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How to become a better software engineer: A guide for all levels

Becoming a better software engineer requires more than mastering algorithms or learning new programming languages. It’s about evolving into a more well-rounded professional who can tackle different aspects of the engineering craft. But there are many ways to get there, and that can make the journey confusing. 

Should you become an expert in one language, or achieve basic fluency in many? What about all this AI hype—should you focus on learning that? How can you balance your career development with your day job?

Whether you’re just starting out or looking to refine your skills, these are challenging questions. This guide helps you answer them by providing straightforward, practical advice for software engineers at all levels seeking to elevate their craft. Drawing on CodeSignal’s extensive experience helping candidates prepare for technical interviews—and helping employers hire top technical talent—we share strategies that will empower you to gain the skills you need to advance in your engineering career. Let’s get started.

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What makes a great software engineer?

The difference between a good and great software engineer is much more than technical proficiency. A good software engineer can deliver high-quality code, write effective tests, review contributions from peers, and design solutions for specific problems. In comparison, a great engineer does all of that—but also has a broader vision and takes a more proactive stance to their work. 

Albina Ezus, Senior Engineering Manager at CodeSignal, explains: “A great software engineer advocates for continuous improvement of the codebase, always pushing the team to create robust, maintainable, and elegant software—and leading by example. Without being told, they identify and resolve unaddressed issues. They remove roadblocks for others on the team.” 

A great software engineer is a force multiplier for the whole team. For them, it’s not enough to deliver well-scoped features that work well. That’s the minimum requirement. They see beyond the code and up-level their teammates by removing obstacles. They understand the business and product implications of their work, and use that perspective to guide their decisions. 

In essence, the transition from good to great in software engineering is marked by a shift from executing tasks to effecting change. It’s about leading by example and fostering an environment of excellence. Leadership is often confused with seniority—it’s possible to lead from any position within a team. Leveling up from a “good” to a “great” engineer requires initiative, seeing beyond your own tasks, and committing to continuous improvement and collaborative success. 

Benefits of strengthening your software developer skills

Elevating your skills as a software engineer opens the door to a wealth of benefits. This progression enhances your capacity to contribute meaningfully to projects; it can also bring higher-earning opportunities that reflect the increased value you bring to a team or project. In addition, it paves the way for greater personal fulfillment as you tackle new challenges with confidence and solidify your role as an indispensable asset to the team.

As you grow in your capabilities, you become the go-to person for certain questions and a catalyst for the team as a whole to improve. Your ability to navigate challenging problems will accelerate your team’s progress while inspiring your colleagues to improve their own skills. This collective upskilling could make your team more capable, more agile, more fun to work with, and less susceptible to a single source of failure. 

How to improve your software engineer skills

The following strategies to advance in your software engineering career can be used at any stage. However, for those who are specifically aiming to advance from junior or mid-level to senior level, we recommend our specialized guide for that transition. 

Develop a mindset for growth and improvement

To grow as a software engineer, it’s crucial first to see challenges as chances to learn. When you hit an obstacle, consider each one a puzzle to solve and an opportunity to learn something new. This way, every new challenge becomes a golden chance to improve your mastery. Instead of shying away from technical challenges, you should approach them with a curious and open-minded spirit. This is how you will discover new solutions and expand your technical know-how. 

Cultivate your curiosity by exploring beyond your familiar boundaries (technologies, languages, frameworks). Question why your team makes certain design decisions and consider how alternatives might work instead. Look beyond your team and notice the dependencies in your organization. This kind of thinking will help you see the broader picture beyond the scope of your own tasks. 

Being open to feedback is another big step toward improvement. Listen when others offer advice or suggest something you could do differently. Everyone has blind spots and they might see things you have missed, so embrace their insight with gratitude. It’s an invaluable opportunity to refine your skills from a fresh perspective. 

Remember, it is okay to admit you don’t know everything. In fact, it is a strength to admit when there are gaps in your knowledge. If paired with an open-minded attitude, it is a big green flag: it shows that you’re ready to learn and grow. This attitude—being open, curious, receptive to feedback, and willing to tackle challenges head-on—sets the best software engineers apart. 

Master one programming language in depth

You don’t need to write code in multiple languages to become a great software engineer. This is a common misconception. Instead of being superficially competent at different languages, it’s much better to master one in depth. This approach allows you to appreciate the nuances and subtleties of that language. What makes it powerful? In which scenarios is this language strong and which ones does it struggle? How well does this language integrate with other platforms?

