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Soft Skills Matter in Tech

More and more these days, the IT professional has to be a jack-of-all-trades. It's no longer enough to be a domain expert and avoid human interaction. As enterprise IT evolves to be more and more tightly linked to business goals and strategy, the IT team must have a balance between hard skills and soft skills.

Hard skills are teachable. They are tangible as well as measurable, like programming languages or network architecture -- the technical skill set that allows a person to perform specific tasks. Soft skills link to emotional intelligence -- things that help us interact with our coworkers and enable people to work better together.

TalentSmart, a provider of emotional intelligence services, defines emotional intelligence as "the 'something' in each of us that is a bit intangible. It affects how we manage behavior, navigate social complexities, and make personal decisions that achieve positive results."

People exhibit many examples of soft skills at work. A few are key to helping technology professionals be more successful. These include:

  • Communication - How many times have you received an email that leaves you shaking your head? It's full of acronyms and jargon, or doesn't provide any context to clarify. Tech people live and breathe in an environment rich with lingo and code -- literal code -- and being able to effectively communicate in business English is a critical attribute, whether written or spoken. A good tech professional is a fluent translator, one who can take a complicated concept and turn it into something that makes sense for a business person.
  • Teamwork/Collaboration - Being able to work together on a team or collaborate across functions is a big part of today's work environment. Developing skills in how to partner and support a team goal will go a long way in building successful relationships as well as good products or services. Today's college graduates are working collaboratively more and more, and I am seeing this attribute in many incoming employees.
  • Empathy - This one is huge. Putting yourself in another's shoes to understand the issues and challenges he or she is dealing with is something that more IT professionals need to be able to do. Having empathy allows you to experience something from an end-user perspective, for example. Instead of approaching something from the inside out, you try to look at it from the outside in, using a different set of lenses. That lets tech professionals see things not as technical issues to fix, but as business problems their users are experiencing. And once you do that, you build a bridge to understanding that supports future interactions as well.
  • Adaptability - Being able to respond to change and evolving goals is part of being adaptable. This involves being able to see things beyond black and white. Seeing shades of gray is key to finding solutions or looking for an out-of-the-box idea. This pairs well with creativity and can lead to new innovations for the business. In the fast-changing business climate, being adaptable is imperative.

Looking for soft skills in hiring requires taking the time while interviewing to go beyond a simple rundown of a candidate's resume and certifications. It involves asking candidates how they might solve problems or to provide examples of how they've approached a challenge in the past. Listen for cues in the answers, like, "We got together to define the problem and mapped out an approach" or "We changed the way we were working the issue to see it from another angle." These types of answers indicate an awareness of teamwork and adaptability, not simply a recitation of their successes and what tools they used. Pay attention to body language and eye contact. These are strong indicators of emotional intelligence as well.

If you or people on your team don't have strong soft skills, don't despair. They can be taught. Self-awareness or a desire to change is an important first step. Look for a mentor who is strong in soft skills and ask for feedback. Emulate people who have soft skills and listen to how they interact with others. Before long, you'll begin to see how you and your team can make small changes that will make a big difference in your approach.

A recent hiring trend in the tech field is to only bring on those with specific technical degrees. In doing so, the risk is the loss of some emotional intelligence attributes. My hope and belief is that a balance between hard technical competencies and the human-oriented soft skills is maintainable. This balance will serve the enterprise better in the long run.

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