In the professional world, skills come in two distinct flavors: hard and soft. While hard skills are often the focus of technical roles, it's the often-overlooked soft skills that can genuinely make a difference in your career trajectory. In this blog, we’ll cover the differences between these types of skills, provide some recommendations for practicing your soft skills, and share some background for what employers are looking for when they’re hiring for leadership positions.
What Are Soft vs. Hard Skills?
Hard skills are tangible and quantifiable abilities that are specific to a particular job or industry. Think of them as the technical know-how that you acquire through education and experience. On the other hand, soft skills, often referred to as interpersonal or people skills, are the intangible qualities that enable effective communication, collaboration, and relationship-building. These skills are not industry-specific and are essential across a wide array of professions.
While both are essential, they hold different roles in shaping a tech professional's success and the overall dynamics of the tech workplace.
Hard Skills - the technical building blocks
These skills are specific to technical tasks and are at the core of a tech professional's technical proficiency. Examples of common hard skills in the tech industry include programming languages (such as Python, Java, or C++), database management, cloud computing, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and data analysis. These skills are quantifiable, and their mastery is often validated through certifications, degrees, and successful application in real-world projects.
Soft Skills - the human touch
Soft skills encompass a spectrum of interpersonal, emotional, and social abilities that are invaluable in fostering teamwork and innovation. Examples of soft skills particularly relevant in tech include communication (across technical and non-technical audiences), empathy, adaptability, teamwork, critical thinking, problem-solving, and time management. These skills are also transferrable across jobs and even careers — which can’t necessarily be said for hard skills related to specific roles. These skills go beyond technical expertise and are pivotal for fostering a positive work environment, encouraging teamwork, and contributing to the holistic success of tech projects.
Why Do Soft Skills Matter in Your Career?
Imagine stepping into a management position where you're responsible for guiding a team to success. While your hard skills may have been the hook that secured you the job, it's your soft skills that will define your effectiveness as a leader. In tech, soft skills might be underrated - but they’re actually at the core of bringing new products and ideas to life. Without considering and improving upon your soft skills, it will be challenging to balance and manage needs and styles of your team — potentially causing friction that affects the overall outcome of your project.
Key Soft Skills in Tech
- Communication: Effective communication is the backbone of the tech industry. Tech professionals often need to convey complex concepts and ideas to both technical colleagues and non-technical stakeholders. Communicating technical jargon — for instance, in a presentation via a slide deck — in an accessible manner to clients, managers, or marketing teams ensures alignment, reduces misunderstandings, and fosters collaboration. Clear communication also prevents project delays caused by misinterpretations, ultimately leading to smoother workflows and successful project outcomes.
- Empathy: While tech may get a bad reputation for being detached from emotions, empathy is a crucial skill. Understanding users' needs, pain points, and perspectives is fundamental for developing user-friendly products and services. Empathetic tech professionals can create interfaces and solutions that truly resonate with users, enhancing customer satisfaction and loyalty. For example, you might make it a priority to remember peoples’ names, give people your full attention in meetings, be curious about others’ lives and interests, and offer constructive feedback. Moreover, empathy improves teamwork by promoting a supportive work environment, where team members value and respect each other's perspectives.
- Adaptability: Technologies, frameworks, and tools evolve rapidly, and being able to embrace change is crucial for staying relevant. Tech professionals who are open to learning new skills, exploring emerging technologies, and adjusting to project shifts exhibit resilience and are better equipped to tackle new challenges head-on. Adaptability in action might look like developing new ideas to market products based on macroeconomic shifts and trends.
- Critical Thinking: In tech, critical thinking goes beyond code and algorithms. It involves dissecting complex problems, analyzing data, and identifying optimal solutions. Critical thinkers can assess the feasibility of different approaches, foresee potential roadblocks, and make informed decisions that align with project goals. This skill is particularly valuable for making strategic decisions related to software architecture, process optimization, and risk assessment.
- Problem-Solving: This is at the cornerstone of all tech jobs, where professionals have to regularly debug code and optimize system performance. Those with strong problem-solving skills can break down intricate issues, diagnose root causes, and devise effective solutions outside of the rote processes with which we’re all familiar. Problem solvers in tech are invaluable assets, as they expedite issue resolution and contribute to the overall efficiency of projects. You might practice design thinking as a concrete way to employ and develop problem-solving skills.
- Time Management: We’re all used to the fast-paced environment of tech, and meeting tight deadlines to get a product or feature successfully launched. Effective time management ensures that projects are completed on schedule, preventing bottlenecks and ensuring client or stakeholder satisfaction. People skilled in time management can prioritize tasks, allocate resources efficiently, and manage their workloads to consistently deliver high-quality results.
