You need to keep your tech skills current. But a productive career depends on several additional practices.
Life is always uncertain, but sometimes it’s more uncertain than usual. That’s definitely the situation for tech industry employees right now, some of whom are nervous about their future. The good news is that the job market will continue to favor software developers in 2023, according to Forrester. The better news? You can make yourself more valuable to your company and (if that fails) to other employers.
Looking for practical advice? Consider these nine concrete ways to future-proof your software development career and add in-demand skills to your resume. These practices help you stand out to your boss—both your current boss and your next one—as someone worth keeping around.
Our list goes beyond technical skills, although we share important ones to add to your tool belt. We also offer advice on long-term career survival, such as soft skills that go beyond programming.
Let’s get the obvious advice out of the way: Don’t let your tech skills go stale.
Pay at least some attention to market demands so that you’re ready to tackle new projects. If you need inspiration for the current hot tech to learn, look in job postings for the sort of work you do or that you want to do next. If lots of those employers are looking for Kubernetes experience, it’d behoove you to learn Kubernetes.
One straightforward way to grow your skills as a software developer is to add another language to your tool belt. As for which one, that depends greatly on your current company as well as your career aspirations. Language popularity changes over time, and so do pay rates based on expertise in each one, but the rule of thumb is “Never stop learning.”
So how to get started? While computer books are still a thing (check out O’Reilly), particularly when there’s one topic you want to learn about in-depth, online courses help you learn languages at your own pace. Good places to start include Udemy (courses run about $100 or less), Coursera (many courses are free with the option to buy a certificate), and Codecademy (free access to basic courses with monthly subscriptions for more advanced study). LinkedIn Learning also offers courses on a wide variety of technical skills.
While it’s important to stay current, strengthen your expertise in underlying computer science concepts and software development processes. Some skills never become obsolete. Among them: admirable programming habits, design patterns, software testing, debugging, agile development practices, and data structures.
These essentials aren’t all tech knowledge, per se. Learn to recognize when enough is enough when you’re facing YAGNI and when you’ve gotten into the realms of diminishing returns (such as spending months optimizing performance on a rarely used application function). This helps you build a reputation for quality and reliability. Someone who produces clean work that doesn’t require re-work is always in demand.
Languages and development environments change. However, with a firm technical foundation, you can confidently tell a would-be employer, “I’ve learned dozens of languages in my career. Adding another one to my skill set is no big deal.”
Plenty of developers think about their code, whether that means skill with their favored programming language or improving application speed. But software runs in a larger system, whether that’s your own company’s deployment process or on the internet in general. Your reputation is affected by your understanding of the world outside the applications you create and the people who are responsible for those systems.
For example, it’s a good idea to get more familiar with DevOps. While most developers know what DevOps is, true expertise builds alliances with people in the operations department—and also makes your resume stand out.
To pick up these skills, here again, LinkedIn Learning offers DevOps courses on everything from DevOps foundations to more advanced topics. But you don’t need a dedicated class. Begin reading reputable online sources, such as the DevOps Institute, DevOps.com, and InfoWorld. There’s even a best-selling DevOps novel (yes, really): Gene Kim’s The Phoenix Project.
Similarly, learn more about cloud-native architectures. Atchison urges developers to learn as much as they can about cloud-native technologies such as microservices, containers, and Kubernetes. Udemy offers a great, free Basics of Microservices course. Find similar courses and tutorials on containers and Kubernetes—from introductory 101 courses to advanced concepts—on Udemy, Coursera, LinkedIn Learning, and elsewhere.
It’s important to understand how the work you do helps the business achieve its goals. Many developers don’t consider the importance of learning more about the business beyond the cubicle walls of the engineering department. As a longtime software developer, Jim Mischel points out, software developers write programs to solve business problems, but almost anyone can write programs: “If you want to stand out, advance, you have to understand the businesses we serve and the problems they face.”
Position yourself as part of a bigger operation. Learn what managers and stakeholders care about, and do your best to serve them. Being good at working with domain and business experts helps you become more valuable to them and vice-versa.
To get started, set up informational meetings with leaders in other departments—sales, marketing, finance, and so on. Ask them for their thoughts on the business, what they think the biggest challenges and opportunities are, and how the business can best serve its customers. Far from being a bother, most people are happy to impart their knowledge; also, everyone wants an opportunity to tell their story. And you just might make some new friends in high places who can help you in the future!
Tech certifications rarely make a difference to other developers, who prefer to look at your code than at a test score. But they sometimes make a difference to HR departments and to the salary a company offers you. Certifications and related training also can be self-affirming and reduce imposter syndrome because the external confirmation assures you that you do meet a baseline of domain knowledge.
