Soft Skills for people in Tech

Think of the work skills you most want to learn or improve.

Are there any soft skills on your list?

Most people are able to think of a long list of technical skills they want but what about soft skills? What about any of the things I include under the banner of soft skills such as social skills, attitudes, habits, and techniques. Soft skills isn’t just ‘communication’!

All of your soft skills, attitudes etc go hand-in-hand with your technical skills to help you do well at work. And while they’re called “soft” they can often feel like the hardest skills to learn. The good news is that they can be learnt.

Here are some soft skills that I think could be useful for people who work in Tech. They’re split into:
– personal skills,
– skills that relate to working with others, and
– skills that impact the wider community.

(Click here for a downloadable PDF)
Soft Skills for Tech Jobs - image

By using those three categories I aim to make the distinction between skills you can work on by yourself, and ones where you can only improve by interacting with others (sometimes with people in direct contact, and sometimes people you don’t know). Much of being valuable and employable is driven by skills in the second two columns where you’re working in teams and helping others to succeed.

Of course you don’t need to master all of these skills. You do just fine at work without having all possible technical skills, and the same applies to soft skills.

I use this list as a prompt. I find it useful to reflect on the items and see where I could improve. This list may not work for you. Here are some ways you can get ideas for your own list of soft skills:

  • Look at people you admire and see what skills they use.
  • Search Google for ideas.
  • Note what skills are listed in job ads or articles about your industry.
  • Ask colleagues or friends what works for them.

Pick out a few from your list and create your own ‘soft skills backlog’. Think of small steps you could take to become more competent in these areas. Commit to taking action. See what works or doesn’t. You may find that improving your soft skills is easier than you think, and that these skills make more of a difference than you expect.

The next time you’re thinking of ways you could be more skilled, remember the importance of soft skills.

“But what I can do …” Words that don’t disappoint.

I said no

Early in my career I worked in the customer support department of an internet service provider. I supervised a team of young tech assistants who helped customers with everything to do with their internet connection. If a customer demanded that their call be escalated, it would be transferred to me.

The person on the other end of the phone was frustrated, often angry, and they wanted their problem fixed now. They didn’t want to hear that I might not be able to give them what they wanted.

At first, taking the “grumpy customer” calls was nerve-wracking but over time I discovered it was a perfect opportunity to give great service. I’ve taken what I learnt there into many other roles and situations where I need to say “no”.

Sometimes on those customer calls I was lucky and a quick fix resolved everything but mostly it wasn’t that easy. The issues that really frustrate people are a result of complexity, ambiguity, and miscommunication, and often don’t have easy solutions. Those kinds of problems need to be investigated, and resolving it might take time. Sometimes what customers want isn’t in our control and sometimes it isn’t possible at all.

Even when I couldn’t give those customers what they wanted, I managed to help them feel better. How?

  1. The first thing was I cared about them. I treated them with respect and empathy. We all know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of bad service … we just want someone to make things right.
  2. But I also discovered a technique that worked really well – I never said “no” or “we can’t do that” or “that’s not possible” without also saying what I could do.

“I’m sorry, I can’t  do that. But what I can do is …”.  

Being specific about what you can do helps when dealing with unhappy customers but is also useful in other situations, such as when you might need to disappoint someone at work. Maybe your workmate is asking for something that’s not possible, or your manager wants an answer you can’t give.

Here are a few examples of things you could say after “no …”.

– What I can do is set aside some time with you to talk through our options.
– What I can do is get the details for a proper investigation before I get back to you.
– What I can do is sit with you while you complete that task so I can help if you need it.
– What I can do is put you in touch with someone who will have the information you need.
– What I can do is make sure the Product team get your feedback.

We all have times when we don’t have the answers that people want, or we can’t do what they expect. By saying what you can do they’ll know that your intent is to help and they’ll be clear about next steps. Of course there are times that what you can do will seem insignificant, but offering even something small is going to be received better than just a “no”.

It works the other way around also – if someone is only telling you what isn’t possible then ask what can be done. Help them to focus on what is possible.

Try it the next time you need to say no … say what you can do, and notice how this changes the rest of the conversation.

Your attitude is infectious.

Infectious_attitudeIs there anyone at your company who you really like to work with? Anyone you’d want to avoid? What about your overall attitude at work, your manner and disposition … how do you approach people or give your opinion or disagree?

It’s obvious that no matter where we work we have no choice but to interact with other people to get things done. And while we’re getting things done we’re having an effect on each other whether we intend to or not. Sometimes it’s a positive effect, sometimes it isn’t.

There’s a well-known saying that “your reputation precedes you”. It’s important to be aware of how you might be “infecting” others with your attitude as it can have an impact on things like team productivity, individual’s job satisfaction, and your career prospects.

