15 Software Engineer Soft Skills Needed To Advance Your Career

Kevin Landucci
Pass Interviews
min read

A career in software engineering is a bit of a paradox, because the further you get, the less important the act of hands-on software engineering becomes. The higher up you go, it’s less about coding and more about influencing people. Technical skills – languages, frameworks, tools, and platforms – are at the core of a software developer’s craft, but if your goal is to become a lead programmer, principal engineer, staff engineer, manager, director, cofounder, or any type of leader, those same hard skills aren’t going to get you there. You need social skills.

Like a great movie with a bad title, sometimes ideas with a bad name don’t get the credit they deserve. “Soft skills” might not sound like much, but don’t be fooled by the misnomer. Soft skills are about your ability to influence another human being to do something that when they woke up that morning they didn’t think they were going to do. Hard skills allow one person to build a complex system, soft skills allow that same one person to convince 10 other people to build this system with them; in short, good soft skills can help you to convey your ideas, and get more hard stuff done.

The Nice Guys: great movie, bad title.

You can’t be a successful software developer above the senior level without the ability to influence. If you want to migrate from one database to another, that’s not a call you make on your own. You have to get other people on board. People skills are essential to push the technical agenda that you have. If you want to get promoted and increase the level of your responsibility and compensation, the road isn’t paved with leetcode, it’s paved with Toastmasters.

There are 15 essential soft skills every software engineer needs, and this guide will dive deep into each.  These important soft skills include:

  1. Communication Skills
  2. Teamwork and Collaboration
  3. Problem-Solving
  4. Adaptability and Flexibility
  5. Time Management Skills
  6. Leadership Skills
  7. Emotional Intelligence
  8. Presentation Skills
  9. Customer Focus
  10. Continuous Learning
  11. Business Acumen
  12. Conflict Resolution
  13. Networking Skills
  14. Attention to Detail
  15. Resilience and Stress Management

1. Engineers and Communication

Talking and listening. Input and output. If you want excellent communication skills you have to be able to assert your point of view as well as understand someone else’s. Software development has its own list of protocols. Communication does too; one of them is that effective communication is a two-way street.

Effective Verbal and Written Communication

Great communicators are capable of explaining complex technical problems to a universal audience. The perfect balance is struck because the technical and nontechnical listeners will both retain the core message. A software engineer with this skill becomes highly coveted; leadership folks will want to leverage this skill in decisions made around the company. Companies aren’t made up of solely technical people, so to get everyone on board it’s crucial to have everyone understand. That’s why simple explanations win.

Active Listening

It may surprise you that you can take classes on listening. That’s because it’s a highly nuanced skill. The easiest way to improve your soft skills is before you’re going to listen to someone, to assume they are right. You don’t have to accept that they are right, but assume they are, so you can get to the bottom of what they’re saying. The best listeners notice stuff everyone else misses; this is a big advantage in code reviews, requirements meetings, and all interpersonal interactions.

2. Teamwork and Collaboration

Unless it’s a personal project, software development is never a one-person show. A project is only as good as the effectiveness of the people on that team; their interpersonal skills can make or break it. Excellent communication is the backbone of great teams.

Working Well in Teams

Working well in teams is about balance:

  • sharing your ideas or listening
  • being open-minded or pushing back
  • receptivity to the collective wisdom of the team
  • staying true to your expertise

Like all other joint human endeavors, it’s a constantly changing dance, and the most skilled people are the ones who are the most flexible to those changes.

Collaboration Tools and Techniques

From version control systems to Agile methodologies, there are a whole lot of tools to enhance collaboration. Which of them are “must knows” depends on the environment you’re working in and the goals you have. Especially in a remote or hybrid world, this toolbelt will be what separates the ones that get ahead from the ones that get by.

3. Problem-Solving Skills

Software development is about problem-solving and critical thinking. But it’s the way you approach these problems that can set you apart as an exceptional software engineer.

Analytical Thinking

If you can’t solve a problem, one way to make progress is to dumb it down. Critical thinking skills help you break down complex problems into smaller, “dumber” pieces. Every software developer has to be able to dumb it down, so the daunting problem is now doable.

Creative Problem-Solving

While structure is important, creativity is too. The best solutions often come from combining things, introducing something new, or shaking things up in a weird way; that’s what creativity is–divergence. So, when you can look at a problem from a different angle combine tools, or remove an out-of-date technique, your creativity is making the space for innovation to happen.

4. Adaptability and Flexibility

The system that survives is the most adaptable system. Tech changes so fast, it’s no shocker that the software developers who can keep up are the ones who are the most adaptable!

Embracing Change

If you can’t change it, then accept it. Tech is constantly changing. The software engineers who accept that are the ones who thrive: learning new frameworks or languages, diving into a new domain, and taking on stretch projects. It’s a life skill and a career skill to embrace change, and the more you do it, the further you’ll go.  

