If asked to list the skills most important for successful information technology (IT) careers, what would come to mind? If you think of things like coding capabilities, proficiency in programming languages and knowledge of computer systems, you're certainly not wrong. Hard technical skills are a critical aspect of all IT jobs.
But there's an entirely separate set of skills hiring managers are also looking for in qualified IT candidates. In fact, applicants who seem to have mastered a handful of important soft skills like effective communication, project management and teamwork actually stand out from the pack of skilled programmers and analysts.
A couple years back, The College of St. Scholastica (CSS) held an advisory board meeting for the Computer Information Systems (CIS) department. Hiring managers were brought in to discuss the skills they look for when hiring recent graduates, and alumni attended to divulge the skills they felt were most important in the first jobs of their technology careers. "While some of the skills brought up were technical skills," explains department chair Brandon Olson, "most of our conversation revolved around the importance of soft skills."
In fact, when founder of the Holberton School, Sylvain Kalache, worked as a senior software engineer for LinkedIn, he says this was something many of his coworkers had a difficult time reconciling. "Why would engineers with great software skills not get promoted while ones with weaker coding skills would?" he recounts them wondering. He explains that the answer was simple: LinkedIn and other IT companies are not judging professionals solely on their hard skills, but also on their soft skills.
If you've invested ample time in honing the technical skills required for the IT positions you have your sights set on, it may be time to focus more on developing the soft skills that can set you apart from other applicants. Consider the following five skills offered by our panel of tech and hiring experts.
The importance of soft skills in today's IT positions cannot be understated. "I would even go so far as to say the most successful IT professionals in the field today are not in their current position because of their technical skills, but rather their mastery of these soft skills," explains Matthew Kerr, career adviser and hiring manager at ResumeGenius.com.
Kerr lists communication among the most important soft skills in IT positions. "One-third of IT projects fail as a result of breakdowns in communication, and over half of them are negatively impacted," he asserts. Kerr explains that when you have UI/UX designers, developers and project managers all working on a single project, they're often all speaking completely different languages. "A skilled IT communicator knows how to translate the technical aspects of what they are doing into a language anyone can understand."
The pros are in agreement regarding the importance of communication in IT. "Successful IT professionals need to have the ability to clearly communicate detailed and technical information to a diverse audience," Olson says. He adds that successful candidates are able to use oral, written and illustrative skills to effectively communicate project information to their stakeholder communities.
When an IT professional's role involves providing technical support for a large shared environment that impacts multiple teams and clients, communication and interpersonal skills become particularly vital, according to Steve Engelhardt, senior storage engineer in the information technology group for a large international Fortune 500 company. "Whenever work is done in an IT environment, clear and accurate communication should always be made to all stakeholders who have even the slightest chance of being affected negatively by your work if something goes awry." This includes effective oral communication in meetings or presentations, as well as proficient email communication with proper grammar and punctuation.
"Companies are successful thanks to the work of successful teams, not any individual," Kalache says. "Professionals who can empower others to do their job better will have a much greater impact than if he or she was acting as an individual contributor."
This is true for all industries, and technology is certainly no exception. "IT is often a support function in most companies," explains Pooja Krishna, entrepreneur, business mentor and co-founder of Maroon Oak. "But even if it's not, tech professionals are always working and delivering in team settings. The ability to work and interact well with others is critical." She cites interdepartmental interactions with other functions like marketing, finance and pre-sales as examples of when the important soft skills of teamwork and communication can work in tandem.
Engelhardt suggests that another aspect of effective teamwork skills is a tech professional's ability and willingness to mentor others. "The most successful IT professionals I've worked with have also been the most willing to share and to facilitate in the development of every new team member," he explains. "In sharing knowledge, you gain respect both professionally and personally."
Regardless of the different organizations they've worked with, technology professionals will tell you that much of their time is spent juggling a number of different projects. For that reason, a basic mastery of project management skills can certainly come in handy on the job.
"IT professionals need to be able to prioritize their work, work independently and demonstrate a form of project management to work on larger efforts," Olson says. "Since IT is not task-based but rather project-based, individuals need to be able to conceptualize the work, make a plan for getting the work done and execute the work according to plan." This requires an ability to analyze the projects at hand and understand the relative priority for each item being worked on, he adds.
An important aspect of successfully managing projects is pragmatism, according to Kyle White, CEO and co-founder of VeryConnect. "People will often tell you what they want, but they don't know what's possible or available. If you can seek out what they fundamentally need to achieve, you can almost always offer a simpler solution, tackling things from a different perspective," he explains. This is where technical roles become more holistic, examining the goals and outcomes rather than simply making a system operate successfully.
While many duties of IT positions require professionals to maintain a finite mastery of things like coding and programming languages, there's inevitably a certain portion of work during which the ability think critically on one's feet is abundantly important. The goal of most IT positions is to focus on designing and implementing technology solutions, Olson explains. "During these projects, the IT staff are often tasked with overcoming technical challenges and finding creative solutions to these problems."
He adds that IT professionals will need strong problem-solving skills when facing challenges with organizational policies and structures. "Organizational change management, building strong and effective teams and finding creative means to solve technical solutions all rely on individuals who can understand issues, identify potential solutions, select and apply the best solution and pivot to new directions in a dynamic project environment," Olson says.
The most successful IT hopefuls have a mastery of patience, which becomes all too important in the presence of such roadblocks. "IT hopefuls shouldn't roll their eyes," he asserts. "They should be patient and explain things calmly, even when they're under pressure."
While technical prowess is of obvious importance in a field like IT, the equally important soft skills required for success are often overlooked. With many organizations willing to train potential employees in the hard skills they may lack, a mastery of soft skills is becoming recognized as an invaluable characteristic of quality new hires.
In fact, Kalache maintains that many of his students who have gone on to work at high-profile companies like Apple, Tesla, LinkedIn and Dropbox report that their managers' feedback regularly focuses on their proficiency with soft skills. "They fit in the team quickly, know how and when to ask the right questions, are excellent public speakers and know how to articulate their thoughts," he explains.
As you work on polishing up your soft skills to help you gain a competitive edge in your job search, be sure to keep your finger on the pulse of what's happening in the technology industry. Check back in with The Sentinel Blog periodically for topics relevant to your career journey, such as articles like, "Considering a CIS major? Learn why now is the time to break into the industry."