How “soft skills” can boost IT professionals’ careers

African man and caucasian woman have coffee break at office rest room at table near window drinking hot espresso, soft skills

Article by Chrystal Taylor, Head Geek, SolarWinds

The term “soft skills” often invites derision and eye-rolling, especially in the IT sector. While the term “soft” isn’t necessarily a negative word, it does have certain implications, especially when attached to the word “skills.”

In fact, many assume soft skills equal easy skills, but this certainly isn’t the case. Despite the unwarranted sneering that often accompanies mentioning such abilities, they’re not easy to develop and require hard work to master.

It’s firstly useful to understand what people mean when using this term. Put simply, it means people skills and the associated relational aspects. While the term itself may be unpleasant, it simply refers to a set of essential attributes, not just for delivering benefits to an IT professional’s organisation, but to their career.

So, what are the key skills IT pros can develop to better serve both themselves and their organisation? How can these individuals better interact and cooperate with customers, colleagues, and everyone in between?

Providing exemplary customer service

Customer service can mean different things to different people. If you’re working in internal IT, for example, your colleagues are your customers, even though they’re the people you work with every day. In this situation, it could be easy to let customer service slide, with less of a desire to show an exemplary level of service to people you interact with daily.

Providing the same level of service to both internal and external customers, however, offers numerous benefits. Gaining a reputation as the person who handles IT queries in an efficient way can have a significant impact on your status within an organisation and on your career.

While it may seem like a no-brainer, a key part of providing excellent customer service in IT is about remaining calm and polite. Always remember, it’s not personal. If customers get irate, calmly making them aware of where the issue stems from and clearly explaining how you can fix it can diffuse the situation and ensure no more harm is done.

Communicating with colleagues

Communication is an essential skill in every career, and IT professionals are no exception. While it may feel like a difficult talent to develop or refine, resources are available to help, from online tips to improve your written communications to training courses to hone presentation skills.

Outside of the obvious, developing your communication skills can also help you provide better value to customers. Understanding how to offer an appropriate cadence of updates to customers affects the way you interact with the people you serve and their satisfaction levels. For example, with a demanding customer, every update doesn’t need to be a detailed report. The update could simply be why progress hasn’t been made or what has been tried to resolve the issue. It’s important to set clear expectations along with a regular cadence for updates.

Regardless of how you manage interactions, it’s important to adjust your communications depending on your own priorities and those of your customers. Clear and efficient exchanges are a vital part of these interactions.

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Embracing adaptability 

In IT, it’s important to adapt often and quickly to shifting trends and to embrace new technologies your business has adopted. During the pandemic, this has been particularly important as companies found ways to help keep teams online and collaborating remotely.

Companies will make changes to the software you use regularly. If you don’t adapt to these changes, you’ll become obsolete. If you do, you’ll become indispensable. Similarly, processes may change which requires adaptation of a different sort. It’s important to remember communication with any change as feedback is important in determining positive and negative effects, but adaptability is key to maintaining a good reputation within the company.

Taking accountability

A common assumption when discussing accountability is it only refers to taking responsibility when things go wrong. However, while it’s important to be held accountable for any issues, it also means being recognised for your successes.

If a teammate spots and solves an incident quickly and efficiently, it’s worth celebrating. The same thinking should also be applied to yourself – keeping note of your successes when it comes to review time is never a waste of time. It’s far easier to forget the good times and recall the bad, so always remember to keep accountable for the times you achieved something positive.

Collaboration is key

Real collaboration is about way more than team-building exercises. Whomever it is and whatever the problem, it’s a big deal to be willing to ask for help in an area outside of their own expertise. Whether it’s implementing a new tool or solving a ticket with another department, collaboration is vital to achieving the overall success of the business. When done effectively, it’ll be noticed by others.

While some of these skills may need working on, by investing this time and energy, you, your colleagues, and your organisation will benefit.

About the author

Chrystal TaylorChrystal Taylor is a dedicated technologist with over a decade of experience and has built her career by leveraging curiosity to solve problems, no matter the size, industry, or client. Whether tinkering with the family computer, or inflicting general destruction in MS-DOS Tank Wars, Chrystal Taylor has always been a geek.

Taylor is a SolarWinds deployment veteran who’s built a successful IT career by translating client needs into optimised and performant systems. She loves customising current deployments to ensure systems grow in tandem with user needs. She’s achieved every available SolarWinds certification and can’t wait to start her next set (as soon as they become available).