Learning New Technologies

Software developers are mostly concerned with keeping their tools sharp. Since the tools are changing all the time–Chat GPT, for example–one way to stay relevant is to try new stuff. Online courses, workshops, and practical experience are all pathways to getting up to speed on a new piece of tech.

5. Good Time Management Skills

This might sound old-fashioned, but time is the most precious resource on earth. Every software developer needs to manage their time to meet deadlines. But only the more effective software engineers get promoted, and if you manage time poorly you won’t be promoted. The leaders have to believe you’ll take your precious resources and get a solid return on your investment.


Not all tasks are created equal. Treating them all equally is one way to get messy. Knowing what’s most important and allocating your energy accordingly is an ability developers need.

Meeting Deadlines

Meeting deadlines is largely about being realistic about what you can achieve in a given time frame and sticking to a schedule. The ability to estimate your work accurately is a skill that can be honed over time with experience. And answering reflexively, instead of reflectively, is one way to estimate your work inaccurately.

6. Leadership Skills

At some point in your career, you may find yourself leading a team or guiding a project. Developing leadership skills and strong communication skills are an advantage not just for your long-term career but also the short-term (for the projects you’re involved in).

Leading Technical Projects

Overseeing the technical direction of a project requires not just an understanding of the code but also an ability to see the project as a whole. This includes setting goals, making strategic decisions, and guiding the team toward the finish line.

Mentoring Junior Developers

A true leader empowers others. Therefore, a true leader in the software world passes on their legacy. Your ability to mentor junior developers can help grow the next generation of software engineers, plus you grow professionally as well.

7. Emotional Intelligence

With unmanaged emotions, there’s not much you can get done. Think of a career in software as a road with stress, conflicts, and pressure as the potholes. Emotional intelligence is like x-ray vision that allows you to avoid potholes. You can’t change the fact that tricky things happen, but you can notice unspoken and implied thoughts and feelings which will give you infinitely more fertile ground to effectively collaborate, work through conflicts, and manage stress.


It’s essential for software developers to know themselves so they can predict their own behavior and plan for and mitigate unwanted stress and problems.

Empathy and Understanding

Empathy happens when you understand someone else’s perspective. The easy way to activate it is to imagine yourself in their shoes and process what you’d be feeling or thinking if you were them. Saying what you processed back to them is a savvy active listening and trust-building technique. Team members and direct reports alike appreciate empathy more than they may be able to say in the moment. When you’re gone, your legacy remains, and a more empathic one will be remembered in higher regard because those people are simply easier to work with.

8. Presentation Skills

More senior engineers have to speak in front of groups in presentations and large meetings. If you can stay calm up there, because you’ve practiced, it’s more likely other people will do what you want them to.

Articulating Ideas

Articulated ideas are the sketches of communication: not done, not pretty, simply a rough outline inviting more to be added. Sometimes you have to convey polished messages. Other times you articulate ideas to get closer to the polished messages. It’s necessary for software developers to do both. Share constructive articulated ideas in the fashion of a brainstorm, so you and your colleagues can come up with an even better idea together.


Public speaking class is the most effective way to become more confident. Dale Carnegie wrote about it decades ago. We’ve noticed the same thing: Toastmasters is the most common trick that software engineers mention to us as a way to improve confidence. If you want to be more confident, do a public speaking class.

Delivering Effective Presentations

You have to know what you have to say. You have to believe in what you’re going to say. And, last but not least, you have to enjoy what you’re going to say. If you do those three things, you will deliver effective presentations. Everything else is just a matter of practice.

Engaging and Influencing Stakeholders

Stakeholders care about outcomes. If you want to influence them you have to talk about “what’s going to happen if we do X” or “what’s going to happen if we don’t do X”. In this way, the outcomes will be clear to your audience. Since they’re higher up in the org chart, explaining the outcomes in terms of metrics and impact (cost savings, revenue) is even more effective.  

9. Customer Focus

Without any users, there are no companies. The easiest way to die is to stop listening to your users. Software engineers with a laser focus on users will build better products.

Understanding User Needs

The user doesn’t often know what they need. You can do all the research you want–it’s good to ask questions and understand the user-but at the end of the day you have to interpret what they need. Then it’s about running tests quickly to validate what’s right, and from there you will know the best path.

Providing Exceptional Customer Service

This might sound odd, but even in the most technical roles, customer service can set you apart. Being responsive and accommodating to user issues can build trust and confidence in your work.

10. Continuous Learning

When humans are growing and learning they are happy. Just the same, stagnation is anathema to the field of technology. Commit to learning and growing to keep your skills sharp and your mind open to new ideas.

Staying Updated with Industry Trends

The tech industry moves fast. What was a cutting-edge tool a few years ago might now be outdated. Staying up to date with industry news, blogs, and forums can give you a leg up on the competition. Check out tech events near you, and talk to people in your field, sometimes you can have someone else do the legwork for you.

