Beyond technical skills: Why your tech team needs soft skills

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From the very beginning of their careers, technology professionals are ‘programmed’ to learn new skills as new technologies emerge and change. They understand the failure to keep their skills up-to-date can result in the loss of career opportunities as old tech is phased out and new ideas are adopted.

Fortunately, there are plenty of resources (like Pluralsight) to help developers, IT Ops folks, security professionals and other technologists expand their know-how. And, for the most part, these employees are pretty good at developing new technical skills to match changing job requirements.

Unfortunately, many of these same employees neglect the ‘soft’ skills they need to take on new opportunities in management, leadership or innovating for mission-critical projects. They know the technology cold, but they struggle with other skills, like forming personal connections with other employees. Some have difficulty selling the capabilities of the technologies or their own capabilities, while others aren’t able to develop trust and understanding with the people they work with.

This soft skills gap is the result of a short-term focus on getting the job done, while ignoring long-term career needs. In order to finish this week’s project, technology professionals focus on task-oriented skills like programming languages or server configurations. Understandably, these short-term needs are a priority, but if tech employees don’t take time to think long-term, they’ll never develop the soft skills needed to move into the next job opportunity. Additionally, many of these ‘softer’ skills are not the strengths of those who are drawn to technology careers. They might not know how these skills help them progress in their career, or may not even know they have a gap. However, when it comes to getting and keeping a job, that gap can be the difference between hired or fired.

Why technical skills alone don’t make a good hire

Today, job-hopping seems to be the new career ladder as highly-sought after tech employees have recruiters bombarding their LinkedIn, and younger workers reportedly change jobs four times before the age of 32. But getting that new job—or a better job—will often depend on more than a technical skillset.

When employers fill a job opening, they’ll often narrow the list of applicants to the top three or four candidates. All of those competing candidates have the necessary technical skills. The decision then comes down to whether the hiring manager actually wants to work with a particular applicant. Will they be comfortable in front of clients? Will they work well with others on the team? Can they communicate effectively with co-workers and different departments? These interpersonal skills are the difference between making the shortlist and getting the job. In fact, “technical” interviews are often a lot less technical than you might think—here are the type of questions that are actually asked.

Making things more difficult, technical workers are often stereotyped. Many technology professionals classify themselves as introverts and self-proclaimed “nerds.” Others – outside of technical roles and departments – may believe (often wrongly) that these individuals don’t have leadership ability, they’re not good at talking with people and they can’t present ideas effectively. But leadership does need these techie types—here’s a great case for why CEOs need to think more like engineers. All of this makes it even more important to develop the soft skills necessary to work effectively in today’s world, technical or not.

Closing the (soft) skills gap: 3 steps to help your tech team develop soft skills

As a leader of a technical team, you need to take a step back to think about what your company needs: Where are they headed? How can your team help the organization achieve its goals? Here are three steps to get started:

Step one: Have your team self-analyze
This can be done with or without the help of a formal questionnaire based on the experience and personality of your team. Have your team answer questions like:

  • What things do we need to learn?
  • Which skills beyond technical expertise do we need to develop?
  • Is there someone on my team who is a poor listener?
  • Do we ever come across as abrasive to others outside our team?
  • Can we help others develop new skills?
  • Are there management skills like understanding profit and loss, budgeting and managing operations or scheduling that we need to learn?

Ask team members individually:

  • Where do you want to be and what do you like doing?
  • Who are examples of people you like to work with and be led by? Who are examples of people you don’t? What characteristics do they have?
  • Are there things you need to work on based on examples?

Yes, these can be trite questions, but in this context, it’s a serious exercise that will help you and them identify the opportunities they have to improve, which will ultimately benefit the individual, the team and the entire organization. It can be difficult for team members to identify the soft skills they lack, so it’s a good idea to coach constructively to help employees pinpoint the skills they’re missing by documenting the gaps and shaping a plan for growth. If you don’t know exactly what is needed, tell them you’ll get back to them and do some research. This is where networks of peers in similar roles comes is super handy.

Step two: Encourage your employees to network
We’re not talking about handing out business cards to as many people as possible—rather effective networking is developing relationships with other people. Encourage team members to actively try to get to know someone new by developing friendships (even if they’re just ‘work relationships’). This will help your team build a network of friends who may be able to help you if the need arises. It will also give them sounding boards and feedback from peers instead of bosses.

Step three: Build your team’s reputation around the workplace
Be an advocate of team members sharing professional thoughts, presenting your work to groups, teaching skills to other teams or another organization—anything that helps other people learn about your team’s capabilities. Learning and teaching a skill is not enough. You need to build opportunities for your team to practice and experience to truly change. Technology professionals with a reputation for something specific and being easy to work with will always have an advantage over those who simply have the same tech skills as everyone else. This way, when it comes time for leadership to make big business decisions, they’ll lean on your team for advice.

Soft skills are a lot like an insurance policy—you don’t want to wait until the house is burning down before you get one. Similarly, your team shouldn’t wait either. 

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Contributor

Gary Eimerman

(VP of IT Pro Content) heads up the IT pro curriculum at Pluralsight. He brought his expertise over from TrainSignal, where he spent eight years helping to grow the company into the leader in online IT training. Gary has a B.B.A. in Management Information Systems from University of Iowa and brings hands-on experience with computer hardware, networking and administration, as well as a passion for education, to the Pluralsight team.

You can follow him on Twitter: @garyeimerman.