Mastering one language will allow you to evaluate the language ecosystem as a whole. You’ll get an appreciation for the standard libraries and frameworks—how they interact with each other and the language’s core features. You’ll start to see patterns in how solutions can be architected in the ecosystem. You’ll learn the unique strengths of that language, which will come in handy when faced with future problems to tackle. As you learn more about the language, you might even become the go-to resource on your team or in your community. 

Become a better programmer by writing code every day

Writing code daily sharpens your programming skills by providing consistent practice or “reps,” which enhance your technical abilities and problem-solving strategies. With each day, you encounter a variety of problems and build an inventory of solutions to draw from in the future. 

This routine also builds resilience and discipline: essential traits for great software engineers. By taking on new challenges regularly, you see more solution patterns and approaches—and you become more adaptable as a result. 

Learn the complete software lifecycle process

A great software engineer understands that the job involves much more than coding. It involves gathering requirements, design, development, testing, deployment, and maintenance. It also requires working with different stakeholders and navigating team dynamics. By learning the entire software lifecycle process, you gain a holistic view. You’ll see how each phase is interconnected. You’ll learn the typical risks associated with each part of the process. This perspective will help you identify and mitigate potential problems. 

With this broadened view, you can drive improvements beyond coding. You’ll be able to look at team processes—such as code reviews or the way your team does on-call support rotations—and propose ideas to streamline these workflows. Improvements like this can save many engineering hours. You’ll notice which kinds of projects tend to take longer than others, and the common bottlenecks responsible for these setbacks. Knowing the ins and outs of the software lifecycle boosts your skills, and it turns you into a more productive and effective software engineer. 

Build strong engineering habits 

It’s important to foster good engineering habits if you want to be a strong engineer. Here a few great ones to start with:

  • Design the software architecture of your programs before you code them. This approach ensures you have a clear blueprint of what needs to be built and how different elements of your application will interact with each other. This way, you handle the majority of the heavy lifting upfront and then code the implementation of your design. It’s more difficult to write code while trying to figure out how each component contributes to the greater objective. 
  • Write test cases for your applications that cover known failure cases. Doing so will give you more confidence in your products and will help you catch bugs early in the development cycle. It will also save you time in the future when you are debugging failures because tests document expected behavior and clarify what functional pieces of code should do. Beyond that, writing tests instills a team-wide culture of quality and reliability. 
  • Participate in code reviews often. Reading and critiquing code written by others is a golden opportunity to pick up new techniques and appreciate different ways of solving problems. It’s a learning exchange—you get a second pair of eyes on your work, and you learn best practices from your peers. Avoid the trap of doing lazy reviews or simply stamping LGTM (looks good to me) without genuinely engaging with the code. Take the time to understand the code you’re reviewing and apply a deeper level of scrutiny. Code reviewing is a skill itself, and investing in it is a direct investment in your growth as a software engineer. 
  • Use Kanban boards to prioritize your tasks and streamline your workflow. Kanban boards offer a visual overview of your tasks and progress, and they help you stay organized and maintain a steady pace throughout your project. Complement this with setting weekly goals to focus your learning so that you’re making steady progress in developing your skills. 

Start a developer blog to document your learnings in the form of blog articles

Writing about what you’re learning is a proven strategy to deepen your understanding. There are many ways to do this: you can write a personal blog, you can contribute to a company developer blog, or you can take part in creating internal design documents. Each avenue offers an opportunity to simplify complex technical ideas and make them more digestible. 

Share your experiments on a personal blog, or offer to recap a recent project on your company’s engineering blog. Writing confirms your grasp of the subject matter to yourself, and it also leaves a trail of artifacts for you to revisit in the future. This practice cements your knowledge of technical topics and builds a valuable archive for your professional growth. 

Participate in conferences, hackathons, and competitions

Attend popular conferences so you can network with your peers and learn the latest technology trends. Here is a list of popular conferences for software developers and engineers: 

Language-specific conferences

  • RubyCon: A must for Ruby developers
  • PyCon: Essential for Python enthusiasts 
  • ReactConf: Perfect for JavaScript engineers working on React and React Native

Domain-specific conferences

  • Game Developer Conference (GDC): Ideal for game developers and designers
  • DataBricks Data + AI Summit: The world’s largest data, analytics, and AI conference
  • DockerCon: Crucial for DevOps engineers focused on containerization technologies
  • DefCon: The go-to conference for security researchers, cybersecurity professionals, and hackers
  • KubeCon + CloudNativeCon: Essential for engineers and IT professionals working with Kubernetes and cloud-native technologies.

