Have you ever received feedback from your manager that you should improve your communication skills? Or that you should create more visibility for your work? And another one, that you should work on your influencing skills? These are all related to soft skills, and it can be confusing what they mean and how to improve on them.
As a tech manager, I find myself giving that feedback regularly to engineers. About 50% of them get it, however, the other 50% roll their eyes and reply “Soft skills? Pffft, I’m an engineer, I don’t need that. All I gotta do is code harder and learn technologies A and B and I’ll keep on going.”
And that’s where they’re wrong, as sadly, I’ve seen such neglecting of soft skills ending up costing many of them years of stagnation for their tech career. The same could happen to you, or might already be happening to you without you realizing.
I wanted to follow up on my article about career progression for senior developers, by addressing the topic of how to map and learn the skills needed for tech jobs.
So in this series of three articles, I’ll first be covering what is the difference between hard skills and soft skills, and why soft skills matter even if a great part of your job is purely technical.
Another difficult problem is how to prioritize those skills so you can improve predictably. To address that, in the second article I’ll share a map that I’ve created and which shows how different types of skills relate to different career paths.
Finally, in the third and last article, I’ll cover the top skills you should focus on as a senior engineer or as an engineering manager if you want to see fast progress in your personal growth.
Let’s get started with defining the types of skills and why they matter.
Hard skills and soft skills: what’s the difference?
Hard skills are the things that you’ve learned through training, or via life or work experience. Hard skills often involve something technical that can be easily measured quantitatively, such as programming, designing, speaking a language and all the way to playing an instrument and carving wood.
Generally, a given set of hard skills is only relevant to a particular job. For example, programming is a hard skill that’s useful to a software engineer, but that would be useless to a plumber. Likewise, knowing how to weld pipes together is critical to a plumber, and totally useless to a software engineer.
Soft skills, on the other hand, have to do with things that can’t really be measured quantitatively and are often more measured qualitatively. They often have to do with traits related to how someone behaves, how they lead themselves, and how they interact with other humans. Soft skills include things such as public speaking, flexibility, leadership, motivation, and so on.
Important to note that it’s not because soft skills are difficult to measure that they don’t matter, and it’s not because they often have to do personal traits that they cannot be learned. Soft skills can definitely be improved and developed.
Teamwork skills, what is that?
There’s another set of skills that I see too often ignored and yet utterly critical: it’s teamwork skills.
Unless you want to live in a cave and be totally off the grid, you’ll have to interact with other humans to get things done. And if the things you work on end up being even just a little successful, more people will join and you’ll have to find a way to work together effectively as an organization, using structure and processes.
To be clear, here I used the word “teamwork” in the broad sense of the term. It doesn’t have to mean only the people in your immediate team of five to ten people, but rather, everyone that you have to interact within your organization so you can get your job done.
In a way, you could consider that teamwork skills are just a subset of soft skills, but I strongly believe it’s important to separate them to emphasize that they refer to something specific to having to work with other humans in an orderly fashion as part of an organization.
Teamwork skills include things such as leadership, delegation, change management, and so on.
Why do soft and teamwork skills matter?
For example, if someone is the best engineer in an organization based on their technical knowledge and the quality of what they produce, but they’re arrogant and hurtful and make everybody else feel miserable, then they’d be creating more harm than value. Such people generally don’t go far in their careers due to their poor teamwork skills.
Likewise, if someone can do great technical work, but spend their time over-optimizing some code or database queries that bring no substantive value to their team, product, or company, then that’s obviously not useful.
Such cluelessness to product and business is often noticed by the managers around, and it doesn’t help the person’s case. Such a gap will also lead them to a blocker in their career, due to a lack of soft skills.
To grasp the important of soft skills, a good metaphor is the following: if hard skills are the things that guarantee that someone is able to do the work and deliver what’s needed, then soft skills and teamwork skills are what’s gluing hard skills together.
Soft skills and teamwork skills ensure that hard skills are used at the right time, with the right amount, in conjunction with colleagues, and delivering toward the correct objectives.
Next up: the skills map
In a few days, I’ll post the next article for this series, which is a map showing how hard skills and soft skills relate to the various career paths for senior engineers.
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