What are developer adjacent skills?

I idly mused on Twitter about how one would go about teaching essential developer adjacent skills. I’m still not sure, but I thought I would elaborate on what it is I actually mean by a developer adjacent skill.

More generally, I’d like to elaborate what I mean by a job adjacent skill. There are sales adjacent skills, journalist adjacent skills, designer adjacent skills, etc. I’m only talking about developer adjacent skills because I am a developer and thus that’s where most of my expertise in the subject lies.

When I say a job adjacent skill what I mean is any skill that:

  1. Would improve your ability to interact with people doing that job in their capacity as someone who does that job
  2. Would probably be much less useful if you didn’t have to interact with anyone doing that job
  3. Would not require you to basically have to learn to do the job in order to acquire the skill

Examples:

  • Learning to code is not a developer adjacent skill because once you’ve learned to code sufficiently well you’re basically able to be a developer (You might not be able to be a very good developer yet, but you could almost certainly get a job as one).
  • Learning to write better emails is not a developer adjacent skill because it’s a generally useful skill – almost every job will be improved by this skill, not just ones that require interaction with developers.
  • Learning to write better bug reports is a developer adjacent skill, because usually you’re sending bug reports to developers rather than other people (either directly or indirectly), and it will make your interactions with those developers much better.

Usually skills adjacent to your job need not be ones that you need to do your job directly Рfor example you can happily code away without ever learning how to file a bug report (far too many people do) Рbut most jobs require interacting with other people doing the same job. You may have coworkers, you may have a professional community, etc. So  most job adjacent skills are ones that you should also try to pick up if you do the job itself.

There are exceptions. Some job adjacent skills that you might benefit from are specific to the type of job you have. For example, I’m a backend developer. I have to work with frontend developers, and this means that it would be useful for me to acquire frontend developer adjacent skills. There is some overlap, but not all of these are the same frontend developer adjacent skills that a sales person would need to acquire.

One simple example of a skill that I should acquire is how to launch the app in a way that compiles all the CSS, etc, and to understand the buildchain enough that I don’t have to go bother someone and say “Help what’s a grunt it’s telling me it can’t find a grunt” when something doesn’t work. This is a front-end developer adjacent skill that the front-end developers should also have but that sales people probably don’t need to care about.

But another example of these is that I should know how to design an API in a way that cleanly exposes the data in a way that front-end developers can easily make use of. This is a front-end developer adjacent skill that the front-end developers don’t need to have – it’s not their job, it’s mine. They need to have skills around how to use an API and how to clearly convey their requirements, but building it isn’t their thing and it doesn’t need to be. Sales people are unlikely to care about this one either.

So some job adjacent skills are quite specific, but I think the majority of them are ones that are generally useful in almost any role that interacts with that job.

Here are some examples of things I think of as good general purpose developer adjacent skills:

  • The aforementioned how to write a good bug report
  • How to find bugs in an application
  • How to behave in a sprint planning meeting or local equivalent
  • Understanding what software security is and why it’s important

There are doubtless many more. Those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

Should you acquire developer adjacent skills?

Well, do you interact with developers? If not, then no you probably shouldn’t.

If you do interact with developers then yes, yes you should. And the developers should in turn acquire the skills adjacent to your job.

In general I think it’s important to acquire the adjacent skills of any job you routinely interact with. If not, you are basically making them carry the weight of your refusal to learn – if you don’t learn to write a decent bug report then your bugs are less likely to get fixed and will take up more of my time in which I could be working on other things, if I don’t learn to compile the CSS and launch the app I’ll be bugging you with questions every time I need to do that and taking away your time in which you could be working on other things.

This can be hard. There are a lot of jobs, and as a result a lot of adjacent skills that you might need to pick up. No one is going to be perfect at this.

I think the important thing is to bear all of this in mind. Whenever you interact with someone with a different job and the interaction is less productive than it could be, think of it as a learning opportunity – there are probably adjacent skills on both sides that are missing. Rather than getting frustrated at the lack of them on the other side, try to teach them, and in turn try to encourage them to teach you. Hopefully the next interaction will be less frustrating.

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