Hard skills are extremely valuable. They assist with a specific career and ensure that you possess the necessary expertise to complete tasks. Soft skills, on the other hand, should not be underestimated. These are skills that can be applied to a variety of situations and can be used to specialize in a particular job. So, in this article, I would like to describe the importance of soft skills in a tech-focused world.
Soft skills in the IT industry – what are they?
Soft skills are something that cannot really be clearly defined.
Most of us, when working in the IT industry, place the greatest emphasis on hard competences, i.e. technical knowledge and programming skills. We are usually really good at this. However, universities today do not prepare us to actually communicate with each other. Communication is the first of these competences that must be given a lot of attention, in fact, it’s needed from the very beginning of a professional career. Even if we go for an interview after graduation, we already have to be able to tell about ourselves. The better we present ourselves at this point, introduce ourselves, talk about who we are, the more chances we have of finding something interesting for ourselves, thanks to which we will be able to develop. Communication is the first, most important, and fundamental skill.
The second important thing is teamwork. Nobody currently working in the IT industry has a full range of skills. We need various specialists, both with hard skills, who can manage servers, can program, design systems, but we also need people who design products, write texts, create a marketing setting, etc. The range of needs is very wide, which is why the teams consist of many different people who often speak different professional languages. It is not about foreign languages, but a distinction, e.g. developer, network operator, or marketer. Such a team must be able, firstly, to communicate and, secondly, to cooperate with each other. It is important to actually support each other and create good solutions together.
Moving further towards what is needed, the topic of leadership arises, whether we are leaders, whether we can follow others, whether we are able to follow others, whether we are listeners or more creating ideas, or whether we prefer to discuss them. These skills of leading a team and caring for people are also activities that are very important in the current flattened organizational structure of companies.
Soft skills – when are they crucial?
If we go back to ‘ancient times’, building the system was quite different than it is now. An IT manager from the 20th floor of an office building was meeting an owner of a large company that needed some solutions. They talked about the project, then it went through all floors of the office building, from the very top, through analysts, designers who created bloated documents and descriptions of what actually needed to be implemented. It got somewhere near the ground floor, where the programmers were sitting. According to the documentation it appeared that they created the code without talking to anyone. In the end, there were people in the basement who started the system and kept it running. Such organizations basically ceased to exist because the effects of their work were often deplorable. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine that this process would look different, because programming work, especially with large systems, was so much back then and required deep knowledge that in fact, software engineers couldn’t do anything else.
Now the situation has changed, the very creation of the system is more like building with blocks, from ready-made solutions, which is intuitive, relatively easy to learn. Even complex systems consist of relatively simple components. As important as technical skills, the ability to cooperate, talk, see what we create with the eyes of other people, so that we are more aware of what we create, why we create, for whom we create, and how this someone will use it. The whole idea of Agile is based on the communication and cooperation of people at all levels. Each of us will sooner or later talk to the client, and if not the client, then often with the Product Owner, who is usually not technical and is able to look at the product through the eyes of users. Then, the developers can sit down in front of their screens and create the code and other components needed to run the system.
So, the Agile system forced the acquisition of soft skills?
Naturally, these skills has become important. It has been noticed that people working from the technical side are cut off from the core, from what we’re supposed to do, so they don’t feel a connection between what they create and how someone uses the system. Thanks to this, we started working in the Agile model, and it forces us to communicate. We must remember that the code we write is, of course, compiled and understandable for a computer, but that it should be simple to comprehend for other people. This code is to be explicit for us in 2 years if it turns out that something needs to be changed there. The way we talk to each other, how we explain certain things and transform them into lines of code, allows us to simplify our lives and our colleagues’ lives. This has a better effect on what we actually create.
What soft skills are the most desirable in the IT industry?
- Ability to speak, present
- Cooperation, mutual assistance
- Independence, commitment, proactivity, critical thinking
- Ability to give and receive feedback
- Curiosity about the world
Communicativeness is the most important feature without which the whole pyramid falls apart. It’s hard to imagine anyone closed and hidden in the IT industry right now. The more responsibility there is on such a person, the more competences are required and the more important they are. It’s a challenge to put the responsibility on someone who is locked in his room and won’t talk to anyone. This person may even be a brilliant programmer, but at this point, you would have to hire another person who can talk to him, and that is problematic. Sometimes it’s done because there are people who are unable to get through a certain communication barrier. But, being a person who has a role related to communication, like Architect, CTO, Product Owner, team leader, there is no such option.
