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What Skills Employers Want in a Software Developer: My Conversations with Companies Who Hire Programmers

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Matt Weisfeld polls small, medium and large businesses about what skills they're looking for in a programmer.
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That's the thing about people who think they hate computers. What they really hate is lousy programmers.  
             -Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
, Oath of Fealty

Just a couple of years out of college, I was a mainframe programmer (COBOL/JCL) interviewing for a job as a C programmer. At one point in the interview, I asked my (eventual) supervisor if the company would actually hire someone who had no experience with C for this job. His response had a huge impact on my career.

He replied, "We don't hire people for what they know, but what they can learn." These words have always resonated with me. From that point on, my career strategy as a programmer has always been to look forward instead of simply focusing on a specific, current technology. As someone else told me more recently, "As a programmer you don't have a single 30-year career, you have 30 one-year careers".

Not only is technology constantly changing but, in today’s world, programming can be found in every aspect of our culture. This is what makes being a programmer so interesting and rewarding. How many professions exist that can lead you down paths as varied as health care, criminal justice, education, entertainment and just about every area of business? The variety of programming career paths is pretty impressive, and the opportunities to change paths, and even combine them, are virtually limitless.

Perhaps the most interesting discussion that I have with people in the programming industry, as well as those that teach programming, is this: What are employers actually looking for in the people that they hire as programmers? With this statement in mind, this article explores some of the questions that students often ask me when they are looking to enter the programming industry; specifically, what type of skills should they concentrate on learning.

What Skills Do Employers Say They Are Looking For?

My first stop was the local paper's classified ads, where you primarily see programming job postings such as this (taken from an actual ad): “Experienced Java Web Developer. Required experience, Struts 2 or MVC. Hibernate or ORM. JavaScript/jQuery, Ajax, Patterns, HTML and SQL.”

Many of the ads require specific skills such as .NET and Oracle, as well as many other skills that I have, honestly, never even heard of. Therefore, many people believe that when you start an educational program, you should focus on the skills that are hot technologies of today.

While I acknowledge that many jobs are looking for specific skills, , following this strategy can be problematic. We all know that technology is changing so quickly that no one knows what the hot technologies will be in one year, let alone the two or four years that it will take to earn a certificate or degree.

So, if learning the latest technology isn’t the best strategy, then what is?

As with most things in life, rather than branding a single strategy as the best one, the educational path you choose as a programmer depends on the context you find yourself in. If you are a seasoned programming professional, then there obviously are many situations where you need a certain skill set.

For example, if a company is looking to hire a contractor for a very specific skill set, then they want to find someone who satisfies the immediate need. Or, an individual may want to simply add a current technology to their programming toolkit by taking a class or even pursuing a certificate.

What Are Employers Really Looking For?

After discussing these issues with people in both industry and academia over many years, I have come to subscribe to the theory that programming is programming. In my experience, when you hire someone for a programming position, you don't necessarily know what technologies and/or languages your organization will be using in a year. In fact, you may very well want this new hire to lead you into the future and explore totally new directions. 

What do employers really want when it comes to programming talent? Ultimately, I decided to just ask the companies directly.  First, I categorized the companies into three size levels: small (10 or fewer employees), medium (between 10 and 100 employees) and large (greater than 1000 employees).  I then asked them the following questions:

  1. What are the most important skills (technical, soft skills or otherwise) you look for in hiring a programmer?
  2. Do you focus on a specific programming language or technology (i.e., would you pass on a good programmer who lacks a specific skill that your company uses or would you train them)?
  3. How important are the soft skills (writing, presentation and other communications skills)?
  4. What degrees or certifications are you looking for (how relevant are certifications)?
  5. Do your programmers create new code (product) or are they working on maintaining existing code implementing and implementing third-party products?

Questions and Answers

From all of the answers that I received, I chose the responses from four of the software professionals that provided good representations of the three company sizes. There are responses from two large companies, one medium company and one small company.

Rather than attempt to interpret the answers, I simply present the answers verbatim.

What are the most important skills (technical, soft skills or otherwise) you look for in hiring a programmer?

Large Companies

"4-Year College Degree, Strong Technical Background, Professional Experience, Passionate About Technology, Professionally Driven, Articulate & Well-Spoken."

"It is truly a combination of technical and soft skills. Fundamentals of programming logic and the ability to apply those fundamentals to ANY code base they encounter."

Medium Companies

"The ability to solve problems. The ability to learn new technologies rapidly. The ability to find solutions to problems using the internet. A mindset of efficiency and creativity."

Small Companies

"I want to focus on the idea of being a decent team player and not being a person that is hard to get along with. One difficult employee can create a whole ton of problems. Most skills can be learned and improved – what are often times hard to change are a person’s nature and character… In addition to the skills described in other answers, looking for interpersonal skills is important – especially if the organization is on the smaller side."

