Why soft skills matter more than coding in tech careers
There is a pervasive misconception that hard skills matter more than soft ones in the field of technology, when research shows the exact opposite.
Jan 25, 2024 • 6 Minute Read
- Public Sector
- IT Ops
- Engineering Leadership
- Professional Development
- Team Development
- Learning & Development
Here’s a potentially controversial statement: All those certifications you’ve got, all those programming skills or bits of cybersecurity knowledge? Without soft skills, you might as well throw them right in the bin.
That’s not to say they don’t matter! But all too often in tech, we get caught up on the importance of certificates, technical skills, and knowing the latest trends. And these are all exciting things to be passionate about: who doesn’t want to celebrate passing their Certified Kubernetes Administrator exam, learning Rust, or discovering the ins and outs of a new AWS service?
But as a result, we start thinking it’s the only thing that matters. Soon, our hard skills are like an impervious shield that floats around us, making us think we’re employable no matter what our soft skills are like, and we say things like: “Who cares if I’m a good communicator, if I have every AWS certification?”
This type of thinking is not only wrong, but detrimental for everyone involved: the individual, the business, and the field itself. In reality, soft skills are critical for overall career success and organizational growth. In this article, I’ll tackle six myths about soft skills, and why they’re something you should be paying attention to (and actively training!)
Six myths in the tech industry about soft skills
- Soft skills aren’t as in demand as hard skills like AI or cybersecurity, so they should be low on my priority list
- Not having soft skills doesn’t make or break tech careers or major projects
- All I need are a list of qualifications to get a tech job
- Soft skills are innate personality traits — you have them or you don’t
- As a tech leader, it’s up to employees to be self-aware and develop their own soft skills
- As a tech leader, it’s easier to hire for soft skills than train my existing employees
1. Soft skills aren’t as in demand as hard skills like AI or cybersecurity, so they should be low on my priority list
With all the fuss about AI in 2023, you’d expect it to be the number one core skill for workers in 2024. It’s not — in fact, it’s only 15th for organizations, with the top five being soft skills, according to the World Economic Forum.
Yes, AI and Cybersecurity are certainly on the rise in importance — they’re the 7th and 15th fastest growing skills, respectively — but do you know what all those other skills on the list are? That’s right, soft skills, like critical thinking, analytical thinking, and lifelong learning.
2. Not having soft skills doesn’t make or break tech careers or major projects
Imagine a public sector employee who knows everything there is to know about Azure. They’ve worked on major cloud architecture projects, and they’ve got several certifications to boot. However, they have some serious soft skill gaps:
- They only ever write code as expected, without questioning the underlying requirements, or imagining more efficient solutions.
- They never experiment with new ideas or technologies, and become seriously discouraged by technical roadblocks.
- They never take the initiative, always waiting to be asked to do something.
- They don’t know how to communicate with anyone who’s non-technical, so they struggle to talk with other business units, or explain the importance of their projects.
- They are unaware of their own limitations, because they never take the time to reflect on how they could be performing at a higher level.
For a manager, all of these employee qualities are as attractive as a root canal.
This sort of employee can have every certificate under the sun and speak Python like a second language, but I can guarantee this person’s career will stagnate. And because they don’t self-reflect, they’ll be frustrated about it, asking questions like “Why can’t I advance when I’ve got all these certifications and skills?” and “Why do they keep assigning me to trivial projects?”
This situation is not good for anyone, and as we’ll discuss below, actually avoidable.
3. All I need are a list of qualifications to get a tech job
This is both true and false. It’s true in the sense you can land a tech job with no prior experience if you get industry certifications, and demonstrate you have the proper knowledge.
However, it’s false in that your employer is also going to be considering your soft skills in the interview, so you’re not getting through the door just on your qualifications. You could also argue that getting those certifications also shows that you have four important soft skills: a desire to learn, motivation, adaptability, and self-awareness.
Even if you do somehow get in the door on qualifications alone, getting a job and doing well in it are two different things. There’s a saying that “Qualifications get you interviews, skills get you the job.” I’d expand on that to say that “Soft skills keep you the job, and get you promoted.”
4. Soft skills are innate personality traits — you have them or you don’t
Completely untrue. Soft skills, just like technical skills, can be learned, honed, and improved with practice and training. There’s a few reasons this myth came to be:
Soft skills seem intangible
If someone knows a hard skill, like using Kubernetes, you can train and measure it easily. Soft skills seem less straightforward.
Lack of formal training paths
Technical skills have clear educational or training pathways. Soft skill development can seem less structured.
Underestimation of Personal Growth Potential
Some individuals might underestimate their capacity for personal growth, believing that their current abilities are fixed. This fixed mindset overlooks the concept of growth mindset, which emphasizes the potential to develop and improve through effort and learning.
Lack of Self-Awareness
Developing soft skills often requires introspection and self-awareness, which can be challenging for some. Recognizing one's own areas of improvement is the first step in the journey of developing these skills.
5. As a tech leader, it’s up to employees to be self-aware and develop their own soft skills
Wrong. As a leader, you are responsible for nurturing and improving your employee’s skills, and that includes their soft skills. In fact, there are several avenues available to you to do this:
- Soft-skill workshops
- Soft-skill seminars
- Soft-skill courses
- Team projects
- Offering leadership roles
- Targeted training
Providing these opportunities not only makes the team you’re working with more capable, it provides your employees with upskilling opportunities. It shows you’re willing to invest in their growth and career development.
6. As a tech leader, it’s easier to hire for soft skills than train my existing employees
Again, wrong. A lot of companies who are laboring under the misconception that soft skills are innate will label an employee without them as an unsolvable problem, “manage them out”, then try to hire someone who does have these skills. However, this is expensive, time-consuming, and doesn’t even guarantee you wind up with a better result.
Also, the increased turnover makes those unicorn employees more wary to sign up with you, which is counterproductive to your goals. Right now, it’s an employee’s market, so you want a culture of continuous learning and employee investment, not a revolving door with an expectation employees should be perfect on arrival.
Conclusion: Add soft skills to you (or your team's) radar
It can be difficult to know where to start when it comes to improving your soft skills. Thankfully, you don't need to do it alone, and there are pathways to success available. We highly recommend checking out Pluralsight's learning path: Developing Soft Skills for Today’s Workplace. It's a twelve hour pathway that covers a wide range of important soft skills.
You don't have to take the learning path all at once — you can decide to take particular courses depending on your weak points, or tailor it to a team. It also includes a course called Introduction to Leadership and Management for Developers, which is great for people looking to take that next step in their career.