by David Yu

How to cultivate great communication skills as a dev and kick bad habits to the curb

Photo by Hitesh Choudhary on Unsplash

It always makes me pause when someone writes, “skilled in communication” on their résumé.

Should I have any reason to doubt your communication skills? Or are you giving me a reason to doubt them?

Putting my ego aside, I’ve been thinking about why developers have a bad reputation for being hard to communicate with.

I’ve reflected on my own experiences, and indeed there have been times that the words from my mouth didn’t make sense. In this article, I’ll share a few scenarios where I “lost” my communication skills — and solutions I used to help find them.

Problem: writing code throughout the night

Coding requires intense focus and logical thinking.

Research shows that sleep deprivation is equal to chugging a few beers.

When I used to write code at night, I enjoyed the tranquility of the night. No one bothers you, it’s just you and your thoughts.

In one particular instance, we had to demo a prototype to a client for the first time. We found a bug late at night, so I had no choice but to stay up and patch it up.

The next morning, the software was fine, but I wasn’t. I was stuttering the whole time. Thank goodness I had my teammate take over for me.

Solutions

Well, the easy solution is to avoid coding at night.

But what if your boss set a unrealistic deadline, and your job is on the line? You could wake up early instead. I know it sucks, but it’s also quiet.

Over time, I learned to leave more room for testing and debugging.

In Aytekin Tank’s article, here are some sleeping tips I found helpful:

  1. Don’t consume caffeine in the afternoon
  2. Exercise daily
  3. Keep the room temperature cool
  4. Avoid screens two hours before bed time

Problem: working alone for an extended period of time

I noticed this before I learned how to code.

When I worked at the clothing store of 90 employees, speaking in front of them was not a problem.

If I sit in front of a computer and don’t talk to anyone for a few hours, my public speaking skills deteriorate almost to zero. I stutter and use too much technical jargon.

There’s no worse feeling than when you’ve built something awesome, but you can’t explain what it does.

Solutions

Set a limited work time.

When you work, only do the work in front of you.

Turn off your phone and hide it somewhere. This will force your mind to focus on the task at hand.

Sing a song when you take a break. It sounds weird, but it works for me. If you’re working alone, you don’t have to worry about being good enough for American Idol. It warms up your vocal chords so you can speak with an outside voice.

Problem: thinking about code while in mid-conversation

When your mind is thinking about an unresolved issue, it jumps back and forth from your subconscious to your conscious mind.

If you are in a middle of figuring something out, and your co-worker says, “Hey, why doesn’t ___ (insert new feature) work?” you probably won’t be able to respond very easily.

Ironically, you were coding that new feature at the same time in your brain.

Solutions

Put a process in place for gathering and recording issues.

Use software like Trello or physical Post-Its. Then you can clearly see the remaining tasks and their priority level.

Set meetings ahead of time, so there are fewer abrupt “discussions”.

This image came from this article by Amando Abreu. In the article, his words resonated with me:

After working in an environment that doesn’t allow you to focus for too long, your brain becomes used to not being focused, and it affects your cognitive and creative abilities, leading to worse work, and costing your employers a lot of money.

A proper working environment is so important to developers and the productivity of the organization. Make sure you have one.

Problem: acronyms don’t save time

Excessive use of made up acronyms is a significant impediment to communication and keeping communication good as we grow is incredibly important.
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

When you mix a group of people with various expertise, there’s bound to be a person who doesn’t understand a certain acronym or jargon such as:

KOL, TDD, KPI, CTA, SPA, SPF, WTF

We end up spending more time to explain it. Here’s a hilarious clip from The Office that demonstrate that.

Solutions

Use vocabulary that everyone understands.

Communication is both a privilege and duty. It’s a privilege to listen and to be heard. But it’s also your duty to make sure your words are understood.

To listen, you will need to give the other person your full attention. It’s hard, but it’s worth it.

Problem: jumping in on conversations half-way

Maybe you have your headphones on while coding. And all of a sudden your boss wants your opinion, “What do you think?”

“Uh…What were we talking about?”

Then they pretty much have to retrace their conversation.

The worst thing you could do is to give an answer before you understand the context of the conversation.

Solutions

Always understand the context of the conversation first. Ask questions. Understand the why.

Conclusion

To be able to communicate with your colleagues, boss, and everyone else in your life will not only make you more productive, but you will feel better about your work.

It’s the organization’s responsibility to establish the right company culture for developers. But it’s the developer’s responsibility to take care of their health and be vocal about what’s good for their productivity. Speak up!

Thanks for reading

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