Those in the technology field find themselves advocating the value of soft skills, but there has been a problem. Before one can even begin to define what a core set of soft skills looks like, the label itself appears to stand in the way of adoption and exploration. The word “soft” is often interpreted as “weak”, “laid back”, “relaxed”, and perhaps “undemanding.”
In technology, whether it be in the private or public sectors, tech people tend to gravitate towards professional degrees and as importantly certifications. Unlike a college degree, certifications actually measure competencies and require those in the field to be re-certified every few years – usually three. Given all the changes and advancements in technology it is imperative for those in tech to be kept up to date and measured for their competencies, both old and new. The requirement for certification and re-certification is not unlike a commercial pilot, doctor, certified public accountant, lawyer, registered nurse, fireman, etc.
The growing challenge of the day is how technology can be best managed and this is where leadership and soft skills enter the picture. If one can agree that technology alone is a set of tools from the simplest to the most complex, at some point there needs to be a recognition that for one to be and remain successful they will need to understand the value of soft skills. For example, the certified auto mechanic becomes far more valuable to the organization by making customers happier through the demonstrated use of soft skills. They are skilled at “relating” and the ability to take complex explanations and making them more understandable to the customer. Likewise a tech person can better relate to project managers as well as external and internal customers by utilizing soft skills as well.
This leads to a discussion of what exactly are soft skills and why they are particularly important to the tech community. Soft skills are often associated with interpersonal skills or people skills but digging deeper one arrives at emotional intelligence (EQ) – the art of understanding the emotions of one self - let alone others. EQ also focuses on controlling one’s own emotions too.
Over the past few years, the Public Technology Institute (now part of CompTIA) has pivoted almost entirely towards soft skills for its Certified Government CIO programs that it conducts with Rutgers University Center for Government Services. The program focuses on technology leadership as well as over a dozen other soft skillsets.
Given the growth and popularity of artificial intelligence and the rapid changes in the entire technology ecosphere, mastering soft skills has never been more important. We now need to relate to both machines as well as people – and more often people who may not be experts in technology.
Finding a simple online search reveals there are many top five, seven or 10 soft skill lists. However, translating these skills sets towards the tech ecosphere is critically important towards better understanding the how and why of its significance.
What follows is a composite list of many of the key soft skill mindsets found in the research:
- Leadership – the ability to lead teams, groups, and organizations.
- Emotional Intelligence – The ability to understand and control emotions and developing an ability to be more empathetic.
- Communication – the ability to speak and write clearly for all to digest and understand.
- Cooperation – the ability to join forced with others or combine – leaving the ego out the door.
- Social skills – whether one is an extrovert or introvert, one must be social and try and fit in and be viewed as positive and approachable.
- Change management – today’s constant is change and not everyone adopts well. One must understand the nuances of change management and learn how to embrace and support it.
- Time management and the ability to work under pressure – time management working under stress is nothing new. But there are tried and proven ways to better manage one’s time.
- Ethical (work) mindset – studies show when there is a lack of ethical behavior – morale and productivity suffers.
- Critical thinking –often confused with the word critical – critical thinking is one’s mastery of being objective.
- Decision making – the ability to understand the environment and make good decisions in a rationale step process.
- Negotiation and conflict resolution– negating skills are very important when there are competing demands of services or resources. These skills prepare tech workers to seek remedies that satisfy all interests one way or another.
- Ability to think and plan – Thinking is the easy part – planning is much harder. Planning is essential to any organization – technical or not.
- Decisiveness – In today’s environment, procrastination is an enemy of time and productivity.
- Flexibility – being flexible suggests being adaptable as an essential ingredient for teamwork.
- Listening skills – People often forget the art and value of listening. Listening is an essential part to communications and is especially useful in brainstorming.
- Teamwork and the ability to be a team player – we find ourselves in the age of collaboration and working in groups and teams has been found to be highly productive.
- Openness to criticism – Those who can learn to accept criticism – warranted or not -- are generally considered to be easier to work with and being “open” can foster a more positive work climate.
- Customer service mindset – this is where empathy skills are most helpful in better understanding and responding to internal as well as external customers.
Surely such a list can be collapsed into five distinct areas such as leadership, emotional intelligence, communication, customer service, and team building/followership.
The challenge to those advocating for more soft skills in the tech environment must overcome the label of “soft” as a possible barrier and must make the case that soft skills are no less important than the more recognized “hard” skills. And finally, the accompanying challenge will be just how these soft skills can be successfully tested for measurable competencies. The good news to the later point is that there are many excellent and accepted methods to do just that. Perhaps in the very near future it will not be as hard to be focused on soft!