John Sonmez runs a website called Simple Programmer, and he’s written a book called “Soft Skills: The Software Developer’s Life Manual”. Being a software developer myself, I thought I would read this book to see if it lived up to the expectations that the title elicits. Having since read the book over the course of a few months I can say with some certainty that the book is a software developer’s life manual. It lays out in great detail how to navigate the pitfalls and struggles that plague technical occupations. It also attempts to provide advice on matters pertaining to other, more personal matters. I say attempts because I thought that a few of the points made in the sections on finance and spiritual matters fell flat or weren’t relevant to my particular life. Now, most of those points are hedged and provided with enough caveats that it doesn’t bother me, but I disagree with some of the advice even hedged as it is. Since my issues with the book are only about a few sections I’ll go through each of the sections individually and point out the good and the not-so-good in each section.
Section 1: Career
John starts off this section extolling the virtues of paying attention to your career as if it were a business, and I think it’s really worthwhile for developers to hear that message. The reason for this is because career advancement in the modern world often doesn’t happen within a company without either a) a dramatic increase in responsibility or b) a new company that’s willing to pay more for the same workload. This section’s premise helps set the stage for early retirement advice that comes later on in section 5, but the message that comes across seems spread too thin. The first chapter in this section has some great and interesting advice and suggestions about why you might want to pay attention to your career. However, the details about how you might pay attention and care for your career are less interesting than the why. Each chapter after the first one in this section provides practical, but boring advice that tell you how to be conventionally employed by corporate America. Thankfully, the chapters about resume writing, people skills (in the context of a corporate office), and interviewing are mercifully short. Chapter 11, however, is probably the best one in the section and touches on concepts introduced to me by Aaron Clarey’s books (Worthless and Bachelor Pad Economics). These concepts, entrepreneurship as freedom, the difficulties arising from striking out on your own, and the massive load of dough you can make if you pull it off successfully, are the highlight of this section that would have been otherwise bogged down by boring advice from a LinkedIn article.
Section 2: Marketing Yourself
Section 2 is where this book starts to make its most important point. I often wondered after I started to write code what it would take to prove to employers that I could write code. Apparently, John Sonmez had the answer all along and thankfully he shared the answer with us. The answer, marketing yourself in a specific niche, is really obvious on its face. Do you want to hire someone who says they know what they’re doing and don’t have any proof, or would you rather hire someone who says they know what they’re doing and they also have proof? Obviously, the guy who’s already doing what you’re hiring for is desirable, and marketing yourself as an expert in a particular field is the surest fire way to get noticed. The good bit comes in when he shows you how to get started marketing yourself. I particularly liked his suggestion to start a blog with a tool made for it ASAP, and it inspired me to create this blog.
Section 3: Learning
The third section of John’s book ironically falls third on my ranking of each section. This section provides a novel approach to learning (with a little research to back it up) that involves teaching to learn more. By the time I came to this book, I had already found the benefits of teaching others and sharing what you’ve learned to shore up your knowledge. I think this provides social accountability to your knowledge. If people think your an expert and they trust you, then you’re going to be really afraid to say anything. Overcoming this fear requires that you really know your stuff. This means that if you say something that someone is depending on, you’re more likely to want the advice you give to succeed. When people asked me for advice, I was way more invested in giving the right answer so I studied and double-checked more often than I would have if I had been left to myself.
Section 4: Productivity
The second best section of the book lays out an effective strategy to getting stuff done. The idea is that your largest unit of work should only take an hour-and-a-half. Anything larger than that needs to be broken down into 3 or less pomodoro sessions. I’m not going to detail the reasoning behind the pomodoro method, but the idea is 25 minutes of focused work and 5 minutes of break constitute a single pomodoro session. I think that the method of focused work doesn’t matter as much as the idea of breaking down work into manageable chunks so that your focused work provides output. John also provides a few motivational and logistics focused chapters that promote ideas to help you get more done and still stay sane. These are great tips, and they come from a good lineage especially the habits portion.
Section 5: Financial
This is probably the weakest section in the book. Don’t get me wrong, it still offers great advice on how money works, but its focused very heavily on real-estate investment and options trading. I know that’s where John has made quite a bit of his money, but I don’t think that poo-pooing traditional IRA’s or 401Ks serves the normal people who are going to be reading this book. The fact of the matter is that John’s strategies he outlines are medium-risk, high-reward and I don’t think I’m cut out for that kind of stress. I think the better book on finance is Bachelor Pad Economics and I think I would recommend it more than this section.
Section 6: Fitness
Definitely a good section and one that software developers definitely need to read. If you get nothing else out of this book than a commitment to actively managing your health for the rest of your life then you will have got your money’s worth. I really enjoy his ‘How to Get Hash-Table Abs’ chapter and his warning to those who go into it naively. I was also very glad that he warned away from trying to take shortcuts with DNP and anabolic steroids.
Section 7: Spirit
This is the section that I have the biggest beef with. It’s good advice for those that don’t already have a spiritual framework in which to work. There certainly is power in positive thinking, like John asserts, but he doesn’t articulate why you should think positively. He mentions that him and his wife are Christians in the book but doesn’t say a word about why that makes a difference. Without Christ, we have no reason to think positively about the human condition. With Christ, however, we find that peace and joy can be found in this life and the one to come. I understand that John didn’t want to proselytize in his book, but a word about Christ beyond “yeah we’re Christians and that’s why we give a tenth” would’ve benefited many a person. Anyway, beyond the lack of depth in why we should think positively when things don’t go your way, there are several chapters in here that feel very disjointed. I kind of feel like John put off writing some really important chapters and just dumped them here. Don’t get me wrong there is good information here. I especially like the personal success book list (I picked up “The War of Art” to see if I can’t motivate myself to release one v0.1.0 project a month) and the chapter on dating and relationships is about as close as you can get to “The Rational Male” without fully unplugging.
Ultimately, I think that Soft Skills works well as a compilation and distillation of other books that John has read and found success with. I don’t think it will make you an overnight success, but if you follow even a little bit of his advice regularly you’re likely to be more successful in your career, relationships, and finances.