Currently, one way to increase your value to current and future employers is to get a basic cloud certification, recommends Atchison, probably an AWS certification or Google Cloud cert. Both providers offer a general foundational cloud certification, but you can pursue a number of advanced certification levels, such as cloud architect, solutions architect, and cloud DevOps engineer. The AWS exam, which costs $100, consists of 65 multiple-choice questions that you must answer within 90 minutes. Cloud Academy offers quizzes and hands-on labs to help you prepare for the exam. Coursera offers good advice on the best DevOps certifications to consider.
Learn to work with others in a team environment. You develop code, but you work with people. While traits such as empathy are built-in for some people, everyone can learn and improve their abilities in time management, conflict resolution, and active listening. In a world of increasing automation for business tasks, having a skill that can’t be easily automated, such as effective problem-solving, ensures that you remain valuable.
Personal networking is a crucial soft skill. Learn how to network effectively, even if you’re shy. Nurture your connections and friends as if they matter. Because they do.
Don’t burn bridges. You never know when someone you dislike will luck into a fantastic startup and be in a position to hire or recommend you. Kindness has its own karma.
And once you establish a network, tend it. Stay in touch with former colleagues. Find out what they’re up to. Send a short “congrats” when you see they start a new job. Write an unsolicited LinkedIn recommendation. Help people when you can—and ideally before they ask for it. The less you take your professional network for granted, the more you get back from it when you really need it.
When you’re ready for your next adventure, tell your connections and friends. Be honest (but professional) about why you’re leaving your current gig and what you hope for in the next one. If you’ve followed the advice above—earning a reputation as a problem-solver who delivers good work on time—it won’t be a hardship for your network contacts to recommend you. If you were a mentor who taught them a trick or three that stuck, and they think positively of you, it pays off.
Nobody is asking you to create your own blog or become a public speaker at conferences. That’s nice, but an extra. It’s far more important for developers to learn to get their points across to non-engineer audiences such as sales and executive leadership.
Work on effective communication, especially with non-technical colleagues. This means speaking in such a way that the listener gets the point. Give people the appropriate level of technical detail, explain why it matters to them and their work, and avoid adding irrelevant details.
Do work on your writing ability, even if it’s just learning how to write a coherent email message. Consider taking a business writing course, such as the ones offered at the Business Writing Center.
Even if you aren’t yet a solid writer, offer your services to your company’s Content team. Maybe you can contribute to the company blog or write technical how-tos. Content marketers are always looking for writers who can write about technical topics in a clear, engaging way, and those editors are delighted to mentor anyone who wants to improve that skill. Those blog posts raise your profile within the company as well as with your industry peers.
Keep detailed notes about your work. Note the key decisions that were made during a project, the roles you played, and the eventual business outcome. One reason is purely personal: If you don’t recognize your own mistakes, you’re apt to repeat them.
Another benefit: You have a non-vague resume that can stand up to deep discussions in job interviews—particularly for the opportunities that come along when you aren’t looking.
Even if you aren’t looking for a job right now, at some point in your career, you will be. So it makes sense to grow your job search skills, including your interviewing skills before you need them. Interviewing is a separate skill on its own. You should interview often enough that you’re not stressed out by the process. Think of it as a “Hello, world!” project; it’s best to make the dumb mistakes when they don’t matter.
When you care about a job, you want to come across to interviewers as calm, collected, and well-spoken. This is much easier to do when you’re not desperate for the position or even that interested at all. So take job interviews even when you are “meh” on the prospect. It’s great practice, and sometimes it leads to a better opportunity than you expect.
Curiosity is one of the most important traits you can have, says life and career coach Diana Allen. “Stay open to new thoughts, ideas, and perspectives. Ask questions to learn,” she advises.
Strive to cultivate a growth mindset, which means believing you are limitless and that your intelligence and ability can be developed further. “Carol Dweck, one of the world’s leading researchers of motivation and mindset and the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, says one important characteristic of this type of mindset is the willingness to learn from your mistakes and to find value in criticism,” Allen says.
“We all have identity capital,” says Allen. “It is everything that makes you who you are.” This includes tangible things such as work experience, degrees, and courses. “It also includes intangible things such as your personality traits, how empathetic you are, how you solve problems, whether you are introverted or extroverted,” she points out. “The better you know yourself and what you bring to the table, the more confident and successful you’ll be in your career or in any future job search.”
Always keep learning! And practically speaking, in the short term, that means building on your existing technical knowledge.
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