Universal skills every software developer can benefit from

I develop software. Professionally for almost 15 years. These are some skills that helped and help me and I think they could help any software developer.

Disclaimer: I develop software. Professionally for almost 15 years. These are some skills that helped and help me and I think they could help any software developer.


I cannot tell you how many times debugging saved me. I debug with print statements, with IDEs, with command line debuggers and with my brain. Understanding how a system works is crucial. Which parts are connected and which are not. Asking what if. And asking what happened.


If things go slow, I need to know why. Users and stakeholders expect a certain speed. And rightly so. But beware: if you optimize for one scenario, others might suffer. Profiling and optimizations are a thing of priority: which tasks should be fast and which can be slow.


If I work with or for others, understanding each other and the models and concepts they use is essential. Sketching helps me to illustrate my view, my understanding of their view and the misunderstandings between us. Even when not communicating with others I can communicate with myself. Sketching a model of what is in my head or what I plan helps me reason about it. You don’t need to be a master artist, simple shapes like lines, rectangles, circles and arrows get you a long way.

Concepts (domain and technical)

Everybody thinks in concepts and models. May they be from a technical or a user domain. In my daily work I need to understand, to develop, to extract and to communicate concepts. Concepts come from very different places: code has concepts, domains have concepts, our profession has concepts and all kinds of people have concepts. Concepts form the base for my communication.


Time is limited. Concentration is limited. Constraints in a project help me to focus. To be pragmatic. But they also push me to plan and to estimate. I need to develop a notion of how long a feature takes, how important it is, how risky.


In my work I constantly evaluate. From small scale: which implementation is better, to large scale: which technology, which architecture should I use. To evaluate, I need to know the goals and the criteria. My experience helps me and hinders me. I know that no evaluation can be objective. Every one has his personal favorites (and dislikes). Some things can only be seen afterwards. So I have to remind me that I don’t take too long with evaluation and start using it.


With other developers I can talk in IT lingo. With designers I need to use words from design. With users and stakeholders I speak so that they understand. My job is not only writing code. My job is to explain my job to others. If they do not understand me, it is my fault, not theirs. I do not need to bother them with every detail but sometimes they are the only ones who can decide. I need to tell them what their options are and what the consequences for each of them is – in their words.

Plan and prepare

They are two kinds of people: the ones who like to prepare and the ones who like to improvise. I am in the middle. Some things can be prepared and planned. It is useful when you can move work ahead of time or when you have (more) options when you need to improvise. Don’t overplan. Remember: a plan is there to be changed.


During my career I face new situations every now and then. I cannot plan for them or I didn’t. When I am in a client meeting, in a demo presentation, at the production system and something goes not as planned, I need to do something. Sometimes now. It helps me to have a emergency mode. In these situations I focus on what I have: my brain and my voice and on what I can (maybe) get: help from others, a pencil and a paper, time. And sometimes I need to say: I am sorry.

Lead / own

If I work on an issue, I need to own it. If I lead a project, I need to own it. My career: I need to own it. I am the one who is responsible. That does not mean I have to perform the work myself. I also need to know when I am not the right person for the job. But I need to decide. The work, the project, the career is not a boat which drifts in a giant ocean, I need to take the paddle and use it.


I work not alone. I have teammates. I have clients. My goal is to work with them to a common goal. For this I need to collaborate. To delegate. To talk and to ask. To lead and to follow.

Define goals

Goals are measurable. I can ask: did I reach that goal? And answer with yes or no. Often we define something like: I want to get better at X as a goal. But that isn’t a goal. Think of a goal as a destination, not a direction. It is important to strike the balance between focusing too little or too much on our goals. But without even knowing what the goals are we just wander around.

Reflect and how to get feedback

I confess: I cannot live without feedback for too long. Am I on my way to the goal? Is this code any good? Was this the right decision? Do I make progress? Does it work? Reflection and feedback are stepping stones for me. A base from which I can move to higher mountains.


Asking is hard. Asking for help is hard. Asking for things you don’t (and maybe should) know is hard. But it helps immensely in learning. Be curious. Asking so that the other understands your question and you get the answers you need, needs practice. So: feel free to ask 🙂

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