Bottom Line: 4-year college degree (large companies), passion for programming, interpersonal skills, problem solver, team player.

Do you focus on a specific programming language or technology (i.e., would you pass on a good programmer who lacks a specific skill that your company uses or would you train them)?

Large Companies

"Not really; we expect our developers to be versatile and be able to learn new technologies as long as they are similar (i.e. we expect a Java developer to be able to dive into .NET)."

"No. Fundamentals of programming logic and the ability to apply those fundamentals to ANY code base they encounter."

Medium Companies

"It would really depend on the need. The programmer who can jump between languages is more valuable except on specialist projects. If they don’t have ANY experience with a language they’re applying for, however, they’re probably not desirable. Even if the experience is just personal it’s much better than no experience. There are too many language and environment nuances and not enough profit in training someone from scratch."

Small Companies

"It’s always OK to be willing to train somebody, if you see other skills that you highly value. Expecting a C++ programmer to be able to pick up Java should be a safe bet, but, it could take some time to become proficient. There is also the environment issue, such as Linux versus Windows. I would think a person who has been exclusive to one can pick up the other, and it’s worth it to train them if that’s an issue."

Bottom Line:  Strong programming logic required and sometimes specific technologies preferred. Employers expect that programmers can learn to work in most environments.

How important are the soft skills (writing, presentation and other communications skills)?

Large Companies

“Soft skills are extremely important. Potentially the most important skill you can have. Once you are established as somebody who is technically serviceable, soft skills are what generally drives promotions."

"Communication skills are very important, presentation skills less so."

Medium Companies

"It depends on the level of the programmer. For someone junior, 90% coding and general aptitude, 10% soft skills. For someone more senior it increases significantly."

Small Companies

"It seems like soft skills can never hurt and are often times very important. Even if a programmer can’t make Word documents or PowerPoints, they should be able to understand and communicate the big picture about what they are doing, and how it fits into the overall pieces of the organization. "

Bottom Line: Soft skills may ultimately be the most important skill, especially as you move up the ladder in an organization.

What degrees or certifications are you looking for (how relevant are certifications)?

Large Companies

"Certifications are fairly irrelevant. We require a 4-year college degree in any field, Computer Science or MIS preferred and substantial evidence that you are technically able to do the job and learn new technologies."

"I am more interested in skill set than degrees or certifications."

Medium Companies

"Degrees are all but meaningless. There are a LOT of degreed individuals that aren’t good programmers. Certifications are a bit more useful, mostly in the fact that they can impress clients (for consulting work). Aptitude, skill, capability, and experience are FAR more valuable in the industry."

Small Companies

"Are there certifications for programming? I know there are certificates for a wide range of 'IT' functions, but, I really don’t consider IT to be “programming”, it’s (IT) more about keeping computers and networks going, and to some extent the tools that are used to keep them going."

Bottom Line: It's mostly what you can demonstrate that you know. Degrees may be required for organizational purposes at some companies but it is mostly about experience.

Do your programmers create new code (product) or are they working on implementing and maintaining business systems (or a little of both)?

Large Companies

"We have separate teams called SM (Service Management) for application maintenance. Our best developers are almost always creating new code."

"A little of both."

Medium Companies

"Mostly new code, but there is some systems work."

Small Companies

"Usually, it’s a little of both. I have observed that many companies talk about new code, but the truth is that most folks get sucked up into maintaining existing code. Whatever is bringing in revenue, or has a very high chance of bringing in revenue gets the attention – largely no matter what the plan is."

"Writing new code in established businesses is often difficult. In many cases, new software comes from purchasing software from smaller companies. That leads to the idea that new code comes from smaller and newer companies, and maintenance comes from established companies."

Bottom Line: Companies are looking for programmers to maintain code and create new code (I was surprised at how much new code is being created).

Tips for Acquiring the Right Programming Skills

As a college professor advising students, here is some advice for anyone who wants to be a programmer:

  1. Don’t get caught up with specific technologies, but focus on the foundational career skills that the employers in this article describe. 
  2. Rather than focus on the classifieds, get out and network with local programming professionals. I recently read that you are 4 -5 times more likely to get a job through networking than applying to an employment posting.
  3. Gain as much practical programming experience as possible through school projects, internships, and self-driven projects (one of the questions that employers are most certainly going to ask you is “what kinds of applications and websites do you create on your own time – just for fun.”).
  4. Participate in hackathons and other DIY projects. This will not only hone your programming skills, but also show that you are passionate about programming.

During my discussions with many software professionals regarding these questions, I was struck by the fact that, despite the tremendous technological changes over the past 10-20 years, what employers are looking for in programmers hasn't really changed all that much. While it is obvious that programmers today are using different programming languages, operating systems and other modern technologies, the employers are still basically looking for the same “types” of programmers that they were 10 years ago—for that matter, even 20 years ago.

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