A THWACK MVP since 2011, she understands the power of community and the SolarWinds commitment to its users. In her role as the Global Services Team Lead for Loop1 Systems, Chrystal was the troubleshooting sniper, handling technical escalation for the engineering team, providing break/fix and augmentation support, and assisting clients as SME for SolarWinds® Orion® Platform and Security Event Manager (SEM) (formerly Log & Event Manager) products. Her focus on capacity planning, server architecture, and troubleshooting allow her to attack any issue on multiple fronts.

Five essential soft skills for managing a remote team

By Hannah Paterson, Principal Consultant, Step5

Wild Code School_remote learning, woman learning to codeSoft skills don’t always get the attention they deserve. They’re not measurable, they’re subjective and they can all too easily be forgotten in the day-to-day pressures of the job.

However, having the right soft skills will not only help you support your team through this prolonged period of remote working, it will also make you a better, more sought-after IT professional.

There are endless definitions of soft skills, but the following are five of the most important:

  1. Communications

There’s no shortage of tools for remote collaboration and communication, but this can also be overwhelming. During the first lockdown in March, we stepped up the video calls as a team, but people found them draining and counterproductive. I now check in with everyone at the start of the day but otherwise trust them to get on with their job. And I’m only at the end of a phone or instant message if they need help or want to chat something through.

So much of effective communications is understanding how your team members like to work. If people are able to communicate in their preferred way, they’re much more likely to communicate openly.

  1. Flexibility

When people are working away from the office, you need to measure their performance in a different way. It’s not about how long people spend at their desk, it’s whether they’re effective and meet their objectives. Also, some people may be juggling work with other commitments, such as looking after young children or caring for elderly parents, or their home office set-up is perhaps far from ideal. They might not be able to work their standard hours, so it’s important to give them the flexibility to work when suits them best. By accommodating your team’s needs, you’re enabling them to better adapt to the current situation and to work more productively.

I try to lead by example. As a working mum of two under 5, late afternoon and evening are my most challenging times; I block them out of my calendar and let my team know that if I’m needed, the phone is the only route. I hope this shows them that working flexibly is both possible and accepted.

  1. Listening - for better problem solving

Being able to analyse a problem, identify a solution and implement it, however small, is a critical skill that we need to develop in ourselves and in our teams. The first step is to encourage an open dialogue with your team where nothing is off the agenda, and to really listen to what they have to say, coaxing them to explain problems in their own words and to work through their own solutions. This builds their trust in their abilities, making them more self-sufficient and able to solve problems on their own, which is so important right now when everyone is working apart.

  1. Empathy

Whether you’re dealing with a customer, a team member or a supplier, being able to see things from their perspective leads to better, more trusting relationships. Admittedly, this is more difficult when working remotely as you have fewer physical signs to observe. You can’t really tell how someone is feeling or coping with the current situation until you ask, which is why I build in extra time on calls for people to open up and ask questions. Ultimately, I try to impress on my team the importance of being kind to each other. You don’t know the circumstances the person on the other end of the video call is facing, so you shouldn’t be too hasty to judge if things are less than perfect. If Shadow Chancellor Annelise Dodds can be interrupted by her three-year-old mid TV interview, it can happen to the best of us!

  1. Social/ interpersonal skills

The most common thing I hear from people adapting to remote working is that they find it lonely because they lose the office banter and informal chats. Addressing this helps build team morale while developing core social skills. Team hangouts over a coffee or a Friday afternoon beer are a great way to bring people together. I like to keep these agenda-light; I provide a quick update on the week and let the conversation flow to maintain those all-important water cooler conversations. There’s no limit to how creative you can be – it’s all about tapping into employees’ shared interests. I’ve even read of one company hosting a virtual dog show as a way to maintain those vital human connections! In an office environment, the social side of work happens naturally. When your team is dispersed, you need to consciously encourage it.

They may sound fluffy, but soft skills are far from soft. They’re essential skills that are increasingly a key requirement for C-suite executives and professionals across the whole IT sector, as corroborated by LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends 2019 report. It ranks soft skills and flexible working as the top two trends in acquiring and retaining talent.

This is not a short-term trend, and as we all get used to working remotely in an ever-changing world, IT professionals with well-honed essential skills will be much in demand.

About the author

Hannah PatersonHannah’s IT career has seen her work on ground-breaking public sector projects in the UK, US and Australia. She has crossed sectors from Defence to Healthcare with clients including public sector services supplier SSCL, the BBC and the National Health Service.

Prior to joining Step5, Hannah was Project Director for the New South Wales Department of Premier and Cabinet responsible for the review and consolidation of human services delivery with an annual budget of Aus$7 billion. She was previously at Worley Parsons, the global engineering and resources firm, leading the implementation of a global project and program implementation framework and supporting single platform.

