Are you fearless when faced with a white board test in a job interview? Top in your class when it comes to technical talent? Chances are good you will get hired for that IT job.
But does the thought of talking to groups of people send shivers up your spine, or staring at a blank computer screen to draft a report on your latest A.I. project make you physically ill? If so, chances are high career advancement may pass you by.
It turns out that a total of 51% of CIOs surveyed by Robert Half Technology listed either communication skills or problem-solving skills as the top skill sets needed for technology professionals who want to advance their careers. In other words, soft skills matter when it comes to career advancement.
“Soft skills are clearly more valued now than they were, say, 15 years ago. The days of working on a research project in your office and throwing the result ‘over a wall’ are long gone,” said Brent Hailpern, head of computer science for IBM Research and an IEEE Fellow.
He noted that every step of successful research today is interactive. This not only includes understanding the real problems to be solved, such as what are the pain points, and understanding what others have already tried and possibly failed at, but also convincing the budget gods to support your work once you need more resources than yourself. You must also be able to convince team members to accept your approach, or "sell" your idea to get someone to adopt it, in whole or in part.
As technology has made its way from the back office and functional departments to becoming a critical part of business and strategy, it has shifted the way employees need to interact and communicate throughout the organization, said John Reed, senior executive director of Robert Half Technology.
Bill Gallip, technical product manager of enterprise solutions support for Spok Inc. and an IEEE senior member, has also witnessed this shift.
“Our tech workers have become more customer facing over the years, so communication skills have become very important. Also, as the industry becomes more competitive, our managers and sales staff have had to step up their game in their interaction with both existing and potential customers. Senior leadership is becoming more active in their leadership styles,” said Gallip.
Landing the Job vs. Career Advancement
While soft skills are important for career advancement, IT recruiters note that it’s hard technical skills that usually win out in landing the job.
“To get that technical job, it will be based on hard skills, knowledge of technology, application of technology and analytical skills,” said Bob Miano, president and CEO of IT recruiting and outsourcing firm Harvey Nash USAPAC.
Gallip and Reed also hold a similar view that the technical skills are needed to land the job.
“Yes, the company is going hire you to do the technical stuff that creates a positive cash flow, but it is your soft skills that will affect the productivity of your co-workers,” Gallip said. “As you move along in your career, you will be given the opportunity to stretch your soft skills and determine if that is the direction you want to move in.”
Reed noted that while technical skills will always be of utmost importance, IT professionals today are expected to provide business solutions and to deal more directly with senior leadership and customers, as well as collaborating with other groups within the organization.
Top Soft Skills to Own
According to the Robert Half Technology survey, the following are the top soft skills that CIOs listed as being the most important for career advancement:
- 26% - Problem-solving skills
- 25% - Communication skills
- 18% - Work ethics
- 14% - Creative thinking
- 8% - Professionalism
- 7% - Business acumen
- 2% - Don’t know
“You have to have communication skills – written and oral,” advised Miano.
With strong communication skills, an IT worker is in a better position to interact with team members, customers, suppliers and people who finance their projects, noted Hailpern. “Technical people need to be able to understand what their ‘customer’ cares about, so that they can explain their work in a context that the ‘customer’ will value – and here ‘customer’ can be anyone you are trying to get to accept, use, approve, (or) buy your work,” Hailpern said.
Interpersonal skills also play a large part in career advancement, according to hiring managers.
“A person doesn’t necessarily need to be ‘nice,’ but they need to nice to be around and (their) company and their co-workers should want them to be around,” Gallip said.
Other interpersonal skills include not only the ability to collaborate, but also to serve as a good team player and have the ability to build relationships with team members, executives, customers, suppliers and partners, say hiring managers and recruiting experts.
“A fourth soft skill is multi-tasking and being organized,” Miano said. “These were not as important as a software developer where everything is single tasking. But as a manager…you need to be organized and have task lists. At this new level, you may have multiple project managers who you deal with.”
IT jobs Where Soft Skills Carry More Weight
“Project managers, help desk professionals and IT managers are definitely some key roles where soft skills hold a great deal of weight, but the reality is, there are not many technology jobs where managers aren’t focusing somewhat on the talent possessing soft skills,” Reed observed.
IT consulting jobs is another area that may require a strong set of soft skills from the get go, Miano said. That’s because a more “polished” personality is needed when working with clients, he explained.
3 Strategies to Snag Soft Skills
Communication and other soft skills may not come naturally to some IT professionals, but there are some steps that you can take to assist in acquiring them, according to the Robert Half Technology survey report:
- Take Class or Workshop. A communication, collaboration or cross-functional thinking course may assist in building up soft skills.
- Practice the art of conversation. Attend networking events and strike up conversations with co-workers whenever possible to practice your social skills.
- Find a mentor. If you find someone among family, friends or in the work environment whose social skills you admire, it would be worth your while to see if they would be willing to share tips on how to achieve similar results.
For some college grads, the way the computer science program is designed helps to foster this skill set.
“Some graduate schools focus almost exclusively on developing technical skills – the students that attend those schools may have soft skills, but they just may not be obvious,” Hailpern said. “Other schools, such as the computer science departments at the University of California, Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon University, are organized around large projects, and hence their students can only succeed if they evidence both technical ability and the soft skills to work with the other students and faculty in those projects.”