The awareness and application of these soft skills collectively shape a well-rounded individual - and manager. They enhance not only solo performance but also team dynamics, project outcomes, and the overall innovation process. The successful integration of these soft skills with technical expertise will set you apart, enabling you to thrive in an industry that demands both proficiency and adaptability.
How to Improve Your Soft Skills
We’ve established that soft skills are critical for your career advancement — and only get more important the higher you want to climb. But how (and where?) can you work on your soft skills, and gain a better understanding of where you can improve? Here are some accessible strategies you can start with immediately:
- Go to a local event: Engaging in networking events is a valuable way to sharpen your soft skills. These events expose you to diverse professionals with varying backgrounds and perspectives. Conversing with individuals outside your immediate field allows you to practice effective communication, adapt your technical knowledge for non-experts, and build meaningful connections. At networking events, you can focus on your ability to explain complex concepts clearly, listen attentively, and make a lasting impression through engaging conversations.
- Join a volunteer initiative or an open source project: Participating in volunteer initiatives offers a platform to refine multiple soft skills simultaneously. Engaging with fellow volunteers to those you're serving hones your empathy and adaptability. You'll also find opportunities to communicate with people whose needs and situations you might not encounter in your day-to-day life, which could expand your general perspective on how people pursue and achieve happiness. Volunteering can also involve problem-solving and teamwork, especially when tackling challenges that require creative solutions with limited resources. Whether you're assisting at coding workshops or doing something hands-on at a community project, you'll gain insights into real-world situations that will require your soft skills to navigate.
- Join a mentorship platform: Engaging in mentorship, whether as a mentor or mentee, nurtures leadership, communication, and empathy. As a mentor, guiding less experienced professionals can strengthen your ability to convey complex concepts and provide constructive feedback. As a mentee, you can learn from someone who will likely have concrete examples and valuable insights about navigating professional relationships and challenges. Mentorship also fosters active listening and the capacity to provide meaningful guidance, both of which are crucial for effective communication. (Sign up for Merit, the mentorship platform democratizing access to successful tech careers, to start working on your soft skills now!)
- Participate in an online community or forum: Contributing to online forums or tech discussion boards offers a casual and regularly accessible platform for refining written communication, influence, and adaptability. Engaging in thoughtful discussions, sharing insights, and asking questions online demonstrates your ability to convey ideas effectively in writing, influence discussions with well-reasoned (and respectful!) arguments, and adapt your communication style to different platforms and audiences.
- Take a course: There are several opportunities to gain certification or education in soft skills. LinkedIn Learning offers professional development training in soft skills, and organizations like EdX have compiled several learning opportunities related to and diving deeper on many of these skills. You can add your course completions to your professional profiles or your resume, making you a more relevant candidate for recruiters seeking specific skillsets.
Why Do Employers Care?
Employers within the tech industry are increasingly attuned to the profound impact that soft skills have on their workforce. Beyond technical prowess, they understand that these abilities play a pivotal role in shaping a harmonious and efficient workplace. These skills are at the core of several critical aspects of professional growth and success:
- Standing out in the job search: In a competitive job market, where candidates often possess similar technical abilities, it's a candidate's soft skills that can set them apart. When preparing for interviews (for both internal promotion and external advancement) make sure to prepare answers to questions along the lines of, “Can you discuss a time when you had to manage your team through a difficult situation?” or “What are your actions if employees disagree with your decision?” Well-thought-out and nuanced answers to these types of questions (more examples here!) can be the make-it or break-it part of the hiring process.
- Being a great team member: Consider soft skills for the job you already have: forming productive teams is a delicate art, and soft skills are key ingredients in this process. When assembling teams to tackle complex projects, managers should consider not only technical skills but also an individual's ability to collaborate, communicate, and adapt. Teams with strong soft skills can operate cohesively, navigate challenges more efficiently, and drive innovation through effective problem-solving and creative thinking. One’s ability to recognize and effectively deploy this understanding in various project scenarios is an indicator of readiness for advancement.
- Leveling up those around you: As much as tech is about coding and process-driven know-how, it's also about sharing insights, discoveries, and innovations. Whether delivering presentations, writing articles, or engaging with public audiences, strong soft skills are essential for getting a point across. Effective speakers and writers with polished communication, empathy, and persuasion skills can captivate their audience, ensuring that their message is heard and understood.
Good employers understand that soft skills are the glue that holds teams together, the catalyst for innovation, and the key to maintaining a thriving workplace environment. As employers recognize the multifaceted benefits of strong soft skills, they increasingly prioritize candidates and employees who possess these qualities to drive success in the tech industry.
Practice your soft skills by becoming a mentor or a mentee with Merit!