Imagine you’ve attended two presentations. In the first, the presenter reads from his Powerpoint slides, barely looks at the audience, and ends the presentation without accepting questions. The second presenter opens with an entertaining story, walks through the presentation with energy and emotion, and closes with a meaningful Q&A session with the audience. Which presentation do you think you’d be more likely to remember?
The same thing is true at a job interview. You may have all of the necessary technical skills (hard skills) required for the job, but it’s the person that can look the interviewer in the eyes, smile broadly and talk about past experiences with poise and enthusiasm who will get the job.
Those skills — the ability to communicate well, to adapt to a challenging environment and to present complex information well – are called “soft skills”, and they are particularly lacking in the IT field, where there’s an abundance of technical knowledge but a shortage of enthusiasm and personality. The following are the six most important soft skills that’ll get you noticed at your next IT job interview.
Building Soft Skills in IT
In many other professional fields, students tend to develop all of those interpersonal soft skills in the course of their studies. For example, in English classes, students tend to discuss literature or share their writing in front of an entire class. In Business studies, students often take leadership classes where professors specifically teach students the interpersonal skills needed to influence and motivate people.
However, in technical fields like Computer Science or Engineering, those interpersonal skills aren’t front-and-center, because building technical skills is considered far more important.
The problem with that is come graduation, you have a very large population of well-trained workers who are ready to take on some of the toughest IT challenges, but an unfortunate majority of them lack strong interpersonal, leadership and other “soft” skills not directly related to the field of IT.
1. Communication Skills
The ironic thing about the lack of strong communication skills among IT workers is the fact that it’s the one field where communication is so important. The ability to take very complex information and explain it in terms that anyone off the street could understand (without patronizing them), is a rare skill.
If you can be effective at this, you will be able to teach the managers that you serve to understand their own systems, and you’ll be able to easily train your own staff (if you’re a manager yourself) the skills they need to help you do your job. Both of those things will go a long way toward helping you get ahead in your IT career.
2. Great Team Player
If there’s one sacred truth in IT, it is this: Behind every successful project is a successful team. Rarely will you accomplish things of value in IT that are as great as the things that you’ll accomplish as part of a team. The reason for this is that when you work alone, you only bring your own skills to the table. When you work on a team, there ‘s such a variety of talents and skills that most of the skill gaps disappear, and nearly anything is possible.
The difficulty for many people in IT is accepting that the skill gaps exist, and allowing specific people on the team to fill those gaps. Too often, egos and politics get in the way. However, if you are gifted in the soft skill of being a strong team player, then you’ll notice that more and more people want you on their project teams — because you not only get your own tasks done on time, but you encourage and support your other team members with getting their work done as well. Of course, you can find some tips and tools to collaborate better with my review of Sync.in, Bakari’s review of Oogwave, or Kaly’s coverage of Teamsnap.
3. Presentation Skills
Whether it’s a meeting with the company President where you need to present your team’s finished project, or a conference with other professionals throughout IT, your ability to stand up in front of a large group of people and speak coherently will go a long way toward establishing your credibility as an IT expert, and it’ll serve as a catalyst for your networking efforts.
Making a presentation in front of a lot of people is difficult enough, but doing so to cover complex, technology-related topics is even harder. With a technical presentation, properly planning out your material and what you want to say about it is critical. As one of my favorite bosses once advised me before a major presentation – confidence is key, and confidence comes from knowing the material. If you don’t feel that you know the material well, then you shouldn’t be the one presenting it until you feel more confident.
On the other hand, don’t mistake being nervous for lack of confidence. When it comes to the soft skill of making presentations, sometimes you just can’t “learn it”, you have to live it. You have to do it, experience it, and learn from that experience. One great way to develop this particular IT soft skill is to observe other awesome presentations, like the ones Tina reviewed from TED Talks. Jessica’s 5 public speaking tips can really help as well.
Just as I mentioned regarding the soft skill of being a strong team player, it is extremely important that you can work well with other people on very difficult projects. The reason for this is because no matter how good you are with technology or how excellent your programming skills are, there is always going to be something that you don’t know how to do, and someone else out there does know how to do. The ability to reach out to people — often perfect strangers in a company or in an industry — and network for help and advice, can really put a booster-rocket behind your success.
Networking isn’t easy. You need to make an effort to get out there and attend conferences (and talk to the people you meet there), or attend company events that you may feel are unrelated to IT or “unimportant” to your career. You’d be surprised just how many of the world’s greatest business deals were negotiated during a company picnic or a friendly golf game. Just make sure that when you do accomplish something amazing using the advice or technical help that someone has offered you, make sure to publicly give them the credit they deserve. That will greatly improve the likelihood of them wanting to help you again. By the way, LinkedIn is in fact an awesome place to start networking, so check out our LinkedIn guide to get rolling with it if you haven’t already.
5. A Positive Attitude
I’m not sure what it is about the field of IT, but for some reason it seems to breed people who are extremely negative, rude or obnoxious toward others. In the field of IT, you’re more likely to find someone who makes fun of people who are confused about something to do with computers, than you are to find someone open and willing to provide guidance and support to those same people. It’s a bit of a “club” of sorts, and maybe it just makes people feel good to view themselves as superior to the rest of the world because they’re so technologically savvy.
The reality is that once you have a real job in IT, the bulk of your job every day will be helping people. Many of those are people who are completely clueless when it comes to computers, and it’ll do your career a great disservice if you start making those coworkers and colleagues feel stupid because of an IT question they’ve asked you. I assure you — if you can master the soft skill of a positive attitude while going about your IT duties, you will stand out as a real gem in the company or in your industry.
6. Innovation and Creativity
Finally, the most important soft skill you can have is the ability to innovate. I don’t mean that you just need to have the ability to write good software. There is a big difference between writing code that someone designed for you, or actually providing a creative solution — using either programming or some technology — to solve that problem. It could be a manager, a co-worker, or the company President that has described a special problem they have. It takes an IT expert with the soft skill to take that problem and come up with an efficient and cost-effective solution that not only solves the problem, but does so in a way that makes other people take notice. If you start getting phone calls from other parts of the company from other IT people asking how you accomplished that solution, then you know you’re on the right track.
All of these skills are unfortunately not things that you will be taught in college. You might take a course on presentations, but no one is going to teach you that you should smile and shake hands with as many people as you can meet at a conference, or that you should speak softly and gently to a co-worker who is infuriated with their computer because it won’t do something that they want. It’s that special person with the right attitude and all of the soft skills listed above, who can advance through the ranks of IT and receive prestigious awards the whole way up.
Are there any other “soft skills” that you feel are critical in the field of IT? Share your own thoughts in the comments section below.
Image Credits: Victor1558 via Flickr, Graduation caps at Shutterstock, Business Team at Shutterstock, Team of Businessmen at Shutterstock, Businesswoman at Shutterstock, Businesswoman at Shutterstock, San Francisco Conference at Shutterstock, Teacher helping student at Shutterstock