Cloud Infrastructure

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Mark Melvin
Mark Melvin
Commentary
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Are You Soft Enough For IT?

IT pros must keep current with technology. But, perhaps more importantly, they need flexibility and adaptability to succeed in an industry faced with constant change.

The word "soft" does not always carry positive connotations, especially when it comes to people. But soft skills are definitely a good thing for ambitious IT professionals. If you work in IT, you know that change is baked into our industry. To remain relevant to current and potential employers, expect to evolve in many ways -- both personal and technical.

The pace of change is accelerating and becoming more disruptive. Companies are continuously reconfiguring their IT workforces to take advantage of new technology and push for greater efficiency. This evolution of IT means workers are more frequently interacting with other departments, and some of their jobs are actually moving into these other departments and lines of business.

For most of us, this translates to constantly adjusting to new roles and performance requirements. In the meantime, we must stay focused on maintaining technical competence. While knowing your "stuff" is essential, flexibility and the ability to adapt to your environment can be just as important.

Here's a personal story to illustrate my point.

Years ago I worked for a federal systems integrator (FSI). The company was a progressive employer with a desire for well-rounded geeks, so the management sent me to classes where I learned how to communicate with other human beings in a purposeful and respectful way. Part of my training also involved some self-awareness training, which was an eye-opening experience for this propeller-head guy.

Fast-forward a few years and I had moved into sales engineering, where I enjoyed quite a bit of success with the FSI. During one long car trip to visit a client, a junior member of the team, let's call him Bob, was riding along with me and asked me a question. Bob wanted to know why clients respected my opinions but not his. After all, he said, he was every bit as technically knowledgeable about our products as I was.

I looked over at Bob, who was riding in the passenger seat dressed in blue jeans and sporting a mop of unruly hair, and said, "Well, Bob, it's a bit about playing the game. And you aren't doing that."

Did I mention that Bob played in a rock band at night? One of the things I learned in my soft skills classes was that perception is often reality. If you dress, act, and sound like a competent professional, people will generally assume you are, until you prove differently. But if you dress, act, and sound like Kid Rock, you will have to work a lot harder to convince potential customers that you are the master of a complex technical subject.

Why soft skills matter in IT
I wanted Bob to understand that soft skills are just as important as technical competence. You can be you on your own time. On the job, you have to meet the expectations of your co-workers and customers. And, in fact, Bob did. He began dressing a little sharper and controlling his hair (at least at work) and ultimately became a successful and respected part of the team. Of course, my sartorial advice would have been different if we were selling to casual customers. Similarly, what you decide to do should align with the expectations of your workplace.

It's also important to maintain and expand your skill set. To remain relevant for the long term, you have to anticipate which skills are going to become in-demand. This process might entail learning soft skills for communicating, informing, and persuading, or technical skills for becoming the go-to wizard on a particular issue.

As you navigate the twists and turns of IT in the 21st century, remember that the workplace landscape is always changing. But change is a process you can leverage. It begins with learning how to listen to other people, understanding the context of their communication, and responding using techniques that are most likely to produce understanding and agreement.

With that in mind, if your employer sponsors training, take advantage of it. If you have to do it on your own, consider signing up for courses at your local college or university. Many institutions now provide almost any class you might need either online or in a massive open online course (MOOC) format.

How are you adapting to the rapid rate of change in IT?

Mark Melvin is an IT veteran with a career spanning more than 20 years. He has worked on projects such as the Space Station Freedom, Army RCAS Global Network, and numerous enterprise LAN, WAN, IP telephony, and wireless designs. At ePlus, he is involved in the strategy, ... View Full Bio
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MareeH933
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MareeH933,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/1/2014 | 11:21:00 PM
Soft skills are an important complement to our technical skills
Mark, thank you for this great article on the importance of soft skills for IT people. I am a soft skills specialist and have written a book on exactly what you are writing about here - Soft Skills-The Hard Suff of Success. Your case example is an excellent one and just so typical. My book was written for young professionals who like your young professional were bewildered that in spite of all their technical qualifications they were not getting the promotions and opportunities that others were getting. They saw people who had not the qualifications they had getting them instead. They were completely unaware that it was because of their soft skills. It is becoming increasingly apparent that in this changing world, full of uncertainty, unpredictability and exponential change that people develop the skills to manage themselves through it and develop self-mastery. I call it self-leadership. if only there were more people like yourself to be able to guide young people through it all.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/4/2014 | 1:15:19 PM
Re: Listening Skills
That is a great way to phrase that advice! I'm sure other people here can repeat that to their teams.
mmelvin201
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mmelvin201,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/4/2014 | 1:10:55 PM
Re: Listening Skills
I probably should have added that someone once told me:  "You have two ears and one mouth and use them in an appropriate ratio."  Something I constantly have to remind myself.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/4/2014 | 1:05:51 PM
Listening Skills
The older I get the more I realize how many people lack listening skills. Good leaders know how to be quiet and listen. People with something to prove love to hear themselves talk.
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