10 Soft Skills Every IT Professional Should Develop
If you're struggling to advance in your IT career, it may be time to reach beyond technical expertise.
Even in the most technical fields today, soft skills are in high demand. In fact, a Harris poll of hiring managers revealed that 77 percent of employers value soft skills as much as hard skills. Burning Glass Technologies recently analyzed over 25 million online job listings. Among IT listings, one in four of the most sought-after skills were soft skills.
Wanted: Coder, Collaborator, Strong Communicator
Perhaps you’re presenting a new software solution to stakeholders. Or maybe you’re scoping out a project plan with colleagues. In either case, you’re tapping into what Burning Glass refers to as “baseline” competencies. The study indicated five skills that topped the most-desired list:
- Project management
The Education Advisory Board looked at the data through the lens of STEM fields. It identified the following five skills that have experienced the greatest increase in demand:
- Quality assurance
- Building effective relationships
This statement is not news to Ben Gaucherin, who heads up IT for Harvard University campus services. “I’ve believed in the importance of soft skills in the tech sector for a long time,” he says. “I’ve actually driven my career in big part as a result of this belief.”
Often, Gaucherin says, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs focus too narrowly on helping individuals build technical mastery.
The people who will thrive are the strong technologists who are capable of translating their expertise into terms that nontechnical people can understand.” – Ben Gaucherin
“If the emphasis on STEM is at the expense of a liberal arts core,” he says, “we run the risk of a generation of people who are very talented technically but not skilled socially. They can only fit within a business and social setting with other techies. They’re not well equipped for those essential interactions with the rest of the business world.”
Bridging Technology: Translating and Relating
For many years technology thrived in a silo, according to Gaucherin, who also teaches courses in computer science at Harvard Extension School. But over the past two decades, something fundamental has changed. And to foster ongoing career development, technologists should too.
“Technology without the larger context of the business and the environment in which it will be implemented is useless,” he says. “You need to understand technology within the context of law, markets, privacy, and trust—and all other factors that influence its function.”
When you pair such interdisciplinary knowledge with strong writing and communication skills, Gaucherin says, you can build partnerships with business stakeholders, helping them make well-informed decisions.
“The people who will thrive are the strong technologists who are capable of translating their expertise into terms that nontechnical people can understand,” he says. “We see this need across a broad spectrum of sectors.”
Alumnus Christian Botting is a senior acquisitions editor for Pearson. In the role, he often liaises between technology experts and company stakeholders. “Whether I’m the only techie in the room or not,” he says, “listening and empathy skills come into play. If I have a product requirement to communicate, we need to have a common vocabulary—and I need the patience to listen.”
Botting hints at a concept that underpins many of these in-demand soft skills: emotional intelligence (EI).
“If someone is talented and smart, but they’re thorny and demanding, over time they may get a reputation for being difficult to work with,” Botting says. “Their energy and communication skills will influence how your business operates. They may have all the chops in the world, but poor communication skills hurt morale and productivity. I’ve seen that happen before.”
People with high EI quotients “read the room,” consider the array of factors at play, and remain adaptable. “You have to be a flexible collaborator. What may seem like an ideal solution to you may be seen as risky and expensive to your boss,” Botting says. “When you’re inflexible, you break. When you’re flexible, you bend. In technology, there are so many solutions. You have to be open to them.”
Build the Skills Now ... For the Future
For many technologists, these skills are not innate. Gaucherin understands this. Although he holds an executive-level position at Harvard, he is a self-professed “tech geek.”
“My background is in mathematics and computer science,” he says. “I caught the bug as a young kid, and it never left me. In my free time at home, I’m online coding and playing with technology.”
But Gaucherin’s career grew out of an appreciation for a diversified skill set. He advises technologists to be conscientious as they build their career.
“If what you really enjoy is being at your desk and coding all day, you can dismiss the value of soft skills,” he says. “You can say, ‘I’ll be fine,’ and not care about it. But you have to be willing to live with the consequences.”
Early in your tech career, technology is a catalyst. And you may be a crackerjack when it comes to the current technology.
“But anyone who’s hung out with old IT folks like me knows that we were all once really good at the technology of the day,” he continues. “Maybe that was Cobol on the mainframe or software development on the PDP. Those technologies are long gone. No one remembers them and no one cares.”
If you choose to focus solely on sustaining technical expertise, you will have to stay on top of what’s current. Over time, that can become increasingly difficult.
“What if you wake up two years from now and realize it’s becoming harder to compete with the up-and-comers who are well-versed in the latest tech?” says Gaucherin. “That’s when having another skill set in your arsenal can help you prove your value to your employers.”
Closing the Soft-Skill Gap
In essence, you can develop soft skills, but it takes commitment and self-awareness. Training seminars or classes can help. But practice, particularly in context, is essential.
“Through time, exposure, and discipline, people can learn,” Botting says. “You get better at basketball by shooting hoops!”
There’s no better way to learn than by doing. I don’t mean you have to run out and deliver a TED talk next week. But you could try presenting something to the team at next week’s brown bag session.” – Ben Gaucherin
Gaucherin agrees. “You have to regularly put yourself in the position of mild discomfort,” he says. Back in his consulting days, when he became chief technology officer of Sapient, public speaking was an unwelcome aspect of the role. But it was part of the job, and he signed up for media training.
“I learned the good, the bad, and the ugly of public speaking and communicating with the media,” he says. “And then I found little back-room panel talks for which maybe five people would show up. There I could practice. I proved to myself I could do it. I didn’t necessarily like it. But I found out I was capable of it—and not even all that terrible at it.
“There’s no better way to learn than by doing. I don’t mean you have to run out and deliver a TED talk next week. But you could try presenting something to the team at next week’s brown bag session.”
When considering ongoing development, Gaucherin suggests technologists think about their career path. “Where do you want to be five to 10 years from now?” he says. “What tools do you want to have in your bag of tricks so you have more to bring to the table than you have today?”
From there, you can identify people in your network or community who excel in these areas. “Connect with them,” he says. “Use them as mentors, as people you can emulate. Clearly they have broken the code and figured it out. Find out how—and even why.”
The more you appreciate why these skills matter, from people more seasoned than you, the more motivated you’ll be to continue your evolution.