It goes without saying that technical skills matter when it comes to technical roles. But soft skills matter too, and it’s a mistake to overlook them when preparing for your job hunt or brainstorming ways to improve yourself in a current position.
Ash Norton, who helps engineers develop leadership skills, says, “What I’ve seen time and time again is that developing the ‘soft skills’ is dismissed throughout their formal training. Then, when they enter the workforce, they can’t make the progress or impact that matches their technical skills because they lack communication, creativity and interpersonal skills that are required.”
Here are six non-technical skills every techie should master, with input from Norton and other experts.
1. Interpersonal Skills
These days, tech workers are not solitary lone wolves slaving away alone in a cubicle: they’re part of thriving, inter-dependent teams. On any team, being able to work well with others is essential.
“Teamwork is an essential quality as it leads to better relationships with colleagues, often resulting in greater collaboration and innovation,” says Angie Keller, Vice President of recruiting at Randstad Engineering. “Engineering hinges on innovation and the best ideas often result from group efforts.”
People’s favorite coworkers generally have certain things in common: they don’t gossip, they’re happy to lend a hand, they don’t undermine others seeking recognition for themselves, and so on. Focus on being a team player that others like to be around, and work will get less stressful and more fun.
The ability to think creatively makes you an asset to any tech team, because sometimes the best solutions are the ones that aren’t obvious.
“The very nature of engineering requires ‘out-of-the box’ thinking – that’s why curiosity is one of most important soft skills for any engineer to develop during his or her career,” says Otto Hilska, Vice President of Engineering at Smartly.io. “Great engineers cannot consistently invent new solutions or make new connections without a curious outlook. This soft skill acts as a differentiator between those who merely study or learn, and those who genuinely find problem-solving to be motivating. As an engineer, you want to be in the latter party.”
Norton offers some practical tips for cultivating creativity: “Manage anxiety: stress is the ultimate innovation killer. Network with non-engineers: technical people tend to approach problem solving and issues with linear thinking, so expand your circle to brainstorm with non-linear thinkers. Finally, take a break. Whether this is a five-minute walk to get coffee or a five-day vacation, sometimes you just need to stop thinking about your work to allow the creativity and innovation to seep in.”
Laurence Bradford is a product manager at Teachable, an EdTech enthusiast, and the creator of Learn to Code With Me, a blog and podcast helping self-taught coders get ahead in their lives + careers.
If you can’t convey your ideas and plans effectively, you’ll be much less effective as a technical professional. That’s where communication skills come in.
Chris Szymansky, Chief Technology Officer at JazzHR, says, “Because engineering involves solving problems and mitigating risks, communication skills are important. Learning how to communicate these items, how to communicate risk as well as proposed solutions, to both technical and non-technical audiences is a valuable skill to master.”
“Your ability to make a significant impact through engineering rests primarily in your ability to communicate your work,” says Norton. Her tip for improving those skills: “Practice. Whether it is writing a technical report, presenting your work to senior management, taking a class, or simply reading a book aloud to a child, practice is the only way to get better at communicating.”
4. Empathy For The Customer
It’s easy to get caught up in a technical project and forget about how what you’re building will affect the consumer who will use it–or factor in how they might experience the product different than you.
“Having empathy puts people in their customers’ shoes, helping them to understand the problems needed to be solved most, which in turn inspires better work,” says Hilska. “When people have a better understanding of who is using the technology they create, that’s when the magic happens.”
Szymansky agrees: “Focus on the customer. Much of an engineer’s time is spent heads-down in technical details. Being able to take a step back from technology to understand the goals of the customer or user leads to better quality products. Engineers should see UX as part of their job.”
Sometimes, the first solution you think of won’t turn out to be the best, or new factors will arise midway through implementation. If you’re adaptable,, you can pivot as needed rather than forcing yourself to stick to a subpar strategy. “Being agile and flexible in the midst of change is an important skill for engineers,” says Norton.
She offers advice for learning how to become more adaptable: “Accept that there may be many ways to get to the goal. As engineers, we’ve often been trained that there is a right way to do things. And let’s face it–we tend to be pretty stubborn. But you can simultaneously be unrelenting on the goal and flexible on the means of getting there.”
Also, she says, recognize that obstacles do arise, and be as prepared for them as you can. “Since we work in the real world, we need to recognize that obstacles and mistakes will happen. Thinking through possible risks ahead of time allows you to be more comfortable straying from original plans as needed. You won’t be blindsided by the change and you will have thought through a mitigation plan.”
6. Interest In Learning
The desire to always keep learning and developing your skills will serve you well in any career, but especially one in technology. Says Szymansky, “The rate at which technology changes can be overwhelming, so finding specific topics of interest and setting personal learning goals, even if they are not directly related to day-to-day work, can be extremely beneficial to career development.”