Critical Thinking Skills for Developers

By: Chris Lofton, CEO at Austin Coding Academy
Last Updated: June 2, 2018

Whether you've already established your career in the tech industry, or you're just dipping your toes into learning to code, you're probably familiar with the wide array of technical skills necessary to become a successful web developer. Between picking up new languages and keeping up with trends and best practices, there's plenty of challenge to keep new and experienced developers deeply engaged in their work.

But success in this field isn't all about technical proficiency and deep knowledge of coding languages; there are a number of soft skills coders need in order to set themselves apart.

The best developers are driven, inquisitive, methodical, and adaptable. These traits may come naturally to some people, but they're often learned or sharpened on the job. They're also traits associated with a crucial skill set: critical thinking.

What is critical thinking?

"Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action."
– The Foundation for Critical Thinking

To put it simply, critical thinking helps people look closely at the information in front of them and use it to make a logical decision. When presented with a task, a critical thinker won't rely on their assumptions or intuition. Instead, they'll take a methodical approach that involves asking questions, uncovering false assumptions, and evaluating various approaches to the problem at hand before deciding on the best path forward.

Why is critical thinking important for developers?

Most of our day is spent doing tasks without really having to think deliberately about them. For everyday activities like showering, eating, and commuting, routine can be a good thing, because it frees up our mental energy for more pressing challenges. However, problems arise when we keep our brains on autopilot. For non-repetitive tasks, failure to think deliberately can result in needless errors and extra work.

When it comes to writing code, the scope of some projects can make it unrealistic to turn the ship around mid-stream, especially on collaborative tasks. Taking time to think through the pros and cons of every possible approach before getting started helps teams build logical strategies and avoid the time and hassle of doubling back to fix major (and preventable) problems.

However, even the best-laid plans sometimes fail. That's where adaptability comes in. When it becomes clear that the current course of action isn't working, a critical thinker will take the opportunity to reflect on what went wrong, and will use what they learned to help guide decisions in the future.

Essentially, the core of any developer's job relies on the ability to solve problems as they arise, and critical thinking skills make that possible.

How you can develop or sharpen your critical thinking skills?

Education experts frequently describe critical thinking one of the main goals of formal schooling. Still, many students make it all the way through high school (or even college) without ever learning how to ask tough questions and scrutinize data.

Fortunately, experience is often the best teacher, so it's possible for motivated people to learn critical thinking skills with some practice. One way to build and strengthen problem-solving muscles is to work on logic puzzles for a few minutes every day. Making this a habit will train your brain to notice common logical errors that you can translate into your work.

The best way to develop critical thinking skills, however, is to just dive in and practice using them in real-world situations. Whenever an opportunity arises to solve a problem at work or at home, try to follow these basic steps:

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Analyze the problem from several perspectives
  3. Develop a few possible solutions
  4. Decide which solution is the best fit
  5. Take action

At first, you may need to practice intentionally walking through each of these steps. But after some repetition and experience, this kind of thinking should start to become easier.

If you're an aspiring web developer, applying methodical thinking to your coding tasks may be a bit of a challenge at first. That's one advantage of in-person coding schools; having an instructor and classmates to help you solve problems creatively is a great way to strengthen your critical thinking skills. At Austin Coding Academy, our student cohorts help one another solve problems with code by asking thoughtful questions and encouraging each other to think creatively about how to approach any challenge.

However, you decide to learn to code, making critical thinking a priority will help you become a more well-rounded and successful web developer in the future. With some deliberate practice and repetition, this kind of thinking will become second nature, allowing you to solve problems more creatively and effectively.

Want to learn more about Austin Coding Academy? Read what alumni have to say on SwitchUp.

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