Software engineering is all about coding. Right?
Wrong. Well, just a little bit at least. Software engineering is way more than writing lines of code. Problem-solving, understanding complex business systems, specifying the scope of project implementation, defining contracts between clients and customers, coordination (for resource allocation, deployments, interlinked pieces of work), prioritizing, communication between colleagues or with Product Managers… the list goes on.
In fact, for many developers, coding is the easy part. You can practice this craft to perfection. Got a bug? Fix it. Data table locked and clients can’t log in? Declare an incident and fix it. Deployment of a new release failed? Fix it.
We, developers, are innate fixers. Logically minded, we love building solutions that help someone in some way. Which in itself is an innately empathetic trait.
Yet, when deadlines are tight, or the team is stretched too thin, or even when everything is going brilliantly, we can sometimes forget to work on the long list of other skills we need to do our job which doesn’t involve code. This is where having good Emotional Intelligence is incredibly valuable. Not only for yourself but a survey of hiring managers confirmed that 75% of hiring managers valued high EI over high IQ.
Firstly, what is Emotional Intelligence? As April Wensel said in her talk at PyTennessee in 2018, it’s not about sugarcoating difficult conversations or being an extrovert. Emotional Intelligence is about not being ruled by your emotions.
American psychologist, Daniel Goleman, popularised emotional intelligence and defined five key principles that underpin EI; self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills.
How can we apply this as software engineers? We’ve broken down the five EI pillars into simple definitions and, based on extensive research and lived experiences as developers, we’ve collected some examples and tips that you can use to boost your Emotional Intelligence.
Self-awareness is being able to understand your emotions and how your reactions to your emotions affect others. As a developer, it’s good to spend time reflecting on your intrinsic strengths, weaknesses, environments that you have a natural preference for, and potential situations that can trigger you. A good example of having good self-awareness is knowing how much you can do.
It happens often in teams of developers that a sprint finishes with initially committed user stories unfinished. Self-awareness enables the team to take on and commit to finishing a realistic amount of work based on the complexity and skill set of the team. An example of this may be considering whether, even on a good day, could you complete an 8-point piece of work within a working day. It’s unrealistic to commit to this if you know you would struggle or have never completed a piece of work like this in that time.
How can self-awareness help you as a developer? In a nutshell, it will help you to recognize and mitigate the impact of stress by understanding your skills and limitations accurately.
From tight deadlines to receiving constructive feedback in 1-1s to tackling criticism during code reviews to simply working in the fast-paced world of software development, the ability to recognize when you are experiencing stress will help you to limit the impact it has on your health and develop healthy coping mechanisms.
To boost your self-awareness, ask yourself the following questions and journal your answers.
Complete this exercise once a month and review your answers from the previous month.
Do you notice any differences?
Self-regulation is the ability to manage your own impulses, energy, and moods and to think before you act. This is particularly useful when you apply this to managing your capacity at work and how you react in a professional environment. We probably all know the impulsiveness that comes with working behind a computer screen; less actual face-to-face time, brisk deadlines and the sometimes unavoidable insularity of coding can mean that you can get stuck in your head and forget how to regulate yourself when it comes to interacting with other human beings.
For example, let’s say we’re a junior developer who has just started learning Java. They see a high priority ticket in the sprint, weighted at around 8 points. We all know the feeling. We want to impress and please our team. But we don’t have the skills needed to complete the work, especially in a specific timeframe. Self-regulation, in this case, will mean that you decline to pick up the ticket but maybe offer to pair or review the work of the more senior developer who picks it up. Sure, you’re turning down an opportunity to shine but you’re also not being controlled by your pride and accepting work which will be stressful to complete well. Instead, self-regulation helps you to make a decision that is realistic and benefits the team, as well as the business you work for.
This might present as getting irritated at correcting a colleague’s code format for the umpteenth time (despite also asking them to install a linting extension in VS Code) and writing a slightly too direct comment on their latest merge request. With a few grumpy exclamation marks to boot.
When you are unable to self-regulate, you react in ways that are driven by your emotions, which isn’t always appropriate in a professional setting. Outbursts like the one above are likely to make your colleague more hesitant to ask for your help when they next have a merge request to review, for fear of getting the same reaction. Over time, reactions like this lead to a less collaborative environment. Had you been able to self-regulate and calmly explain why the changes needed, your colleague would’ve made the adjustments and would trust you as a source for support in future.
What motivates you? Many of us working in tech are lucky to be well paid, have interesting projects, a work-life balance, and have supportive colleagues (or, at least a mixture of some of these).
But does any of this motivate you intrinsically?