Pursuing Professional Development Opportunities

Companies will pay for it sometimes. Other times you do it on your own. Either way, spend time on your craft and things that relate to it. Maybe you want to take a negotiation class, a public speaking class, or an improv class; creative opportunities can help you professionally as much as straightforward choices like a certification in AWS.

11. Business Acumen

This soft skill is often forgotten in the world of software development: how the software you write, or test or architect makes an impact on the business.

Understanding the Business Context

Knowing why you’re building something informs how you build it. The context in which a project exists can help shape technical decisions and priorities to align with business goals.

Aligning Technical Decisions with Business Goals

This is another micro skill to influence stakeholders. You have your technical decisions you want to buy in on, and you know they want to hear about the business goals, so the obvious path is to combine both when you pitch your ideas.

12. Conflict Resolution

Conflicts happen. Even though you don’t always notice. Responding to and repairing conflicts is how to keep things humming. A software engineer who knows how to patch things up, with themselves and with others, will be capable of much more in the long run.

Resolving Conflicts Within Teams

Whether it’s a disagreement on the technical direction or a personality clash, knowing how to approach and mediate conflicts allows developers to keep team dynamics steady, and focused, and churn out great code.

Mediation and Negotiation Skills

If a 3rd party being present is helpful, you can find an objective mediator. Honing your soft skills with negotiation is sharp because negotiation is a daily part of work. Negotiation is about using language to get what you want, what software engineer doesn’t want that? Learning to negotiate is like learning communication skills, on steroids.

13. Networking Skills

You can know a lot on your own, but you can know so much more when you have an ability to connect with other people. Raw expertise is as important as your ability to engage and affect new people.

Building Professional Relationships

Get new jobs, business, speaking engagements, and connections to mutual connections all through developing and maintaining relationships. The trick is to go inside and outside: of your network, of your organization. That way you have more opportunities.

Leveraging Networking Opportunities

We met a software engineer whose main activity to get interviews is to go to panel events. They are maximizing networking events for their own purposes. That’s one idea: find an event near you and go to it with the intention of finding what you’re looking for.

14. Attention to Detail

Unsurprisingly, this may be one of the most important soft skills for software engineers. Software engineering requires extreme detail-orientedness because small mistakes can have big consequences.

Ensuring Accuracy and Precision

Do the little things, it goes a long way. Like clean code comment styling, proper variable names, and identifying edge cases, it’s often the little things that make the difference between good and great.

Thorough Testing and Bug Fixing

Your code is not just the lines you write; it’s also about ensuring it functions as intended and handles unexpected situations gracefully. Rigorous testing and debug processes, along with thorough bug fixes, ensure that your software maintains its integrity long after it’s been rolled out.

15. Resilience and Stress Management

Deadlines, layoffs, P.I.P.s, bugs, and re-orgs are some of the work pressures in the life of a software engineer. Your response to these pressures determines your attitude and progress. If your heartbeat gets over 100 beats per minute your testosterone goes down, which makes you a worse problem solver. This is an example of how stress kills. The opposite is also true; managing stress saves.

Handling Pressure and Setbacks

Think of pressure and setbacks as dysregulation of your system. The way to regulate the system is with things like intense exercise, talking with a confidant, and an all-consuming activity like bouldering or throwing ice at trees. When you feel the beginning of pain, it’s best to act. As opposed to waiting until you’re burned out before you do anything about it.

Maintaining Work-Life Balance

You gotta have a life-work balance. Life first, work second. A software engineer will be a better engineer and a more fulfilled person if they have at least 1 engaging activity outside of work, regularly talk to at least a couple of folks, and have something that they’re running towards.

Conclusion: Soft Skills For Software Developers That Define Success

When you’re new in your career, your programming skills are an integral part of software development, and soft skills are just as important. Once you progress to the senior and above level, the value of your coding skills begins to depreciate. The appreciating currency for senior and above engineers is critical soft skills: your ability to influence other people and your ability to manage yourself. Thousands of developers before you haven’t learned this lesson, don’t join them.

Software engineering is a wide world. And it’s fun to go deep, that’s why you became a software developer in the first place. Technical abilities are what hooked you, but to grow your career you have to adapt. It starts with seeing soft skills as a rad skillset to have. Then it’s about how you communicate effectively. Then you learn how to understand people. And then you can apply that to pretty much anything: networking, disputes, meetings with stakeholders. And confidence is a part of being a leader, so if you want to get confident fast… start speaking in public!

Dan Klos
Co-Founder & CEO @applypass
Dan has spent the last 8 years helping software engineers level up their career. He created Outco to help over 2,000+ engineers secure top-paying job offers. Currently, his entire focus is on building ApplyPass to aid engineers in getting 40% more interviews and saving more than 5 hours per week on job applications. When he's not at work, he's deeply involved in activism, challenging hikes, and canoeing.
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