Soft skills are sexy

10 soft skills techies need -- and five ways to get them

Communication skills and empathy are just two soft skills that IT workers must master.

Communication skills and empathy are just two soft skills that IT workers must master.

If you think technical skill is all you need for a career in IT, think again. Expectations for IT employees are changing.

IT recruitment firm Robert Half Technology has seen interest in soft skills grow considerably over the last couple years, according to division director Igor Abramovitch. Strong technical skills are no longer enough, he said.

Businesses are trying to avoid seeing IT as just a cost centre, he explained. "They want IT to be intertwined with the business and contribute to the bottom line. They're looking for workers who have the business acumen and communications skills to deal with the other departments and communicate effectively to make sure the business goals are met," he said.

The problem is, soft skills aren't second nature to seasoned IT workers, according to Jennifer Perrier-Knox, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group Inc. Soft skills development was not likely a part of the curriculum for people with hard-core IT backgrounds, she said.

Learning them isn't necessarily simple. All soft skills require that the employee actually wants to learn them, said Karin Lindner, human performance specialist at Karico Performance Solutions, a provider of motivation training to employees in manufacturing environments.

"If I make a conscious effort to become better with my listening skills, then I will get better," she said.

But this desire to learn often depends on personal benefit, according to Lindner. "I always say we listen to the same radio channel: WII-FM (What's in it for me). People really need to understand what's in it for them to change their behaviour," she said.

Refusing to acknowledge the soft skills trend could hurt you in the long run. "If you have that idea that you don't ever need to improve your soft skills, I think you are really hurting your career options and lowering the bar on yourself," said Jonathan Wray, communications specialist at IBM Canada Ltd. who established a Toastmasters club for Toronto-area IBM employees in 2002.

Technical skills might get you hired, but it's the soft skills that help advance your career, Wray said. Those who move up the ladder are often the ones who published papers, spoke at conferences and are client-focused, he pointed out.

Even those heads-down developers who think all they need are technical skills will eventually find they do need the soft ones, Wray added. Technical experts, for example, will get pulled into briefings with customers. "Everyone is involved in a team at some point," he said.

Another problem is defining what the term "soft skills" means, according to Dr. Mark Federman, researcher at the Department of Adult Education and Counselling for the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. "When somebody uses a term that everybody knows, you can bet that everybody has a different knowledge of that term," he said.

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