The hard skill - soft skill debate for techies

Ok, I admit it. I was the biggest offender of the advice I am suggesting to you here.

As an individual contributor, I never took soft skills class. I loved training, but if I couldn’t pick up an additional technical tip or two I wasn’t interested.

For many years, if I had the choice between Oracle Database Internals, Advanced Techniques in Function Overloading, or Active Listening, guess which two courses I took? Well, I’ll give you a hint. It wasn’t Active Listening or other soft skills related classes. I’m really glad I took the hard skills classes, the technical information I learned helped me grow as a technical professional.

In retrospect, however, I believe I was less effective in a number of soft skills related areas than I would have been if I understood that even as a techie, these classes provided great value. That said, I should have also taken the soft skill classes for the following reasons:

  • All techies are smart and good technically so it can be very hard to differentiate yourself from the pack. Quality soft skills can help you make that differentiation.
  • Classes like Negotiation Skills can help you negotiate project scope, delivery dates, resources such as people and software tools, and other things that can make projects more successful, and dare I say, more fun.
  • Client Service related classes can help provide the insights into how best to help the business users you support.
  • If you want to move into a technical manager role, the sooner you develop/enhance these skills, the sooner you can get promoted and make money on it.

From a management perspective, as I moved into the management ranks, I didn’t voluntarily take my first soft skills oriented class until I was an IT Director. Truth be told, if I had attended these types of classes when I first became a technical lead, my road to IT management would have been a lot less bumpy for the following reasons:

  • Being a technical manager is a very different profession from being an individual contributing techie, they have different challenges and require different skills
  • As a technical manager, communication is king. Understanding how to manage up, navigate company politics, and keep your business users satisfied all require effective communication, strong listening skills, writing skills (even if just in email), presentation skills, and other similar competencies.
  • Your ability to motivate, lead, and manage staff are all soft skill related activities and will play a key role in your future success in the management ranks.

Please understand my intent here regarding taking soft skills related classes. I’m not saying don’t take hard skill classes, take as many as you can. As a technical manager they are still very good for you. They help you maintain your technical knowledge and keep you abreast of constantly moving technologies, even if you are no longer performing hands-on technical tasks. My goal here is to suggest that you also consider adding soft skill training to your learning regimen.

There are a number of places you can get great soft skills training even if your department doesn’t have it in the budget or if you are currently not working. These places are:

  • If employed, your company very possibly has internal instructor led or online classes that are not cross-charged to your department budget.
  • If employed, your company very possibly provides tuition reimbursement for business related classes, even soft skills, if appropriate to your job.
  • If unemployed, various state agencies (various by state) and non-profit organizations offer free or almost free training classes.
  • Regardless of your current employment status, there are very high quality materials on YouTube, Wikipedia, and other informational oriented websites.

If you have any questions about your career in IT, please email me at eric@ManagerMechanics.com or find me on Twitter at @EricPBloom.

Until next time, work hard, work smart, and continue to grow.

Read more of Eric Bloom's Your IT Career blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Eric on Twitter at @EricPBloom. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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