In some places software development is still regarded as a highly technical activity performed by a lone genius programmer writing fantastic code. That’s not quite the case anymore. While an individual can still write great programs alone, most programs require more than one developer (otherwise their completion might miss the market window). Software development has increasingly become a cross-functional team activity (even if the team in many cases is not located in the same office, or even on the same continent). Your ability to work with your colleagues has become a critical aspect of your success as a knowledge worker.
This the second article in the series on Starting in a Software Development Career.
Developing software is as much a team activity as it is an individual effort. Sure, there will be times when you will be designing and writing code on your own. Most of the time though you’ll be working with a design or coding partner, or a small team of 3 or 4 people on a multitude of collaborative tasks.
If your team is bigger than five people then it’s likely that you are on a multi-disciplinary team. Most team members will be software developers, but there will be other disciplines represented, too. As a person new to the profession, when you work with developers there are two important things that you can do to earn some credibility with them: (1) complete the tasks that are assigned to you, and (2) anticipate some of the questions that puzzle the team and do the legwork to look up the answers and present them to the team.
When working with developers find ways to assist them when they need it. As a new person on the team one of the best things that you can do is research things that the others need information on. When someone says: “Who has any idea how this XYZ API works?” then you can find the relevant documents and useful sample code to help them out.
In order for knowledge work to be effective, knowledge workers must specialize. This is true for software developers, too. There are developers who specialize on back-end or server-side development, front-end or user interface development, database development, mobile app development, mobile web development, desktop application development, etc. Some specialize on specific languages or platforms. And some are full-stack developers who benefit from the ubiquity of a language on both front-end and back-end that allows them to work effectively on the entire application.
Beyond developers, you will be working with quality assurance folks. They are often called in too late (if at all) to participate in the development process which makes things worse then it should be. You can do things better by going to QA and talking to them early about the work you intend to do and ask for their advice on how to avoid common pitfalls. You’ll be surprised how much better your code will work once you let them assist you from the beginning. They will also benefit because they won’t have to scramble to find out everything in the last minute, when everybody is upset that the product hasn’t been shipped yet.
You may also be working with a product manager who is leading the effort in defining what the product is. Product managers have many challenges and are getting pulled into lots of directions. When they ask for your help, find ways to assist them. They are capturing ideas that the team and the users have, clarifying the market need, and working with the entire team to put a product out to fill that need.
Business analysts and requirements analysts study a particular business and capture the knowledge in a digestible format for efficient consumption by the rest of the team. They convert obscure and difficult to grasp business intricacies into developable features by collaborating with product managers, quality assurance analysts, developers, etc.
If you are lucky, then your team will have at least one user experience (UX) professional. The UXers are the ones who make your software be user empowering instead of user aggravating. If you are not fortunate enough to have them on your team, then at least read up on elementary usability concepts and employ those techniques to make your software easier to use. A common mistake that we all make as developers that we design the software as if we would be the users of it. Sometimes we are the users, but most often we are not. (Then we end up like the little boy who gives his mother a firetruck for her birthday because that’s what he wanted to get for his.)
When it comes to working with your manager, a good starting strategy is to understand your manager’s goals and objectives. Based on those find a way to align your goals with their goals. This can be difficult, since there may not be a clear line of sight from what you do to what is expected of your manager. You may need to ask for help, which could be hard to get from a busy manager. So, then you do the next best thing: find a mentor who can provide you with guidance.
Mentors come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. In just about any size organization you will find somebody who can help you grow in your role, or who can help you grow your skills, or who can help you navigate the organization. All you have to do is find them. These are the folks who are ready to help you just for the asking. The benefits are usually mutual: they get somebody to whom they can pass on their experience and who can bring a fresh perspective into their world. And you benefit from their wisdom.
Sometimes your organization just doesn’t have the right person who can be your mentor. Then you need to turn to outside mentors. Look beyond the company and find user groups and professional organizations. There is a good chance that you will find somebody who will be glad to assist you or coach you. And, if all else fails, there are usually good online resources or good books to study on the subjects that can help you grow and achieve your professional goals.
There are other folks in the organization with whom you may rarely talk, but you should know that they also have an important contribution to make toward the success of your team. These are the folks in corporate operations (like administration, payroll, contracting, etc.), IT operations, etc. Without them, you’d have to do all the work that they do. Be grateful that they do a good job and so that you can focus on yours.