What Do the Top Software Engineers Do that Others Don’t?
In the quest to uncover the secret habits of top software engineers, we sought insights from ten industry leaders, including CEOs, Founders, and VPs. From bringing a deep understanding of systems to assertively recognizing their value, these experts share the unique practices that set top software engineers apart. Dive into their collective wisdom to learn what the best in the field are doing differently.
- Bring a Deep Understanding of Systems
- Simplify Complex Subjects
- Create Proofs of Concept
- Continuously Learn and Update
- Proactively Problem-Solve
- Cultivate Curiosity and Deep Exploration
- Improve through Side Projects
- Write Personal Software
- Rigorously Test and Debug
- Assertively Recognize Value
Bring a Deep Understanding of Systems
Top coders go deeper than most. Think of a car lover: They want to know exactly how turning the wheel moves the car. I know an engineer like this. He used nights and weekends to study. He wanted to know how code becomes something a computer can use, how memory works, etc.
His favorite project was “from NAND to Tetris”. He learned a lot about the systems he uses every day. His work to understand the basics made him more than just a good coder—he became a great one.
Simplify Complex Subjects
One of my current backend engineers is great at making complex subjects simple. When he talks, whether to clients or fellow developers, you quickly realize his deep understanding of system architecture.
But it’s not just about what he knows—it’s about how he communicates it. He faces the complexity of system design head-on, yet always distills it down to its crucial components. He ensures his explanations are clear and only as intricate as they have to be.
I believe this skill, this ability to make complex topics accessible, is what distinguishes the top software engineers in our field.
Create Proofs of Concept
Top software engineers create quick and dirty proofs of concept (POC). We have recently had great success with implementing new features, libraries, tools, etc. when our engineers do a POC. There are some huge benefits that a software engineer can gain from executing a very simple proof of concept:
- If you continue with the concept, you have a good starting point to plan and design your product from.
- The business side can SEE the value, rather than speaking in nebulous concepts.
- You can troubleshoot some of the major challenges before ever implementing anything.
- Even if the proof of concept fails, you still learn something. Imagine having a Rolodex of possible solutions to implement for future problems.
- Fail fast and move on. Throw away the proof of concept in the early stages at a low cost.
POCs benefit the engineer and the business, making them a win-win and making the engineer a top performer very quickly.
Continuously Learn and Update
One thing that top software engineers consistently do, which sets them apart from others, is continuous learning and staying updated with the latest trends and technologies. They understand that the field of software development is constantly evolving, and they proactively invest time in expanding their knowledge and skills.
Top engineers actively seek out new tools, programming languages, frameworks, and best practices, and they are not afraid to dive into unfamiliar territory. They participate in conferences, workshops, and online communities, engage in side projects, and explore open-source contributions.
By embracing a growth mindset and prioritizing ongoing learning, top software engineers stay at the forefront of their field and deliver innovative solutions.
As the CEO of a SaaS startup, I’ve hired dozens of software engineers so far, searching for the best. Last year, I finally found the top software engineer. The one thing that distinguishes an exceptional engineer is initiative.
All engineers have expertise in algorithm writing, system design, data structure knowledge, testing, etc. But the excellence is in predicting and preventing problems, ensuring smooth software operation.
The additional benefit of this mindset is improving algorithmic knowledge continuously and staying abreast of the latest advancements.
With a proactive problem-solving mindset and mastery, top software engineers consistently deliver outstanding solutions, driving innovation and overcoming challenges efficiently and creatively.
Cultivate Curiosity and Deep Exploration
The one distinctive character trait of top software engineers is curiosity. Often people tend to focus on the tasks they do every day. They are able to solve such tasks very fast and in a quality manner but unfortunately, the scope of their professional qualities grows narrow. They forget or just never learn things that they do not use every day.
This might influence their ability to switch projects and jobs as they will be limited in their choice: they will need to look for something with the same level of technology usage.
If a software engineer is curious, they will explore the technology they use more deeply which will help them not just know what to write to get the result they want but also understand why they need to write it and how it works on the inside. This way even if they encounter something new on their way they will be able to get the hang of it.
Improve through Side Projects
Ask your developer friends, I am sure they have 2-5 side projects in various states. While this is true for a good 80% of our field, the top 20% always use their projects as a tool to learn something that can help them on the main stage.
Regardless of outcomes, the stakes of the side project are inevitably low and allow intellectual and creative freedom to learn new tools and techniques without the social pressure of a delivery team and pull request reviews.
Write Personal Software
Top software engineers use their spare time to write software to fit their own needs. I’m not saying that people need to pursue software monomaniacally, with no time or interest in anything else, but it’s rare to find an elite software developer who does not write software in their spare time—if you truly love writing software, you find the time.
Rigorously Test and Debug
One trait of top software engineers is their attention to rigorous testing and debugging. They understand that creating the initial code is just the beginning. To ensure their work is robust and reliable, they consistently test and debug their code throughout the development process. They realize that the quality of the end product is often dependent on this diligent, iterative process.
Provide Assertive Value Recognition
The truly top software engineers know exactly how valuable they are and are not afraid to push the limits when it comes to ensuring that that value is recognized.
This means higher levels of compensation, more flexible bonus and benefits packages, more vacation time, and generally looser ways of working to cater more to the individual. You might think that this sounds like a nightmare from a people management perspective, but you’d be wrong. That’s how valuable the true 1% of software engineers are in the current market.
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