Soft Skills to Build for IT SuccessIf there’s one area of personal and career development that IT professionals all too often overlook – if they don’t forget about it completely – it’s got to be what HR and employment professionals call “soft skills.”
These are basic workplace skills in communication (both written and verbal), people and process management, and so forth. They apply to just about any kind of job. The thing is, IT professionals tend to stress the technical side of things, and sometimes feel inclined to skip over those more mundane parts of the job that require communicating and interacting with others, sometimes in a technical vein, and very often completely divorced from the tools and technologies that nerdy IT pros so dearly love.
One brutal and inescapable fact of career advancement, however, is that even for IT pros, as you advance further down a career path, technical, hands-on skills and abilities often take second place to soft skills. That’s because the higher you climb any career ladder, the more it becomes a matter of working with others, teaching and telling them what they must do, what tasks they must accomplish, and goals they must achieve. The very soft skills that so many IT pros often try to avoid become increasingly important as your ability to train, manage, and work with other people takes up an ever-larger portion of your working life.
Take it from me: there are numerous areas where any IT professional who devotes some time and effort toward improving or developing “soft skills” can count on at least a modest pay-off in return for such an investment. This is especially true for these specific soft skills (I describe them briefly in the list that follows, then dig more deeply into each one in a subsequent section in this story):
- Written communications: From e-mails to status reports to personnel reviews, design documents, RFPs, and so forth, there’s no escape for IT pros from occasional (but regular) written communications as part of the workaday life. Why not improve your ability to write, and use that ability to improve prospects and opportunities at work as well?
- Verbal communications: Talk may be cheap, but it’s usually how co-workers, and bosses and their subordinates exchange information and interact with each other. If you can learn how to improve your verbal skills, you may find new opportunities coming your way.
- Presentation skills: It’s one thing to have good ideas, and it’s another to be able to capture and share those ideas effectively with others. Learning how to tap-dance helps with design work and reviews, audits, professional societies and organizations, and professional development. It’s an important part of developing and demonstrating “management potential.”
- Project or process management: As soon as your responsibilities encompass directing or dealing with others, a working knowledge of project and process management is not just helpful: it can make the difference between success and failure.
- People management: ditto the preceding item, except this one focuses on how best to guide, motivate, and interact and communicate with others. This goes double for those who may not have formal management responsibility, but who are responsible for deadlines and deliverables that involve other people (and how often do we get to work truly solo anymore?).
- Negotiation skills: As IT professionals climb the career ladder, making hiring decisions, acquiring tools or technology, and working with contractors or service providers all come into play. Some training and understanding of how to negotiate contract, deals, and other business relationships always comes in handy in such encounters.
Ed TittelEd Tittel is a 30-year-plus veteran of the computing industry, who’s worked as a programmer, a technical manager, a classroom instructor, a network consultant and a technical evangelist for companies that include Burroughs, Schlumberger, Novell, IBM/Tivoli and NetQoS. He has written and blogged for numerous publications, including Tom's Hardware, and is the author of over 140 computing books with a special emphasis on information security, Web markup languages and development tools, and Windows operating systems.
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