Soft Skills in a Hard Skills Industry

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By Education Today

Posted on April 5, 2022


10 min read

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Soft Skills in a Hard Skills Industry

For most people, a large part of their life is spent in the workplace. Your work environment has a direct effect on the quality of life you lead. And since most jobs will not be done in solitude, but will be carried out in teams, your success rests on working with other people to achieve your common goals as much as it does on the individual job you do.
Should you lack the skills to navigate the work environment and the people you work with, your day to day becomes daunting, which leads to job dissatisfaction and possibly quitting outright. These soft skills can be as important as your technical skills.

Contrary to popular belief, soft skills can be learned and taught. Some may dismiss them as personality traits, skills you either are born with or not. But these soft skills can be taught through structured and unstructured mentorship.

A structured approach involves planning and predefined goals. This is ideal where people endeavour to achieve results within a fixed time frame and are available for the planned activities. Figuratively speaking, unstructured mentopships involve taking a friend’s or colleague’s hand and walking the journey together in learning a new skill. Mentoring occurs for both people and occurs without a fixed timeframe. It could ideally go on forever.

In this article, we will explore the soft skills that most affect tech and software engineering careers. We’ll discuss how they impact our day to day lives, how to gain them, and lastly, how to practice and teach them to peers.

What are soft skills?

They can be best described as social, people and communication skills that are heavily intertwined with an individual’s attitude, persona attributes and mindset.

These skills directly influence, whether positively or negatively, an individual’s level of emotional and social intelligence.

Soft skills are therefore paramount for any member living in a society for they will need to interact on an interpersonal level.

A superb grasp of soft skills means that you are emotionally and socially intelligent. In this regard, you are easy to work with and hence, desirable as a partner in a social setting or as an employee in a work setting. Depending on what you wish to go for.

In the workplace, especially in reference to Information Technology(IT), there are generally seven(7) soft skills that have been singled out to be the most important. With these, you are generally a highly desirable candidate for collaboration or work on any project.

These are:

  1. Leadership skills – Qualities that make you capable of handling a leadership role and responsibly managing work under no supervision. This shows a sense of autonomy and trustworthiness. This skill is ideal in gaining promotions to higher ranks at work.
  2. Communication skills – Verbally and in writing. A vital cornerstone of interpersonal relations. Your teammates or managers need to understand what you are saying in a clear and timely manner. Communication skills encompasses facets such as letter and email writing, public speaking and one on one conversations among others. This skill is vital in improving your desirability at work since when mastered, people will gravitate towards you. You will be easy to collaborate with.
  3. Teamwork and collaboration – The spirit of teamwork and collaboration is paramount in any society or group. This skill encompasses items such as resource sharing, selflessness, empathy and tolerance. One should be able to consider things from their teammates perspective and get where they are coming from. Great collaboration skills allow you to be a critical and indispensable member of any team. You are easy to work with, you engage with other team members actively and therefore increase team morale and productivity.
  4. Conflict resolution – This involves being a fair arbiter. In the event that a conflict or misunderstanding arises, using this skill, you will be able to listen to both sides, de escalate the situation and propose a pragmatic solution that is just and leaves all the conflicting parties satisfied. This ties into leadership and with this skill, you can easily rise into a leadership role.
  5. Reliability and dependability – This calls upon your character. How true you are to your word. It is very critical to be reliable since it is impractical for someone to give you work and to keep following up if it is done. Reliability signals autonomy which puts you on track towards a more senior role since your managers believe you can deliver on a larger scale.
  6. Flexibility and adaptability – With the ever changing world of tech, the most adaptable becomes the most valuable. Being very stiff and resisting change weighs you down and does the same to your work mates. They may find it very hard to work with you. Flexibility involves being able to adapt to new situations and make the best out of them.
  7. Critical Thinking – A vital skill in a tech related or engineering field. This is more of an umbrella skill that encompasses observation, analysis, inference and problem solving. With this skill, you simply get the job done. Mastering this skill makes you very marketable since you can deliver products and services that people are willing to pay money for. You are able to identify pain points and address them with a practical and suitable solution hence solving the problem.

Importance of Soft Skills

The main importance is smooth interpersonal relations and peace of mind. From the above enumeration, it can be observed that all of them gravitate towards making your life working with other people easier.

Soft skills also enrich you and make you more valuable as either a team member or an employee. The more valuable you are, the higher the price and the more favourable the terms you attract. In the tech setting and work place, the main importance of these skills is to keep you in the job or position that your hard skills propelled you to attain or propel you to a higher position. The skills can therefore not be ignored if one wishes to progress in their career.

