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?