The tech labor crunch has accelerated trends seen in the 2010s, and the market is getting tighter. The importance of skill sets outside of the technical competence required for the job is coming into question, and the answers might surprise.
Importance of soft skills in business
Given the shortage of IT professionals, it might seem that the question of “Which is more important, technical knowledge or soft skills?” has been answered with a firm “Technical knowledge!”. Not true. After all, that same shortage increases the chances of teams being short-handed, which means that soft skills for programmers are a necessity when navigating the resulting increases in stress. Even in the best of circumstances, technical knowledge and skills with people go hand in hand over the course of a career.
What are soft skills?
The term “soft skills” refers to a loosely defined set of traits that generally cover personal skills (such as timeliness) and social skills (such as empathy) and career skills (institutional thinking). In this article, we’ll focus to some extent on personal skills and more on social skills. All of these are skills valued by employers.
In its 2019 report on global talent trends, LinkedIn stated that 80% of the companies it polled said that the company’s success is increasingly tied to soft skills. Furthermore, soft skills were a factor in 92% of companies’ hiring decisions.
One final reason may be hard to swallow in the world of tech, which stereotypically is filled with people who prefer communication with machines and not other people. In a July 2021 article in Forbes, Yolanda Lau, Chief Experience Officer at vendor admin platform creator Liquid noted that the rise of automation has done away with jobs that require less in the way of soft skills.
“As more and more job activities become automated, soft skills, which cannot yet be replicated by machines, have become more important.”— Yolanda Lau, Chief Experience Officer at Liquid.
Yes, she wrote “yet”, but until soft skills are replicated, humans with those skills will be in demand both by the companies that they work for and that company’s partners.
Soft skills needed
Lists of professional skills often try to cover every aspect of the professional business skills needed across industries, and the more successful lists are book-length in content. For the sake of brevity, this post will dial in on a mix of personal and social soft skills needed in technical positions.
The following set of social skills covers the bulk of what employers are looking for outside of the technical, or hard, skills a particular position requires.
- active listening
- self presentation
- emotional intelligence
Let’s look at them in turn.
Being proactive is often pictured as speaking up after uncovering a problem that was previously ignored or unseen. That’s an important part of tech soft skills. But being proactive is broader than that. In a February 2021 article in Forbes, the idea of being proactive was expanded to show that traits such as being curious and being willing to form and test hypotheses are also ways that proactive people act.
Any set of technology soft skills must include active listening. In contrast to passive or even attentive listening, active listening is a way of communicating that the speaker’s message is heard, understood, and focused upon. Asking for clarification or confirmation is also part of active listening.
Engaging in active listening when on remote meetings, especially if people aren’t on video, can be difficult. After all, 55% of communication in a conversation comes from non-verbal clues. But active listening, as one of the primary soft skills for programmers, also encompasses a broader range of communication than speech itself. Promptly answering emails, showing that you have understood the content of a message, and just showing that you’ve paid attention is akin to active listening, and all the more important when working remotely.
Being able to give a presentation is one thing, self-presentation is another. They can be connected, however, in that justified self-confidence usually shows through whether plowing through a slide deck or talking with colleagues. “Justified self-confidence” is the crux of the skill. Self-presentation is an important part of networking soft skills in particular.
Having good self-presentation is an important part of working within teams and communicating with technical peers. It directly affects your ability to collaborate with and persuade the people you work with and collaboration and persuasion are two of the top five soft skills that companies need but have a hard time finding in their people, according to LinkedIn research from 2019.
Working in teams requires emotional intelligence, that is, the ability to interact in meaningful and goal-focused ways with others, especially under pressure. Emotional intelligence can be considered a thread running through the other soft skills, as being proactive and an active listener in particular the ability to show that you are thinking of the other, or of the situation.
Emotional intelligence can top lists of which soft skills are most valued by employers, but for tech talent focused on strong skills, the temptation is strong to point to icons such as Steve Jobs, who were famous for not showing much in the way of social graces toward colleagues. Writing in Inc., author Justin Bariso argues that actually, Jobs was incredibly intelligent emotionally, but that he chose to use it to further his own vision.
“…Jobs often got what he wanted because he knew how to use other people’s emotions…”— Justin Bariso, Author of EQ Applied.
In this sense, we can draw a parallel between soft and hard skills. While soft skills are usually portrayed as important for keeping an enterprise on an even keel even through storms, the truth is that they are skills, and the rudder, morals, lies outside the scope of this post.
Soft skills training for technicians
Besides being used for good, or not, soft skills share another characteristic with hard skills: they can be taught. Just as a proclivity for math or spatial thinking can be developed through education, most of the soft skills needed in today’s workplace can be trained. However, it takes effort and persistence, or else lessons learned become forgotten.
“Companies have a lot to gain by treating soft skills as they would any technical skill.”— Liz Cannata, Vice President, Human Resources at CareerBuilder.
So, what are some good skills to have that can be learned?
Most of them, it seems, and technology will be transforming the soft skills education market. Virtual reality is already being used to create immersive experiences for developing these skills. The ability to model and adjust situations enables providers opportunities to build and maintain capacities for interaction that otherwise might take years to accumulate.
Free material abounds, too. LinkedIn’s learning portal has a lot of material on these skills, including videos. Within the business world, many blogs and web sites have covered these topics as well.
For companies looking to increase the soft skill sets of their employees, and individuals focusing on building their career, other options are available. Coaches, skill groups such as Toastmasters, and soft skill training companies are all available at a price.
Importance of soft skills in business
The need for soft skills will only intensify as more companies adopt remote and hybrid operational modes. Professional business skills such as active listening and self-presentation will be required even more as technologies filter through enterprises, bringing tech and non-tech people together in new ways. Companies reaching out to partners will also require tech staff with the skills to navigate different company cultures and technical expectations.
“Events worldwide have accelerated with the ineed for the tools and skills that people use to interact with each other as well as the technology itself. The range of people tech workers communicate with has grown, and will only continue to expand while more unconnected positions fade away. Tech workers need to be able to communicate world-wide, not just by technical means but also by making clear themselves and their understanding of others’ needs. It’s not always easy to find, and companies will be looking for partners whose employees show those traits.”— Vlad Medvedovsky, CEO at Proxet (ex – Rails Reactor) – a custom software development company.
At Proxet, our experience in developing solutions to intricate software-related problems has led us to value the skills mentioned here as much as the tech chops that leverage them. Got a question about it regarding your project? Feel free to contact us here.