Hannah is a Prince2 and MSP practitioner and uses Software Development Lifecycle, AGILE and PMBOK methodologies.

If you are a job seeker or someone looking to boost their career, then WeAreTechWomen has thousands of free career-related articles. From interview tips, CV advice to training and working from home, you can find all our career advice articles here

women in tech, soft skills featured

When are soft – or key – skills more vital than technical attributes?

Rachel McElroy, chief marketing officer for technology solutions and services provider, Solutionize Global

women in tech, soft skillsWhen striving towards what the ‘complete package’ should often entail for a perfect tech team, thoughts will typically head straight towards technical capability in cloud architecture, networking, AI, security and machine learning.

And whilst all of these are vital for an innovative and digital-first workforce – as well as being much sought-after during a skills shortage in the industry – several organisations need to be cautious to fully appreciate how other personality traits can prove to be pivotal, and of utmost importance in many situations.

These are typically known as ‘soft skills’ and include characteristics – such as decision-making and leadership – that employees should possess. They embody complex problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity – exactly what an all-encompassing tech team requires when working on its next large innovative project or building out its IT architecture and networks.

However, before delving into this any further, it’s important to underline that there isn’t anything ‘soft’ about these attributes – and they should be referred to as ‘key skills’ instead. Why? Because nothing ‘mellow’ exists in such traits, they actually highlight an individual’s strength and how they empower and collaborate with others. These employees shouldn’t feel like they have a characteristic that doesn’t contribute towards a team’s overall commercial success – it should be quite the opposite, as this Future of Work report suggests.

Having keys skills goes a long way towards staff understanding both new technologies and how such benefits can be communicated throughout the workforce and to the end user. Those who can do this – in a manner that’s collaborative and personable – possess the traits every modern-day tech team needs to deliver successful outcomes.

Enterprises that do focus on key characteristics such as these, make strong choices when it comes to hiring their next addition to the team – the importance is how they’ll fit into the company, rather than what they understand from a tech point of view.

But that’s not to say that technical skills should be overlooked, it’s about utilising a range of attributes so that the organisation becomes more user-focused and intuitive, in-line with advancing digital methods which continue to meet the end user’s evolving requirements.

Looking deeper at the detail to truly define what the advantages to soft – or rather key – skills are, continual learning and development is a good starting point. With many tech enterprises operating on much flatter organisational structures and promoting agile, self-managing ways of working, individuals who are willing to enhance their skillsets whilst on-the-job are a huge asset for their organisations.

Additionally, empowering staff members to upskill, giving them time and plans for personal development and allowing them to hone their natural flair will often motivate them to ‘do more’ as they repay the investment made in them. Additionally, they’re often more likely to have a positive attitude as a valued team player who enjoys empowering and mentoring the next generation.

Those who embrace change – and want to learn new technologies at the rapid rate in which they advance – are also strong advocates for determining commercial success because they’re able to stay ahead of the curve. And from a mental health point of view, offers of development opportunities or formal training paths can make employees feel that they belong and are part of something special.

As agile learners, individuals with key skills can typically communicate well with various teams – from customer service through to technical architects – adapting their language to suit each group. Such employees can also reinvigorate creativity that filters throughout their workforce, as their passion and ability to bounce ideas off others helps to provide a positive, motivated and engaging environment.

In addition, empathy plays a vital role when it comes to understanding the end user’s needs. Putting themselves in the shoes of the person who is trying out the technology – or plugging in an automated solution – can often be the difference between building long-term relationships and seeing a customer move to a competitor. This differential can prove to be pivotal when determining commercial success because, without a loyal audience, a tech firm’s entire enterprise falls flat.

When analysing empathy too, it’s important for business leaders to understand that colleagues all have personal lives, real emotions and problems. As humans, there is a duty of care to be supportive, counsel, and acknowledge that many situations will manifest during working hours. Therefore, people who possess a degree of empathy can make the in-house environment a much better place for both employees and end users.

Going back to key and tech skills – all are imperative when running a well-oiled machine that’s capable of innovating and evolving to remain relevant in a tough, and saturated, marketplace. Overall, the two need to align, and organisations must truly understand when the ‘softer’ attributes should be the focus over operational skills, to enjoy a diverse, motivated and collaborative workplace.

About the author

As chief marketing officer for technology solutions and services provider, Solutionize Global, Rachel is passionate about maximising customer experience and ensuring the organisation’s quality provision meets every end user’s requirements. As a brand and comms specialist, Rachel delivers high-performing marketing campaigns that celebrate SG’s bespoke service. An eloquent and well-respected industry commentator – especially in the diversity in tech space – commercially-savvy Rachel is a sales enablement expert who crafts tailored messaging to engage and inspire the firm’s wide-ranging customer base, and positively impacts its bottom line.

