An Ode to Soft Skills
Lets make soft skills sexy
"Soft skills" is not a particularly sexy phrase. It’s not a skillset that has the same glitz and glamour of hard, technical ability.
The dictionary definition says that soft skills are "personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people."
Maybe it's because they are less tangible than the "hard" or technical skills required to do a job?
In relation to work, Forbes says "Hard skills are teachable and most often technical skills. Soft skills fall in the interpersonal realm and include listening, team-building, and leadership development. They are not so much taught as cultivated"...
In my opinion, it is easier to have a good understanding of progression in hard skills. If I need to learn a new programming language, the road to doing so is clear and I will have a good idea of when I have learned enough to be competent.
Soft skills on the other hand are much more illusive and abstract. How do I know I am a good communicator? How do I learn that skillset?
For many software engineers, soft skills are not on top of their mind. I have spoken to so many engineers over the years who aiming for their promotion share that they are taking a course to build architecture knowledge, or are taking on bigger projects. Which is great! But when speaking to them about how they look to improve their communication or leadership alongside the technicalities, it is a much harder conversation. Coding chops is only one part of the puzzle.
I have always been intrigued by soft skills as a manager, because I have noticed that typically the difference between the highest of performers and those who do enough to get by is largely the possession of attributes we might consider ‘soft’. High performing engineering cultures, such as Monzo, focus closely on soft skills through the engineering interview process. Not just for culture add, but for candidates to be able to speak through a solution as well as reason and persuade.
However, the resources to learn and improve are few and far between. For many they are a result of environment (this is why people who have had careers before software engineering at times often are high performers), personality or good coaching.
This newsletter is going to be focused on the softer side of what it means to be a strong engineer or tech worker. How to grow a career through communication, organisation, documentation, mentality, collaboration and leadership, all whilst maintaining a healthy work life balance.
So to start, and for my first article, what I want to do is vouch for how important soft skills are in modern day software engineering.
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A Case for Soft Skills - Career Progression
Some of you may have been part of a company that has a career growth framework.
For those who haven’t, a career growth framework is a tool managers use to start conversations with reports about career trajectory at your company. It will showcase what behaviours need to be displayed or are required from different roles at different levels.
Keep in mind, not all frameworks are created equally, and some will be very specific to software engineering whilst some might be more generalist and cover all the roles in the company in one.
The last few years of my career have been spent creating these frameworks and helping engineers utilise them for their own growth. I think they are an excellent demonstration as to my original point, and building a case for soft skill development.
One of the beautiful things about career progression frameworks, is they work best when they are not particularly specific. What I mean by that is, a high performing engineer at Google should realistically have very similar traits or behaviours to a high performing engineer at Facebook, or Amazon. What makes a good software engineer at “Company A”, will generally make a good software engineer at a variety of companies. This means, that all of the frameworks that already exist out there, you can utilise regardless of whether you company has one or not. Check out progression.fyi for a collection of open source progression frameworks.
Whilst most engineering progression frameworks have their subtle differences depending on the company, they all have one thing in common:
Technical skills only make up one piece of the puzzle!
I will use the brilliant framework from Farewill to demonstrate, firstly because they have a particularly strong engineering leadership team, but I think it is one of the best frameworks out there. You can view the full framework here.
You can see that success is broken down into three categories. "Knowledge", "Communication" and "Leadership". A couple of things to digest there:
Firstly, out of the three skill areas, knowledge is the only "hard skill" area. That means that success in a role is made up of two thirds soft skills, and hard skills only account for a third.
Secondly, leadership is something that is required and expected even from those starting out in their career. This again is something that you will see across the board in different frameworks.
So what do we take away from this?
At the bare minimum, take from this that soft skills are not a trivial piece of the progression puzzle, and that they should be considered as equals to the technical skillsets of a role.
Hard skills: I have completed a new feature, and shipped it to production.
Soft skills: I inform the team about the new feature. I up-skill the team on how to work with the new feature. I write documentation for the new feature.
Of course, there are nuances. The weight of technical work is heavier than that of soft work. However, this is an over-simplified example to make a point.
And this isn’t some radical approach to software engineering that only certain companies have uncovered, you will find largely the same on the majority of progression frameworks out there in existence.
So. If you are still with me, and if you believe what I am saying, you will be open to the fact that you soft skills tool kit is an area you should be focusing on ‘cultivating’.
The challenge is, as I mentioned earlier in the article, that soft skills are harder to quantify than hard skills. They are harder to learn, and harder to put into practice, but I do strongly believe that every investment into growing in these areas will be a big step forward in your career.
I hope that we can pull apart this puzzle together. Throughout the year I am going to be writing articles on all things soft skills, and exploring what sustainable growth looks like for software engineers. I am building a space for cultivation & growth and am excited to grow a community of like-minded software engineers.
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