Software development is, at its core, all about problem solving.
Think about it.
First, developers need to find a problem they can solve with software. Then, they have to figure out how humans solve that problem. And then, they have to find a way to effectively translate both the problem and the solution into code that a computer can use to solve the problem as well as (or better than) a person.
And then there are all the problems along the way: Working with teams, finding and fixing bugs, meeting delivery deadlines.
Engineers use problem solving skills constantly.
Because of that, if you want to become a better developer, one place to start might be becoming a better problem solver. But that’s easier said than done, and requires a deep understanding of what problem solving is, why it matters, and what it actually takes to improve those skills.
Ready to dive in? Let’s get started.
What Is Problem Solving, and Why Does It Matter?
Have you ever heard this famous Steve Jobs quote?
“Everyone in this country should learn to program a computer because it teaches you to think.”
Jobs was right. Software development is as much about “soft skills” like critical thinking, communication, and problem solving as it is about “hard skills” like writing code.
And so, in the context of software development, problem solving can mean a few different things:
Creating an application that meets the end user’s goals.
Communicating effectively with team members to delegate work.
Finding and fixing bugs in the code.
Meeting a tight deadline for a client.
There’s only one thing that’s true no matter what problem solving looks like on a given day: It’s an integral part of every step of the software development process.
Why Should Engineers Work On Problem Solving Skills?
Just like any other skill, problem solving takes practice to apply and master.
Many developers think that becoming a better problem solver means being able to solve more problems, faster. But that’s not true — it means being able to find the best solution to a problem, and then put that solution in place.
Learning to do that is a great way to become a better developer overall. And while soft skills can be more difficult to learn and improve upon than hard skills, there are still some tips and tricks that can help you get better at problem solving specifically.
6 Ways to Get Better at Problem Solving
As you’ll see from these learning tools, getting better at problem solving is mostly like getting better at any other skill for work: You need to practice. A lot. And then practice some more.
Solve a Lot of Problems on a Lot of Different Platforms
Step one? Solve as many problems as you can, but try to focus on different types of problems on different platforms.
Here’s why this is so beneficial: It prevents you from getting comfortable with one problem solving method or framework. As we already know, in the world of software development, there is definitely no one-size-fits-all solution for the problems we encounter.
When you regularly practice solving different types of problems in different platforms, it reinforces the fact that you can’t always rely on the same technique to solve every problem. It forces you to learn to be flexible, and to choose the best tool or framework for each job.
Solve Problems in Contexts Other Than Work
Since problem solving is a skill that requires practice, you can (and should) work on it even outside of work hours.
This doesn’t need to be a chore — there are a lot of fun ways to practice problem solving, like by doing math or logic puzzles, solving crosswords, or playing a game like chess. Even many video games can help work on problem solving skills.
There are also many opportunities to practice problem solving just as you live your life from day to day. Broke something around the house? Use your problem solving skills to DIY a fix. Need to solve a conflict with a friend or a family member? You guessed it — time to practice problem solving.
Learn From Past Solutions, and Apply Them to New Problems
As you keep practicing problem solving as much as possible, you’ll start to see patterns emerge in the problems you solve. You’ll build up a sort of toolkit filled with the solutions you’ve found and used in the past, and you’ll be able to apply those to solving new problems.
This part is just as important as finding the solutions in the first place, because the more you practice your growing problem solving skills, the more natural it will become to apply the right solutions to different types of problems, making you able to solve new problems more and more quickly, while still using the best possible solves.
Ask Others for Help and Feedback
Sometimes, finding the best solution to a problem just requires a fresh, new set of eyes. That’s why it’s important to treat growing your problem solving skills not as a totally solo venture, but as a team endeavor where everyone at your organization can support each other and help each other get better.
If you’re stuck on a specific problem, ask for help. Someone else might have a method or framework you aren’t familiar with, that they can teach you. You can then apply that to more problems down the road.
And if you’ve come up with a solve for a problem, ask others for feedback. They might be able to help you refine or further improve your framework, making it even better.
Train the Problem Solving Part of Your Mind
How do you keep muscles from growing weaker over time? You keep exercising them.
The same goes for your brain, and especially for different knowledge-base skills, like problem solving. You’ll stay at the top of your brain if you keep “working out,” or practicing problem solving all the time.
A good move for a developer who wants to invest in their problem solving skills is scheduling time every week (or even every day) to consciously practice problem solving. Remember, this doesn’t necessarily mean solving work problems. You could commit to doing a tricky logic puzzle every day on your lunch break, for example. The important thing is to get in the practice, no matter how that looks.
Practice Other Skills Related to Problem Solving
Problem solving is an important skill on its own. But there are other necessary skills developers need to support their problem solving abilities, and those skills all take practice, too.
Flexibility. Critical thinking. Communication. Teamwork. Focusing on building and practicing all these skills will help you improve your problem solving.
Problem solving is one of the most necessary skills for developers to have. With time, practice, and dedication, they can improve it, constantly, and keep becoming better.