Soft Skills: Controlling your career

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Technical skills come and go while soft skills will serve you throughout your life. They will have the greatest influence over your career, job and role.  For some people soft skills come naturally.  As an Aspergers person (Aspie) I have to practice my soft skills at every opportunity.

Pure techies need not lose hope. Soft skills include some of our core strengths, those of problem solving, creativity, persistence and discipline.

Other soft skills cover aspects of technical life too.

  • The way we communicate and interact with others
  • How we function in teams
  • How we function autonomously

My biggest professional regret is that I was slow to recognise the way in which soft skills could have made my technical role more satisfying.

How do soft skills makes my role satisfying?

We all like to do a good job and be appreciated for it.  Soft skills allow me some influence over business decisions that require IT solutions.  I am better able to appreciate the contribution my work offers when I play a broader part in business decisions.

Broader influence and visibility also means that I am more likely to be the person that people want for the more interesting and challenging projects.

What did I find helped me most in developing soft skills?

Firstly, I am still developing but I can share what has worked for me.

As an Aspie I communicate more fluently in writing than I would ever manage do face to face.  Writing for SQLServerCentral certainly helped me develop this.

I was fortunate to go on a presentation course run by Deborah Hall, an ex-BBC presenter.  One of the lessons she taught is that we must always ask

"What, in what we are presenting, is important to the audience"?

She illustrated this by putting a letter from a headmaster about a visit to the school from a national politician.  The challenge was to summarise the letter in 4 words or less.  If the audience was parents of pupils then the optimum was "school closed Thursday"!  For communication to be effective it is best to think of the needs of the recipient.  That simple lesson influences the emails I write, the presentations I have to give, the technical documentation I put on the company Confluence system. The result is clearer, more concise and effective.

I would recommend going on a good presentation course regardless of whether you intend to present or not.  If you do intend to present then seek out opportunities to do so. Within your organisation there may be the opportunity to present brown-bag sessions.  Externally, meetup sessions are often looking for speakers.  For the more confident there is SQLBits and other conferences.

Can I find a coach or mentor?

Is there someone you know who you regard as having great soft skills?  Think hard about what it is they do that you regard as great because you should seek to emulate it.  These people are your secret mentors.

If you have a specific set of questions in mind then consider asking that person to help you.  People in senior positions are more willing than you would think to be a mentor but their time is valuable.  You must have a clear objective, plan and requirement for them to agree.

What aspect of soft skills do I struggle with most?

When I say "struggle" I mean as a technical person rather than as an Aspie.

My job is to solve problems which, although a soft skill,  gives me a tendency to give too little acknowledgement to past achievements.  The risk this poses is that when I speak people hear "problem, problem problem" and think negativity!   I have found that making the first step the act of focusing on success and particularly good ideas coming from other people this gives the impression that I project positivity.  Projecting positivity is also a soft skill.  The reality is that a busy IT department will achieve a lot and there is much to focus on.

Of the technical people I know most are passionate about what they do.  Passion drives excellence but it also has a dark side that we see manifest in various IT "religious wars".  It narrows the focus, closes the mind and prevents us from acknowledging any evidence that contradicts our beliefs.  Passion is also a big turn off for senior executives who tend to prefer calmness.  It is difficult to get the balance right between passion & dispassion.

The best advice I have been given is that it is OK to hold strong opinions but important to hold them loosely.  By all means be passionate and use it to drive you to put forward the best possible case for your chosen subject but accept that others will have equally passionate views and either, or both, of you may be wrong.  If you are not passionate then you won't put forward convincing arguments or test hypothesis with sufficient rigour.

What other soft skills do I enjoy/hate?

I love to share what I have learned that is part of what inspired me to write for SQLServerCentral in the first place.  I find teaching and mentoring rewarding.  This a soft skill that utilises others such as active listening, research, adaptability and patience.

I know people who are good at conflict resolution but I don't know anyone who enjoys doing it.

I don't enjoy negotiating and consequently have a love/hate relationship with salesmanship.  I feel it is beneficial to go on some form of sales course or at least study what skills are required to be a good sales person. As you progress with your career you will find that less of your time is spent on pure technical matters and more of your time is spent in some form of selling such as

  • Selling your ideas so that they become a program of work
  • Selling the prioritisation of that work
  • Selling the need for the resources you want to complete that work

Any other advice?

I respect that not everyone wants to climb the greasy career pole. However ,I read an article by someone with a lengthy career who said that they thought they knew what their career path would be.  Five years on they were doing something radically different that they thought would be their career for life.  Another five years on they were doing something radically different again.   Life is full of surprises, not all of them pleasant.  Acquiring soft skills is a form of insurance.  Good communicators are always in demand.

My personal experience is that as the years go by I am less content to march to the beat of someone else's drum.  I want a bigger say in decisions that affect me and the only way to get that is through developing soft skills.  As with any other skill, they can be honed by practice.

The way in which people are recruited has changed beyond recognition during my career, especially at more senior levels.  In the UK recruitment agents and larger tech employers are heavily involved with the meetup scene.  Speaking at conferences and meetups can be a way of boosting your reputation.

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