Are you aware of what others might think of you? You can never be 100% sure as opinions are influenced by people’s own values and life experiences, but it is possible to get a sense of their general feelings. Think of things you’re complimented on or feedback you’re consistently given.

  • Are you known for getting things done?
  • Are you proactive / approachable / self-motivated / sensible / trusted?
  • Do you take responsibility?
  • Can you be relied on?
  • Have people said they specifically want you on their team?
  • Do you encourage or help others to do well?
  • Are you open to new ideas or different approaches?
  • Is your opinion sought and/or respected?
  • Can you disagree without being disagreeable.

If you can say Yes to any of those then you can be fairly sure you are a positive influence at work. Sadly, it’s often the negative influencers who end up having the biggest impact.

  • Don’t be the person who is a stuck record, always complaining or pointing out things you don’t like. Instead, use that energy to find ways to help. There’s nothing like a good vent every now and then but if that’s all you do you lose respect, and moaning doesn’t actually change anything. Offer to help fix the problems or ask for support from others to find solutions.
  • Don’t be known for being cynical, distrusting or disparaging. Just one person behaving this way can infect a whole team by making it seem okay to focus on the negatives. There are plenty of opportunities to feel disappointed or lose trust but you need to be willing to give people another chance. Standing on the sidelines pointing at others isn’t a good way to promote healthy relationships at work.
  • Don’t be an arrogant know-it-all. Remember how you felt when you were new at something. Have some empathy for people who don’t know what you do. When you’re feeling frustrated at other people’s lack of knowledge use that as an indicator that you could do more to help them understand.

People who display these negative traits have often started out with good intentions. Those who complain may be trying to prevent problems for their team, or improve poor work practices. People who are cynical may have placed trust others but had their trust betrayed. Being arrogant could be a protective measure in a high-blame environment.

Wherever these attitudes originated, they can quickly become a habit. We all have bad days and moments where we’re feeling frustrated and we can’t help but be negative, but to be respected and valued at work you should try to keep those occasions to a minimum. Be aware of the things that trigger a bout of bad attitude and practice different ways of responding. Think of how you impact people. Be someone that others see as a positive influence. Take every opportunity to infect people with your great attitude.

Something is better than anything.

be_specificWhen you tell someone you’re looking for a new job, you can expect that their next question is going to be something like “so what are you looking for?”. You’d be surprised how often I hear people answer with “anything”.

They say things like “I’m looking for anything in testing” or “anything in IT” or “anything to do with customer service”.

Imagine it’s your first appointment at a new hairdresser. As you sit down they ask what you want and you answer “anything”. How likely is it that you’ll be happy with the end result?

I can understand that when you’re looking for a new role you may not be sure what kind of roles are available. Or you may actually be willing to do a whole range of things. Or maybe you think by being specific you might not get some other role you’d be perfect for.

But here’s what it sounds like when you say “anything”:

  • It sounds like you haven’t put any thought into what you want, what you could contribute to a company or where you might be valuable.
  • Instead of making you seem open to a range of things it could make you seem desperate or unenthusiastic or vague or lazy. Employers tend to like enthusiasm and driven and focussed people.
  • It could make you look like you don’t care.
  • It’s hard for employers or recruiters or people you’re networking with to mentally match you to roles/companies they know about if they don’t have any idea what it is you want or would be suited to.

When people ask what you’re looking for, you need to help them to help you. Prepare for their questions by considering the items in the list below. You don’t need to have firm answers for all points below … just focus on the things that you feel strongest about.

  1. What do you want from your next role? To develop technical skills or leadership, to stretch yourself, to embed skills you already have?
  2. Do you have an idea of the role you want in the long-term? Is your next role a stepping stone to that or do you want something completely new?
  3. How senior a role do you want? Why? Do you want to be a leader and do you have experience in this? Would you prefer to work in a team or alone? How big a team would you prefer?
  4. What industries have you worked in before that would give you an edge, and what industry do you want next? Why?
  5. What type of company do you want to work for? A small start-up, a growing company, a large corporation?
  6. What type of work environment do you want? Fast-moving, flexible, traditional, innovative? Is the development methodology important to you? Do you want a team where roles are flexible and varied or do you prefer clearly-defined responsibilities?
  7. What salary/benefits would you want ideally and do you have a minimum in mind?
  8. Do you have any must-haves?
  9. What is most important to you? The role, company culture, salary, benefits, training, flexibility, industry, opportunities, location, or other things?

Let’s change those examples above to something a bit more helpful:
“I’m looking for a test lead role at a telco.”
“I want a Java developer role in a large corporate organisation.”
“I want to work part-time in a customer service role.”

Once you have some idea of what is important to you and what you want to aim for, then decide how specific or broad you want to be when telling others. You don’t need to disclose exactly what you want but it’s good to have your ‘first prize’ in mind.

So the next time someone asks what kind of role you’re looking for be ready to replace “anything” with something.