just about collecting a check. It’s bigger than that, and their work involves a sense of pride in craftsmanship and authorship.

Really putting yourself into your work staves off mediocrity. It also serves as fuel to go that extra mile and make sure that your work is of high quality. On the other hand, it’s always clear when you are half-assing a project or are not fully invested in what you are doing. The work will suffer as a result. 

5. Keep sight of both the short and long game

The most effective engineers are those who never lose sight of the long-term goal but understand the day-to-day steps required to get them there. A key to success is being able to balance the completion of day-to-day tasks with the big picture, to operate efficiently on a daily basis while keeping your eyes on the overarching vision.

The ability to balance the long- and short-term perspectives is what separates really good developers from the ones who are just okay. Practice this skill by thinking about how the individual components you are building contribute to the product as a whole, how they’ll interact with each other, and how any changes to them will impact the scope and direction of the project. Even if your long-term vision stays the same, there may be twists and turns along the way that you need to adapt to without the whole project getting derailed.

6. Be curious

The best developers tend to be naturally curious people who love to learn. This proclivity drives them to constantly improve and explore new and better ways of doing things. To keep up your own curiosity, make an effort to stay on top of the latest trends and best practices in software engineering, especially in your area of specialty.

Read blogs, listen to podcasts, and go to conferences once in a while. These actions can help keep you looped into topics that are not directly connected to your day-to-day duties but that will make you a stronger and more well-rounded engineer. In addition, they may spark a creative idea or approach to solving a problem that wouldn’t have occurred to you otherwise.  

7. Pay attention to detail

Developers who pay attention to detail tend to write higher-quality code. Computers do only what you tell them to do. If a code does not compile or a product has a bug, it’s not the computer’s fault. Exercising the ability to think through corner cases and write code that can handle various use cases results in a much easier development process.

Also, detail-oriented developers can catch mistakes in their own code as well as in others’ code. Sometimes it can be tough to apply the laser focus needed to small details after a big push, which is why (when possible) taking a break and a step back can be valuable. People rush and cut corners when they are tired, while fresh eyes can go a long way.

Soft power

The so-called secrets to success—work hard, accept feedback, never stop learning—tend to be fairly consistent across professions, but these soft skills can sometimes get lost in the tech industry. Keeping each of these qualities in mind as a benchmark can help any developer, no matter how new or experienced, level up.

Share your suggestions for how to succeed as a software engineer in the comments below.

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