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.
Moving to management is fun when you know what it takes
It’s not easy being an Engineering Manager and it takes more than just a good work ethic. The first step in becoming a good leader is learning about yourself as an individual. Self-awareness and self-reflection are key if you want to be an empathetic and confident leader. Once you know what it means to be you, it will be easier for your direct reports and colleagues to figure out how they relate their own strengths and weaknesses with yours. They must be able to see how their work contributes to the whole and feel valued as members of a team.
What makes a good engineering manager at Taxdoo? With our Taxdoo values and culture in mind, here are some tips on becoming and excelling as an engineering manager.
One of the most important things you can do to become an engineering manager is to keep yourself motivated. And understand what motivates you. Motivation is a mindset that keeps you one step ahead of your competition and allows you to achieve more than what would seem initially possible.
In order for motivation to have an effect, the first thing to do is to make sure that there is a clear goal or set of goals that need to be accomplished. From there on, it’s easy. Make a plan with small actionable steps that are part of the overall goal. Once something gets accomplished, ticking it off marks an incremental step toward completing your goal. Not only does it feel good to work in this way, but it also strengthens the resolve of yourself and others as progress is tangible and constant.
Empowering Others to do their Best Work
A good engineering manager knows that empowering their team is their primary role.
Good leaders celebrate and hone the unique capabilities and personalities of their direct reports and strive to support each individual to grow whilst delivering business value. By trusting their team to self-organize with day-to-day operational tasks (such as attending stand-up or organizing code reviews), an engineering manager can then focus on coaching engineers and inspiring them to do their best work by gradually assigning them more significant pieces of work which challenge them and with guidance, push them out of their comfort zone.
Feedback is key
Constructive feedback is key to the success of your team. It’s about giving your team members the information and guidance they need so they can succeed, but also being humble enough to accept feedback from your team or your own manager. At Taxdoo, our culture fosters frequent feedback and this is one of the things our future engineering managers need to encourage as a constant.
To us, feedback is the cornerstone to creating a culture where mistakes are embraced and a growth mindset is celebrated. And encouraging our engineers to be brave enough to take action rather than avoid risk. It means setting up systems for continuous improvement and feedback loops between leadership and employees so that everyone knows what’s expected of them in each role on the team, or across teams. If you’d like to find out how we embed this from day one, check out our Onboarding blog post.
It’s important to remember that mistakes are encouraged when you’re an engineering manager. Think of it as an opportunity to learn and grow. No one’s perfect, so why should you or anyone else be punished for it?
In an engineering setting, we all know that the business of shipping code can be a risky business. Deployment failed? Major outage? Stay calm and fix it. Then assemble your team for a blameless incident post-mortem. Take the lead and share the results with the engineering department and the rest of the business. No one is more stressed than your engineers when something goes wrong; it’s your role as a manager to steady the ship, investigate what happened, support the solution, and show solidarity with your team in front of the entire business. This fosters psychological safety, which will unite your team when times get tough.
At the end of the day, we work in tech, not the emergency room.
Communication solves everything
Communication is so important when building a team. Something that people often miss though is that communication isn’t just about talking; it’s also about listening.
Communication in the workplace is essential because it facilitates collaboration in an environment that brings a diverse range of people together and helps them to harness their unique abilities to achieve success on projects and tasks that are important to the company. Collaboration is something we cherish deeply at Taxdoo. We believe that it allows everyone to simultaneously experience how their work impacts other teams, and how other teams’ work impacts their own. This builds awareness and makes the path to success smoother than ever.
Everyday is a school day
It’s important to keep learning, especially in a fast-paced environment like ours. You can learn from your team, and they can learn from you. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, so it’s best to understand each other before jumping into a critical piece of work.
For example one person might be great at writing code but not so great at understanding what their teammates are talking about; another person may have a very strong background in programming but not so much experience with business management.
We could go on and on, but the point here is that everyone has something unique to offer—and those differences should be valued as much as their similarities!
Learning is a lifelong process. You can’t stop learning and you never have to stop learning. The best thing about it is that it’s not just about reading, watching, or listening; it’s also about asking questions.
Learning isn’t something that happens once in your career—it’s a process of trial and error. Try new things and fail at them until you figure out why they didn’t work for you before giving up. Alternatively, you can try again with another approach or strategy to see if that makes sense for you as an individual, team member, and employee at Taxdoo.
At the end of the day, what you do matters more than what you say
As a new leader, you’ll face challenges that will push your boundaries and stretch your skills. You’ll have to learn new things and put them into practice, including how to empower effectively, motivate others, and communicate with the people on your team. Becoming a good leader is hard work.
If you’re interested in having a role that enables you to make an impact and grow as an individual as well as part of an organization, there’s no better time than now.
While becoming an engineering manager isn’t always easy, it’s definitely rewarding. The benefits of leadership are endless, and you’ll be glad you took this step when you see how much your team grows.
This article is written by the engineering managers at Taxdoo.
André Kowalewski, Katarina Lang, Zeynal Zeynalov, Maria Canero, Alexander Klein and Gabriel Guimaraes.