It may well be that none of these motivate you, which is OK. Understanding what drives you will help you write and keep writing the best code you’ve ever written. If the going gets tough, you’ll already know how to tap into your innate ambition and stay focused and positive. You’ll also be more likely to take the initiative to take charge of your own career and create your own opportunities, as opposed to following the path set out by your employer or what is expected of you by others.
This is not about promoting ‘hustle culture’, but more to highlight the importance of knowing what keeps you going and cultivating a proactive mindset which means you are ready and motivated when opportunities that align with your goals present themselves.
Empathy is the awareness of the feelings, needs, and concerns of others. Being aware of how others experience the world means that as a developer, you are better able to communicate and build relationships with lots of different people.
Take our example earlier of writing an irritated comment in response to a mistake on a merge request. When exercising empathy, you may consider whether your colleague has made a mistake because they are stressed or whether code quality standards are communicated clearly across the department. You would then share your feedback on the merge request calmly and perhaps check in with this colleague.
To be clear, empathy is not about lowering your standards or cutting people too much slack. It’s about considering others and considering how your actions may impact them. A good example of exercising empathy is setting easy-to-understand variable names. Underpinning a key principle of clean code, setting variable names which are easy to search, intentionally named, and describing the logic of the variable makes life much easier for the next developer who comes along and has to work out what the code does. This contributes to how easy a system is to maintain or re-architect. Ever designed an API? Developers are your users, so develop and publish an API and related resources that are simple and if possible, include a feedback option so your users can ask questions. At Taxdoo, we offer Developer Support for our API via Reddit, so that developers can read discussions and share knowledge.
Ever heard of Ubiquitous Language? Eric Evans coined this term in Domain Driven Design to describe the practice of establishing a language between users and developers, based on the Domain Model. By using empathy to develop Ubiquitous Language, we then have a framework of communication between developers and business domain experts that makes the feedback for testing or developing a product clearer and much more impactful.
Being aware of how others feel is also key if you aim to become a leader. People gravitate towards those who can unite a diverse group of people and bring out the best in them. Highly empathetic people are also more likely to be able to acknowledge and successfully navigate political situations at work in a way that delivers results, for example, securing promotion for a direct report or receiving more resources to better complete a project, without compromising their integrity or neglecting the development of their team.
Social skills are just for social butterflies and extroverts? Of course not! Even for the most shy or introverted, social skills can be developed in an authentic way so that you can connect and work with others. Social skills cover a breadth of qualities; the ability to communicate (think honestly and clearly, rather than chatty and convoluted), the ability to build trust and bonds with colleagues and most powerfully, to yield influence based on the high regard that your colleagues hold you in.
Let’s uncover another myth: having good social skills is not about being popular or striving to make everyone like you. Social skills are about presenting yourself authentically, being an uncomplicated person to work with, and being someone who can mentor, manage and resolve disagreements in a way that builds trust, rather than erodes it. In many organizations, people who possess brilliant social skills can also use this to spark change in a positive way. Does the company want to become agile? Advocates will be selected based on their sphere of influence to spearhead a cultural shift and ensure that the adoption remains high.
At the end of the day, we know that Emotional Intelligence is often overlooked as a ‘mere soft skill’. We like to measure success with cold, hard metrics. So why care about Emotional Intelligence, especially in a logic-driven field such as software engineering? Because a high IQ alone is not enough to achieve success.
Much as we are expected to have multiple skills and areas of knowledge as an engineer, to work sustainably and be more impactful, we need to address how we behave, react, and present ourselves at work. The great thing about EI is that it puts the focus back onto personal growth, emotionally and mentally, as opposed to professional growth, which focuses on acquiring new skills and experiences to remain competitive.
Combining both and suddenly, we, as engineers and tech professionals, can sustainably deliver value as well as grow as individuals.
Not sure how to approach this subject with your team? Share this article with trusted colleagues on chat messenger, ask them to read it, and see what they think. Perhaps it will spark a healthy debate on what processes a team or department could work on to promote a culture of emotional intelligence.
Or if a problem keeps arising around code reviews or difficult-to-understand documentation, use this article as a conversation starting point for addressing these issues in retros or post-mortems. It is good to note that in some organizations which are purely results driven or where mental health or wellness at work is not prioritized, that the topic of Emotional Intelligence may be viewed negatively or could cause someone to take offense. Not everyone thinks the same or is as progressive as you’d hope them to be, so consider before you decide to raise this topic in your workplace.
We hope that you found this article. Please feel free to share your feedback or experiences with us!
Maria, Engineering Manager at Taxdoo, delivered a presentation on Emotional Intelligence in Software Engineering at the FemTech Conference in 2023. Covering the definition of Emotional Intelligence, management psychology, the professional benefits of high Emotional Intelligence to practical tips on how to improve your own emotional intelligence, her talk was a deep dive into EI that aims to provide practical ways to improve your own EI whilst supporting your team in an EI-positive environment.