Is a high level of English the difference between a GOOD and a GREAT programmer?
2nd February 2022
You don’t need English to be a good developer but you do need it to become a great developer and here’s why …
Do you need English to program? No, you don’t. It is definitely easier if you speak English as there is more documentation, more help and many programming languages were developed in English so they’ll be easier to understand. But can you program without being able to speak or listen? Absolutely. And that has been demonstrated by the millions of engineers out there who do it every day. So if you can program without great English, why focus your time on learning it when you could be spending your time improving your technical skills?
Why do footballers now spend more time on their diet and their fitness and their mental health than they did twenty years ago? Why do professional cyclists have sleep coaches? Because football is more than just kicking a ball and cycling is more than just pedalling fast. And similarly IT development is more than just programming.
At its core, IT development is the skill of taking someone’s idea and converting it into code, and many people believe that is all it is. “Create a form that will collect the user’s name and address and save it.” Why do you need advanced English for that? Why do you need to be able to speak English when people can understand your writing?
However IT development is so much more than just programming. Today I want to talk about two of the skills we value most highly at Secret Source that we believe are two of the things we believe make the difference between good and great.
To excel at any task, whether it is building a form on a website or helping a friend with their new business idea you need to feel ownership, you need to feel you have some control of the outcome. Without your buy-in you will not be invested in the end result and the end product will not be as good. Just Google “The importance of ownership in the workplace” and you’ll understand why. To achieve ownership of a task you have to understand why you are doing it. Not just what you are doing.
In most international teams now, the shared language is English. The product owner and project manager will most likely speak English. They will share the vision of the company, they will explain what they need to do, and if they are good, why you need to do it too. With basic English, yes you’ll be able to understand your task. Yes, you’ll be able to ask questions and yes, you’ll most likely be able to do what they ask you without any issues. However you won’t understand the nuance of what they are telling you, you won’t hear their tone of voice and often you won’t fully understand why you are doing your task. Without great English you won’t be able to express yourself all the time, you won’t be able to question what they are asking you to do.
Fully understanding someone’s why, being able to explain your complex thought process requires a much higher level of English than that required to post your status in Slack.
In product development the true magic happens when a team works seamlessly together, when they feel psychologically safe to be able to say what they want, when they want. Everyone is different, everyone is unique, and a team works best when everyone contributes. To get true collaboration you need psychological safety in all the team members and the first step to building psychological safety is developing personal relationships with everyone in your team. Building personal relationships is difficult enough, in a second or third language is even harder and if you can’t say what you want to say it is even more difficult.
In most international teams nowadays the shared language is English so, if you don’t speak great English, while you’ll be able to get by and do everything you’re asked and probably do it really well, you will never be able to excel in the team environment, you’ll get frustrated when you can’t explain yourself, they’ll be misunderstandings and you won’t feel fully psychologically safe.
Just as a skilled footballer can do well if they don’t focus on their diet, a developer can do well without having to learn English. But if you want to become a really great engineer, if you want to contribute more to your team than just your programming skills think about spending a bit more time on your English, if nothing else, you’ll enjoy your work more.