Being in a team, we must be able to communicate, discuss, argue and present our ideas. If our concept is not understandable and everyone has their own idea, but nobody talks about it or presents them, there is no chance to choose the best one. There is some diversity in the teams, there are experienced people, those who have been working in the industry for several years, and there are also people who are just learning. These people need to talk to each other and they have to help each other. It is not a question that the senior helps the junior, but the junior can help the senior too. A person who is just entering the industry often has a fresh perspective, also this mutual exchange of knowledge is key. Of course, you have to be able to help each other, ask for help, and know when it is better to keep silent and not ask questions.
Being able to feel what the other person may be feeling is important regarding our colleagues and clients. Even if we aren’t creating a product that end users can use, such as API, let’s try to empathize with how other developers will use it. If we do it as we feel comfortable, and do not go into the role of the other person, then unfortunately our product will not meet the expectations it should meet. Understanding what we create and why we create it’s the basis for preparing a good solution. You have to look at the world more broadly, look for what other people can expect from what we create, and create solutions as others expect, not only what we think is good. Unfortunately, it is often the case that we focus too much on the code and technicalities, which means we might lose the main goal along the way.
We all would like to work and live in happy conditions and surroundings. Nowadays, much more than just good earnings are taken into account, a good atmosphere, creative thinking is expected. People often have a tendency to criticize a thrown idea before they even get it. To convey what I do not like and why, what could it look like, why this way and not otherwise. Then an ability to hear it from others is also important. We often close in on ourselves and don’t try feel how others feel about us. If we hear what others think about us, we can try change our behavior so that our work is better. In our environment, creative thinking and creating good solutions are key, but if we don’t have good conditions for creative thinking, little will come out of our work. A good atmosphere is the basis for building everything else.
Constructive criticism is part of the feedback, and this includes behavior, speaking, how to present certain things, using words, and even creating code. It is not a matter of judging someone, it is a matter of looking at the same thing from a different perspective and exchanging those experiences. Working together gives value, this is a situation where 2 + 2 does not give us 4 but gives us 5, which is why it is so important.
Curiosity about the world is also called erudition. Working in IT, we know the tools, but to create, we need a client with an idea who will ask us to make something using what we have. We must understand him better, talk to him about the business, hobbies, the idea and where it comes from. We can only achieve this if we are actually interested in what is happening in the world, not only in what is happening in the IT world, but various fields. This allows us to establish relationships that help a lot at work at all levels.
How can an IT employee develop soft skills?
First of all, let’s talk to each other, don’t be afraid to argue. We don’t necessarily have to talk about professional topics, sometimes thinking, discussing a completely abstract, crazy idea, and arguing it is a great exercise. At the moment, we have the comfort that by opening YouTube or anything else, there is a lot of information and a lot of great speakers who can show the most important things that are key in communication and cooperation. The mere observation of these people also allows us to learn and develop a lot.
Few of us will perform in front of large audiences in the future, but it often happens that we have to appear in front of a large number of people and talk about what we are going to do. You have to do it in such a way that these people understand it and that they can give us feedback that there is a mistake somewhere. At the moment, we have this discomfort that most of these speeches or meetings are held online, so it’s even harder to sense whether the audience understands us. Fortunately, we have cameras and we are still able to talk freely in smaller groups. It’s important to use cameras during meetings because if you see someone, you can feel their reactions much easier, build relationships that are key to creating something good. Video chat makes communication easier for us these days, but it is not the same. Therefore, we should work to be able to communicate in the way that the situation allows us at the moment. I believe that in addition to the substantive part, meetings should also include time for a social element, maintaining relationships. It’s more difficult, but it is worth trying. With time, we all get used to it and, instead of seeing the camera, we see a man sitting in front of it.
Does the set of desired soft skills change depending on the position/role in IT?
The proportion of skills that are more and less important is changing. Communication is paramount, regardless of your position or role in the industry. When starting work, it is very important that we actually know how to cooperate with others and receive knowledge. The ability to receive feedback and convey what we think about what is happening around us is also important. Then comes the question of collaborating with others. In the beginning, everyone tells us what to do, but with time we will become full members of the team and we have to be able to present our ideas. If we are able to argue well, we also gain authority in others, which allows us to move forward. Going further in our career, we move into the role of a leader and this is where the situation changes because we take over the role of taking care of people in the team. We are no longer the most experienced developer who knows everything. We start to make sure that everyone feels good and can give their best. Everyone in IT is a specialist in their field and the role of a leader is to give everyone an environment and an opportunity to demonstrate. It’s not about spreading the work as you like, you have to notice what someone is good at. Distribute individual tasks so that they go to people who are really suitable for them. Here it is equally important to encourage these people to work and put all these elements together into one good whole. The further we go, the more the proportions of soft skills change.
However, as a whole, there is no such situation where any of these skills are completely unimportant or are the only ones that are essential.