The hard skill - soft skill debate for techies

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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.

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