Skills like communication, collaboration, adaptability, and problem-solving – commonly called “soft” skills – are now so essential to success in IT that some CIOs have started to call them core skills. And despite the demand for IT talent with AI, Kubernetes, RPA, and other “hard” tech skills, people who lack core skills will struggle to land their dream job.
A study from business and technology consulting firm West Monroe found that more than three-quarters (78 percent) of HR leaders say they’ve become more focused on finding technology employees with strong soft skills. Sixty-seven percent say they have withheld a job offer due to a candidate’s lack of soft skills.
“[Businesses] should actively look for technologists with the interpersonal, writing, and teamwork abilities to thrive in an integrated business setting and develop into leaders,” notes Greg Layok, managing director with West Monroe and leader of the firm’s technology practice, in the report.
IT leaders say that a gap in soft skills on a team can lead to trouble, ranging from daily team friction to missed deadlines to poor results.
[ How does your EQ stack up? Read also: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ]
Read on for the key skills that leaders should ensure are present on any IT team. If you are job hunting in IT, prepare to demonstrate these skills in your interview.
The big two: Communication and collaboration
When we asked IT leaders to share the skill they can’t do without on their team, communication and collaboration both stood out as must-haves.
“The ability to think creatively and solve problems by working with others is really important," says Kassie Rangel, senior director of IT at HealthMarkets. "You have to be able to think outside the box and not be limited to just the syntax of a language, code, or program.”
Let’s take a closer look at each of these skills.
Communication has many layers: It’s not as simple as it might seem, notes Matthew Carswell, CEO and founder of JumpModel.
“Comprehension is extremely important. Ability to relay and understand complex ideas is a must-have for all IT hires. The ability to influence is needed for senior roles, such as architects, PM, BA, senior developers.”
Both verbal and nonverbal communication skills matter, says Ryan Bacon, IT support engineer at JumpCloud.
“There are two parts of verbal communication – listening and speaking,” says Bacon. “An IT pro needs to be able to actively listen to the needs of others in order to formulate the proper solution to a problem. They also need to be able to convey details of a problem and/or solution to both technical and non-technical audiences. Doing so will make them more approachable and help them build rapport with others.”
Strong written communication skills are equally important, Bacon continues. “Entries in ticketing systems, emails, and documentation are all part of the everyday life of an IT pro. Being able to accurately convey thoughts and ideas in writing will make life easier for everyone involved.”
A gap in communication skills on your team is a big deal. It’s not simply a “nice-to-have,” notes Jason David, CEO of Software Portal.
“I know it sounds cliché, but a team that fails to communicate will ultimately fail,” says David. “I’ve seen too many teams waste time because of a failure to communicate. Either the project requirements weren’t properly disseminated to the team and the goal was missed, or individual tasks weren’t properly communicated so work was duplicated or completely missed. Or those with good ideas are ignored because they don’t communicate well or others won’t listen. Either way, a team that doesn’t communicate is not working as well as they could.”
Poor communication can also prevent innovative ideas from ever seeing the light of day, says Briana Brownell, founder and CEO of Pure Strategy. “If a team can’t get executives to buy into their work, it’s often more to do with trouble communicating the business case than a real lack of value. If your team has trouble finding a senior leader to champion your work, you might have a communication problem.”
“Lone-wolf” developers may have a harder time finding a job as collaboration rises to the top of IT leaders’ must-have skills wishlist.
“Historically...coding proficiency was weighed as one of the most important skills,” says Al Sene, VP of engineering at DigitalOcean. “Lately, leaders recognize that software development projects are best completed when there is a team involved.
“Whether developers are leveraging open source code or working with team members on a deliverable, it is necessary that they are open to collaborating and understand the efficiencies that collaboration creates in an organization,” says Sene.
Particularly when team members are working remotely, collaboration is essential, says Michał Abram, senior director of engineering at ResumeLab.
“While a prospective IT hire might be a one-man army who can fix 404s, all while cranking out strings of code at a breakneck pace, they need to how to play well with others,” says Abram. “Because many IT pros prefer to work remotely, it’s essential for each and every member on the team to be able to work effectively with the peers that chose to be in a remote capacity.
“The telltale sign this soft skill is missing from the team is when team members struggle to work in concert while their colleagues are only available via Slack or Skype,” he continues. “They’ll put off meetings and wait for them to come into the office to solve one issue or another.”
“Working collaboratively often means taking a step back and doing things at the direction of another member of the team, or stepping up and taking the lead yourself,” notes Mike Gilfillan, lead developer at Edge of the Web. “Knowing when and how to step up or step back can be the difference between a smooth workflow and a missed deadline, so a person’s ability to work with others is an essential soft skill in any IT team.”
Sene advises leaders to turn to developers for their first-hand feedback to determine if there is a skills gap on their team. “Commit as an organization to foster the professional development of employees’ soft skills,” he advises. “For example, some organizations offer education funds so managers can encourage their direct reports to pursue training on soft skills in addition to technical areas, whereas other organizations host company-wide training or seminars.”
In addition to communication and collaboration, leaders named these soft skills as important to team success:
3. The ability to learn
“An eagerness and curiosity to learn are especially important as the technology used for developers today is changing at a rapid pace. Developers must be keen to stay on top of the latest trends, adapt to new technologies, and commit to continuous learning.” - Al Sene
“Choosing creative people who can take a larger business problem and present a technical solution, or who can brainstorm ‘what-if’ scenarios and come up with new solutions, is a surefire way to build a team that can work well together and toward the bigger picture.” - Tim Christensen, CTO of SocialChorus
5. Healthy ego
“In tech, you are going to be wrong – a lot. How will you handle this? Will you say, ‘Oh, I’m wrong.’ And move on? Or will you try to hide it, explain it away, defend yourself? The latter option is poison. Not being able to handle being wrong will inhibit one’s ability to solve problems.” - Matthew Carswell
“Humility is a great quality in both individual contributors and leaders on IT teams. By taking ownership of your work, and your mistakes, you are showing that you are willing to learn and grow. Teams that lack accountability often do not collaborate well together or with other teams.” - Al Smith, CTO of iCIMS
7. Critical thinking
“In other words, ‘thinking about thinking.’ It is the ability to think in an organized and rational manner in order to understand connections between ideas and facts. It allows professionals to make rational decisions that often affect the well-being of more significant projects.” - Kacper Brzozowski, technical founder at Zety
“There’s one key soft skill IT teams need: the ability to share personal stories. Getting to know each other leads to empathy, empathy leads to trust, and trust allows teams to brainstorm, engage, argue, laugh, and discuss ideas in a safe environment to develop solutions. The outcome is greater efficiency and effectiveness.” - Barry Moline, author of Connect! How to Quickly Collaborate for Success in Business and Life
“IT employees need to adapt on the fly as they are working through projects and new technologies or issues are uncovered. Additionally, with technology always evolving, it’s important that your IT team is adaptive and innovative to stay up to date as new technology emerges.” - Sean Ferrel, CEO of Managed Solution
“I don’t care how senior or junior they are. The difference between the great and the mediocre in tech is passion – and you shouldn’t spend a cent on someone that doesn’t have it.” - Matthew Carswell
[ Do you make thoughtful decisions? Read also: 4 styles of decision-making: A leader's guide. ]