Platform conferences

  • Apple’s WWDC: For developers working on iOS, macOS, watchOS, and tvOS platforms
  • Google’s I/O: For engineers working on Android, Google Cloud, and Web platforms
  • Microsoft Build: For developers working with Windows, Azure, and .Net tools and platforms

Practice coding challenges

Hone your skills with coding challenges. CodeSignal has published a wide range of coding questions and answers that cater to all expertise levels, from beginner to senior. Check out our Python questions  and C++ coding questions to sharpen your skills.

Work on open-source projects

Dive into open-source projects to expose yourself to new technologies that are not part of your day job. These projects offer a great opportunity to expand your expertise beyond your current skill level. You get to work with collaborators around the world and might have to navigate different coding styles from your company’s style. 

Contributing to open-source projects can also build your engineering reputation and credibility among peers and potential employers. Open-source work can act as a badge that shows your willingness to contribute to the larger tech community. It allows potential employers to see your skills in action. And, if they’re looking for someone with your exact skills, that might be a potential job for you. 

If you’re interested in doing open-source work, check out GitHub or GitLab. 

Listen to software engineer podcasts

Tune into these top software engineering podcasts to find valuable content from engineers around the world. 

  • Talk Python To Me: Aimed at Python developers of every skill level and appeals to those in data science, web development, and automation
  • Software Engineering Daily: For software engineers interested in tech trends
  • Syntax: Targets web developers and designers, especially those focused on front-end technologies like JavaScript and CSS, and is suitable for both beginners and experts
  • The Changelog: For developers and programmers passionate about open-source software, covering the latest technologies and their backstories

5 ways you can become a better software engineer with CodeSignal Learn 

CodeSignal Learn is a free platform that helps engineers level up in their current role or build in-demand skills during their job search. Here are five ways you can use it to become a great software engineer. 

1. Get 1-on-1 support with Cosmo

Learn with Cosmo, our friendly AI tutor that’s built into CodeSignal Learn. Cosmo adapts to your learning style and creates challenges tailored to your level and expertise. He provides assistance to unblock you if you get stuck; if you need a refresher on a technical concept or forget a crucial piece of information, for example, Cosmo is there to guide you. 

2. Dive into hands-on learning

Learn modules consist of 90% practice and 10% instruction. Practice exercises simulate real-world problems instead of academic computer science challenges. This approach means you get to learn by solving practical challenges that are realistic and relevant to your growth as a professional engineer. 

3. Master in-demand skills

Over the last 10 years, CodeSignal has helped hundreds of tech companies build their hiring processes—so we know what skills employers are looking for. CodeSignal Learn provides the pathway for a range of in-demand skills such as AI & ML, data science, front-end engineering, and more. 

4. Build on what you know

We know everyone’s learning journey is unique. When you use CodeSignal Learn for the first time, we assess your current experience and skills to get a baseline of your expertise. You start with what you know and build from there. As you progress, we steer you towards your career goals by providing bite-sized learning modules that fit into your busy schedule.

5. Showcase your skills

With CodeSignal Learn, you progress to new learning levels by demonstrating hire-ready competency. Rather than superficially clicking through content, you only advance by gaining true mastery of the concepts. When you complete a course, you earn a skills badge that is added to a skills profile that employers trust. 

Accelerate your software engineer career with CodeSignal Learn

Throughout this guide, we’ve explored various strategies and habits to help you level up from a good to a great software engineer. From mastering a single programming language in-depth, to learning the entire software lifecycle process, each strategy is designed to deepen your understanding and make you a more effective engineer. Participating in coding challenges, contributing to open-source projects, and attending conferences are just a few of the ways you can broaden your horizons.  

CodeSignal Learn is a powerful tool in this journey that offers personalized learning paths, hands-on practice with real-world problems, and a focus on skill mastery. With Cosmo, your built-in AI tutor and guide, you get tailored challenges and immediate support to navigate your learning process. When you complete a learning path, you gain mastery of technical concepts and can showcase your skills to employers. 

Are you ready to take your engineering skills to the next level? Sign up to get started for free, and embark on your journey to becoming a great software engineer.