If you are a job seeker or someone looking to boost their career, then WeAreTechWomen has thousands of free career-related articles. From interview tips, CV advice to training and working from home, you can find all our career advice articles here

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Six reasons why modern-day tech workforces need soft skills to survive

women in tech, soft skills

Every tech leader strives towards having the full package when offering the very best service, meaning HR departments and hiring teams can spend a huge amount of time finding the right fits for their organisations.

An all-encompassing tech team builds out a business’s IT architecture and networks. It knows how to deploy a new software release with ease and can talk many different coding languages.

But as cloud services and technology become more user-focused and intuitive – and many traditionally repetitive tasks turn to automation via machine learning and AI – this has led to a shift towards the importance of being ‘human’.

Soft skills are playing more of a vital role within a digital team, and those who overlook the personalities and characters that can drive success, will set themselves up to fail, regardless of the amazing tech that the business possesses.

It’s therefore becoming inevitable that tech enterprises should be focusing on more specific traits and personalities that can add to a team’s dynamic – and here are six reasons why.

Improving communication

Unfortunately for the younger workforce, whilst being digital natives it’s also well-documented how many can often struggle to communicate face-to-face – 40 per cent are lacking soft skills according to recent reports – because they are more used to online interaction.

But communicating strongly has a wide-reaching effect and having that ability to use appropriate language for different stakeholders, negotiate with several departments, and ensure feedback is constructive – and egos are left at the door – can all help individuals express themselves, and positively motivate colleagues.

Having the confidence to provide clear and concise solutions, whilst showing respect to listen to other voices, showcases overall, strong communicative skills.

Encouraging collaboration

The clue here is in the word ‘team’ – an acronym of this being ‘Together Everyone Achieves More’ – as this is the essence of collaboration.

Yes, people are great individually, but the real power in business comes from assembling a group with varied strengths, in order to supercharge success.

Being able to collaborate effectively alongside diverse characters is a key soft skill. A team could have a wide and varied demographic, encompass on and off-site resource, or be made up of contractors and permanent workers, but if they can all work cohesively, they can deliver the best possible outcomes. 

Instilling empathy

With the need to be user-focused and provide the greatest experience and products for end users, employees should be able to show they care and understand how others feel. Those who are empathetic towards customers interacting with their product and services can build strong relationships too.

Colleagues all have personal lives, real emotions and problems – as humans, there is a duty of care to be supportive, counsel, and acknowledge that many situations will manifest during working hours. A little empathy makes the in-house environment a much better place.   

Proving to be adaptable

Digital disruption! The team should live and breathe change as new technologies, ways of working, software, hardware – and everything in-between – burst onto the scene. Those who fail to adapt or don’t see change as an opportunity, rather than a chore, will ultimately struggle.

Employees keen to upskill are vital when it comes to addressing the global tech talent shortage. By educating themselves to further understand emerging trends, a new platform or cloud migration, this can provide huge benefits – both individually and operationally.

On a mental health note too, taking up development opportunities or formal training paths can empower staff, and make them feel incredibly valuable to their firm.

Empowering future leaders

Many enterprises now exist with a flatter organisational structure and are moving towards a more agile approach – enabling the self-management of teams who are all focused on the operation's overall outcomes.

A person with a natural flair for leadership will be self-motivated, interested in business development and have an entrepreneurial spirit. Within a successful tech team, these leaders should be capable of painting a strong picture of where the firm is going and the utopia that exists.

Effective collaborators should also be confident when helping others to visualise how they can consistently tweak and update projects in-line with the ever-changing market requirements too, and lead teams towards success – before competitors do.

Reinvigorating creativity

Strategy, planning and future results – what drives a team positively? This final soft skill covers employees who possess vibrant, engaging ideas that are essential to help a business stand out.

Some creative suggestions might seem a little off the mark, and others will be nearly spot-on and just a little tweak required. However, the point is to build a culture allowing people to feel comfortable to voice and share their thoughts – organisations empowering staff can be hugely attractive to top talent, too.

A popular interview question for many years was, “tell me when you used your initiative in a situation?” It’s time for employees to forget that, and instead explain how one of their ideas can improve the world! 

Having a complete team boasting technical and soft skills is no mean feat, but personalities and certain character traits should not be overlooked when searching for the best talent. A group eager to disrupt the industry positively, work collaboratively and keep embracing change can be a huge advantage in the sustainability of a tech business.

Rachel McElroy, Solutionize GlobalAbout the author

Rachel McElroy is the chief marketing officer of managed and professional services cloud tech consultancy, Solutionize Global.