The new has a new tag line: “Beyond the code.” The idea is that software developers can (and should) break out of their code silos and emerge as leaders in their organizations. But, for that to happen, programmers need more than top-notch coding chops. They also need people skills and the savvy to navigate corporate politics.

Or do they?

When I was laid off last June, I had to slap on a tie and shake hands with lots of recruiters. I foolishly assumed that, in addition to showcasing my technical experience, I should emphasize my strong organizational and communications skills. I practiced using the essential soft-skills catch phrases to drop during interviews. Repeat after me: “I am an effective communicator under tight deadlines.” “I am a team player.”


This article first appeared on ZDNet’s AnchorDesk.

Boy, was I wasting my time! Not one of those recruiters asked me, “So, Matt, how well do you get along with your coworkers?” Or, “Why shouldn’t you end a sentence in a preposition?”

All they cared about was whether I could comprehend Java code or had used LoadRunner. (I did have to explain to one recruiter the difference between Lode Runner, the classic arcade game, and LoadRunner, the automated testing tool produced by Mercury Interactive.)

The recruiters who heard my soft-skills pitch were probably thinking, “Listen, buddy, no public-speaking class will help you write better code. Come project crunch time, which is more important: what you learned at Toastmasters or how well you can debug Java code at 4 a.m.?”

I can already see the e-mail and discussion flames you are about to send me. “Matt, you are an idiot. As a development manager for 10 years, I would rather have one team player than an army of arrogant 20-something Java jockeys.” And I agree: Being a jerk who’s incapable of constructing a complete sentence will never land you on the career fast track.

But, if you think that a class on tactful e-mail communication will help you climb the corporate ladder, think again. You can schmooze and network all you want. But, in today’s economy, if you can’t deliver the bug fix your boss needs in a matter of minutes, you’re dead in the water.

It’s all a question of balance: When the job market is tight, and when deadlines loom, soft skills may not seem that important. But, as soon as those critical moments pass, the uncouth developer could find himself or herself flipping through the want ads—right next to the guy reciting the Hamlet soliloquy he learned at Toastmasters.

Shopping for soft skills

Dealing with a prima donna developer on your team? Then check out  “Solving the problem of prima donna developers.” Do you think I missed the boat on the importance of soft skills for developers? Are they key to getting ahead or not? Post a comment below.