IT Management Blog: my thoughts about putting the "i" in IT

Do IT professionals need soft skills?

Reading a blog Geek Pride: Soft Skills Are for Weenies whether IT professionals need social skills on, an issue that has been bothering me for years came to my mind. Do IT professionals actually do have less soft skills? Are we really geeks? Or should the others change?

It is easy to admit that there are within the IT profession people that have less soft skills. But isn’t that also within other professions? Is the overall geek-profile of IT professionals so much different than that of other professions?

Soft skills are actually a mix of skills, traits and habits. For IT professionals they are relevant if you want to teach people how to use computer systems, explain why the project requires more budget than originally estimated, try to convince management to provide budget for new investments, to convince other managers to be involved in early stages of planning, to avoid conflict with your customers when the project does not go as easy as expected, to make your customers and users understand why they should not be angry at you why the system is not working as expected, to understand the requirements and what the customer is trying to achieve, to work well in a team or to lead a team, just to name a few reasons.

But does every IT professional need to possess the same amount of soft skills? I don’t think so. In the IT field there are many different roles. You can be a programmer with a software vendor and your role is to improve the performance of the database queries for the software that your company sells. Or you are the infrastructure administrator that works in the data center. The requirements for those roles in terms of soft skills are rather different than for a business analyst or a CIO.

But are soft skills necessary to have a career in IT? Not necessary. You can grow to become to most senior and best programmer of a software product while working reasonably isolated with a relatively small team. But if you want to be the CIO, I guess it is important.

But is the soft skill profile (or the geek-profile) of IT professionals across the board so much different than in other professions? It varies depending on with which profession you compare it. My brother and sister are nurses and they need to have much more empathy with others than I should. They interact with more different people on a daily basis than I do. Soft skills are for them very important, including aspects such as negotiation. Patients are not always that willing to do what is best for them. But every organisation has also a Finance department. Are their soft skills so much different than that of the IT department? And what about other engineering disciplines?

So far this all reasonably obvious. However do those people that we call geeks really lack so much soft skills? Or is it about a mismatch of approaches and styles? Sort of speaking a different language?

I found that tech geeks work together just as well and with no more or less friction as the non-geeks. They get along and chit-chat quite often just as much. The subjects might be different and they do things different, but they still express a wide variety of social or soft skills. I noticed that people that fall in the category of the non-geeks just as often can have problems negotiating, explaining or keeping a conversation going. The form is different, but conflicts and problems are not much different.

This is one of the main questions that have been puzzling me for years and this already started when I decided go study Computer Sciences after high school. I had responses from friends that said that they would “want to work with people”. In some cases I felt a bit criticised. As if I could not work with people.

And here we have the crux of what I am trying to say. The person that would have a high degree of soft skills, the so called a people-person, too easily gave me a feeling of being criticised. Something which actually was not a demonstration of soft skills. Being extrovert or being sociable is a different thing than having soft skills. On the other hand, being very sensitive to other people’s emotions can make you reserved. You first want to find out how a subject falls with the person before you bring your opinion forward.

Of course there are people that clearly lack any soft skills; that ignore other people’s opinion, their emotion and only run into conflict with others. On the other hand, I know people that I would rate having a high degree of soft skills. They can make you change your mind easily (without regretting it afterwards) and bring sensitive issues on the table easily without offending people. But that is only a few people.

In my work, I too often have seen in meetings between customer and IT staff that the customer of whom you generally would consider to have more soft skills, brings issues and their opinion in a pleasant way on the table while afterwards my IT colleagues felt frustrated and sometimes even insulted. Though the customer demonstrated on the outside all the soft skills as you can imagine, my colleagues felt that the customer did not listen, was naive and rude. Ignoring logic and engaging in small talk instead, is offending for the more rational orientated people. If a first and second attempt to explain the subject logically is ignored or not understood, you quite often need to give up in order not to offend the other person with being dumb.

I know. That is when the real soft skills kick in. But the soft skills demonstrated by the one party are not always experienced as such by the other party. The other party should have sensed that there was more to the subject. In the end, if the system is not going to deliver what is expected or the project becomes a mess, the customer is the one that is not achieving his goals. There seems to be something like a language barrier both ways.

Soft skills are cultural dependent and what I am trying to say that the main stream concept of what soft skills are and when they are displayed, might be different for different type of people.

Soft skills are important for a variety of people within the IT profession. I always found it important enough to attend courses that cover soft skills. I also found that I needed to use them throughout my career as a business analyst to find out what the customer wanted, as a pre-sales consultant to convince the customer to buy our services, as an account manager to deal with a dissatisfied customer and as a manager to lead my team.

If I see that the conflicts within our team seem to be no more or less than within the other business units, that we as a team seem to circumvent conflicts pretty well and that we also are one of the primary organisers of social occasions, I have my doubts about whether we do possess more or less soft skills.

So why is it that we make such an issue about soft skills for IT professionals?

First of all, because it is a stigma that came upon us IT people following a few examples and it also makes good movies.

But in comparison with other types of engineering, IT takes place in the office closer to the end user. And don’t forget that our profession is rather new and that not that long ago, the business analyst or project manager did not exist. It was the techie that did it all. Much as it still is in many smaller organisations where the engineer directly interacts with the end user. Only a few of those engineers have to be a real geek and the talk is going around.

I also belief that it is our product that contributes to it all. The whole world embraced the computer and its software applications while the technology took a long time to mature. It has always been complex and difficult to learn. A car which is another piece of high tech is much easier to operate and we would not accept a blue screen of death (BSOD) as we did with the PC. Imagine that once a day the breaks suddenly would not work! The BSOD might be something from the past, the way IT has worked itself into every corner of a business and day to day life has only become more intense.

Many of our systems are custom made for a relative small group of people while they also need to change constantly. In order to get the right system doing the right thing and creating it within a predictable time and budget requires a strict and rationale approach. You cannot end your system specification pleasantly with a sort of understanding what is required.

We keep on nagging the customer with questions about requirements and project control and what else. The response you get too many times is: "Please, don't ask me so many questions. Just give me the solution!". While we then think(!), sometimes say: "Why don't you understand this? I have explained it now so many times. Isn't it logical?" All this contributes to the view of IT people being the goofs and geeks.

And finally and maybe the simplest reason is that you are a service provider. And as it is in all customer relationship situations, the customer can be as rude as he likes while you as the service provider need to stay polite. You need to use your soft skills to obtain the best result. You need to demonstrate more soft skills than your customer.

Though IT has worked its way in almost everything that people do in organisations and for many people their daily work is fully governed by using a computer, the IT department is too often not considered to be an equal partner in defining and running the business. As long as this is not the case, we will read stories about geeks and about CIO's and IT professionals that need to improve their soft skills.

IT professionals require a right level of soft skills. But other professionals better have the right skills to deal with the technology and IT staff. Magazines, blogs and websites are full of the message that the CIO should speak the language of the business, but if the business is not learning to speak the language of IT they won’t optimally benefit from IT. In the end, they are the ones who want the technology.

I am of the opinion that there is foremost a perception problem and that in general IT professionals do not have more or less soft skills than many other professions. However there is a significant group of roles in IT that need to possess a high degree of soft skills while for other roles it is simply not required. A bit of geekiness can be good for certain engineering roles.