As a personal testament, I was once a junior developer in an agricultural tech startup. I knew very little and was quite intimidated.

To offset this imbalance, I volunteered for every task, communicated any progress or blockers encountered, took correction and constructive criticism positively and ensured I was as reliable as can be. I was able to save my job due to these qualities that the management saw and decided to give me a chance to learn and catch up.

Gaining Soft Skills

As we have established what soft skills are and their importance, the next logical step is to learn how to attain them and improve on them as much as possible. Since these are people skills, they are best taught by other people, who have these skills, through mentorship. There are generally two forms of mentorship.

Structured Mentorship and Fellowships

A formalized approach that involves structures, timetables, deadlines and expected outcomes within a certain time frame. This mode of mentorship is ideal for campus students. Individuals who are in any institution of learning and are relatively young in their career or have not started at all. The structured form capitalizes on the human resource capacity of seasoned professionals to teach, mentor and guide the relatively novice individuals. Some arrangements involve paid mentorships but most serve as structured mentorships for free for the mentees.

To sustain the program, partners and sponsors are involved. Some partners offer grants, some offer resources such as venues and some offer human capital in the form of mentors.

There is also a self-sustaining model where the mentees of the first cohort can come back and offer their time as program assistants or mentors in the next cohort. This is based on the assumption that after graduating as a mentee, you are equipped and fit enough to impart knowledge and wisdom to anyone in the subsequent cohort.

The pros include:

  1. Structured approach- This creates order and a course to follow. With such parameters in place, it is easy to achieve goals within the intended time frame.
  2. Easier to follow up- With clear goals to be achieved, there is easier monitoring and evaluation of progress.
  3. Can be easily replicated- Structures allow documentation of procedures. This makes it easy to replicate the success of a structured program in another setting. The main con is that it is demanding and hence, may be taxing on individuals who may have prior commitments. There is a lack of flexibility. The time bound requirements attached to each goal may sometimes create unforeseen pressure on participants and hence, not giving their best.

Unstructured Mentorships

This form of mentorship, also referred to as the buddy system, is ideal on a long term basis between people who are in close proximity in terms of career or socially. This could be your friend or colleague. With unstructured mentorship, there is no predefined course or curriculum to follow. This then means that the participants get to decide the rules of engagement, what the end goal is and how it can be measured. Though deceivingly free and open, this requires a lot of discipline

as an individual and as a unit. You are your own boss and own critique.

It is best reserved for individuals with some greater level of experience in life or career since they have built their discipline over time and can manage the mentorship activities themselves.

The pros include freedom and flexibility to choose your own structure and what works best for you, no time bounds or restrictions hence can be done at a desired pace among others.

The main cons are tied to the fact that there is total freedom. With great power(freedom) comes great responsibility. With no order or timetable to follow, a stellar level of discipline and personal responsibility is demanded of the participants for the exercise to bear fruits.

Everyday Practice

To be good at any skill, you have to be willing to put in the hours. Gaining soft skills is no exception.

It requires habitual changes that eventually lead to sharpening of soft skills.

A very strong requirement in this is the discipline to put in the work every day.

Tips to sharpen your soft skills include

  1. Proactively work in team settings
  2. Seek public speaking opportunities in your settings whether work or home. This builds your confidence in speaking to crowds.
  3. Volunteer for leadership roles in your circles. eg team lead, master of ceremony etc
  4. Offer help with applications and writing such as job applications and scholarship applications.

To wrap it all up, it is evident that this is a vital, if not critical component in the professional life of a practitioner in the field of Computer Science or any engineering field in general. It introduces a much needed balance to a field commonly mistaken to be all about hard skills such as building and development.

This balance later enriches team interactions, mainly via collaboration and communication, which in the long run boosts productivity and output.

Soft skills will sometimes save you from a potential job loss, de-escalate conflicts, open doors in the workplace and improve your communication and presentation skills overall.

The onus is therefore upon us, members of the tech community to share the importance of these skills and how they can complement the commonly valued hard skills. One of the most effective ways of sharing and giving back would be mentorship and accountability groups geared towards development of soft skills. With all hands-on deck, we can work towards changing the notion that soft skills are not that important in an engineering or tech job.

The fact is, the soft skills, sometimes if not most, will be the more important skill one would rather possess. The hard skills may get you the job, the soft skills will keep you there.

(Kimaru Thagana is a software engineer/Data scientist by calling and tech writer by passion.

Based in Nairobi Kenya)