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Soft skills: once soft skills, today core skills?

The reality of working in IT has already long outdated the image of a ruggish developer who, while an expert in his field, does not do well in interpersonal relations. The industry today requires more than just hard skills. After all, a human being is even behind the artificial intelligence algorithms. The ability to collaborate, as well as other competencies known as “soft” skills, is a very important criterion today that differentiates good from the best professionals in the labour market.

What are soft skills?

Soft skills are collectively referred to as all the non-quantifiable social, communication, personal and interpersonal competencies that determine how we communicate with others. They are closely related to personality and character, which are individually conditioned in each person. This is where the subjective nature of soft skills comes from, as they are formed from a variety of experiences and situations throughout our lives. Communication, flexibility, creativity or critical thinking are a few examples of competencies in this area. Let's take a look at what they mean in terms of careers, especially in the IT industry.

A handful of hard data on soft skills

81% of organizations are experiencing difficulties in finding employees with high soft skills. Along with flexible forms of employment (72%), anti-discrimination (71%) and explicit pay policies (53%), soft skills (91%) are the main trend that revolutionizes the work environment globally. These are just a few statistics from LinkedIn’s report, which shows that employees characterised by high soft skills are particularly desirable in the job market.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the massive shift from stationary to remote work modes have contributed significantly to the demand for new skills, described by the authors of the McKinsey's study “Global Survey on reskilling” as social and emotional. Data from the report shows that after the year 2020, the number of companies relying on employees with high soft skills, such as empathy and interpersonal skills, will double.

There is also no indication that this will change in the future. The increasing pace of technology development means that skills such as rapid adaptation to dynamic change or creative problem solving need to be given as much time and training as upgrading technical skills. After all, even the best resume cannot save us in a situation where we are unable to communicate with other team members or the client, while a joint compromise solution is required. And this is just one example of situations where soft skills will be of great value to us.

Why are soft skills more needed in IT today than ever before?

  • Because almost nothing is worked out from top to bottom individually anymore. IT projects today often involve a wide variety of aspects, from user interface design to programming, testing and managing the entire project. Each of these areas is the responsibility of a different team member (and sometimes several), which requires good coordination and smooth cooperation among all the employees involved. It is just like on the football pitch, where 11 outstanding individuals won’t win any games until they become a well-coordinated team.
  • Because both in the office and remotely, you need to meet with others. Labour market slowly returns to pre-pandemic rules – most companies either invite their employees back to their offices or introduce a hybrid working model. Regardless of whether and how often you turn up at the company’s premises, your work is a plane of constant meetings. Daily, refinements, sprint summaries, planning, retrospectives… Soft skills, such as the ability to listen, to express your ideas clearly and the ability to negotiate, are key to effective communication both horizontally (with teammates) and vertically (with superiors and subordinates).
  • Because the promotion issue is not just about hard skills. “Hard skills help you find a job, soft skills help you get promoted once hired” – say LinkedIn experts. Instead, in the ICMS report we can read that, according to 94% of recruiters, an employee with superior soft skills is more likely to be promoted to a management position than a counterpart with more experience but weaker soft skills. The role of a team leader, manager or supervisor is all about managing the work and motivation of others with different characters, skills and ways of communicating.
  • Because without soft skills, you will not build relationships that are relevant to your future career. According to J. Fernandez and L. Velasquez from Harvard Business Review, 5 types of relationships are established in a successful working life. We meet mentors, promoters, partners, competitors or, finally, students on our way – each of these people teaches us a lot and helps us to develop. Career paths can be so complex that sometimes our competitors later become mentors or partners. Without the soft skills that we primarily use to establish and nurture such relationships, our careers can come to a standstill.

How to develop soft skills effectively?

If you feel that soft skills are not your strength, here is the good news – there are many ways to raise them to the next level.

  1. Benefit from professional training – the course market has already responded to the growing demand for soft skills, so the range of workshops on offer is wide. Working on these skills both one-on-one and in a group is a great opportunity to practice in a controlled environment, friendly atmosphere and under the guidance of an objective, supportive expert. If you work for a large IT company that runs its own training courses, there is a good chance that you will also find this type of course on offer.
  2. Ask for feedback from associates and superiors – constructive criticism, like praise, are priceless sources of learning about us. Try to extend the periodic evaluation of your own professional development to include soft competences. Ask colleagues, superiors and customers for their opinion on how you are doing in terms of communication, negotiation or adapting to new situations. When doing so, remember to keep a healthy distance from the feedback – everyone is entitled to make mistakes, especially at the beginning of their journey.
  3. Use daily practice – the most effective way to develop soft skills, like all other skills, is to practise in what is known as a “combat setting”. Don’t avoid professional meetings, take part in team activities (for example, integrations) and use the opportunities that come up to polish your interpersonal skills. Getting out of your comfort zone is an essential part of development. Over time, you will notice that most social situations that previously challenged you are now within your control.

Soft competencies – an investment in the future of your career

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, soft skills are no longer optional or welcome. They are today an essential part of the recipe for finding an attractive job and for succeeding therein. By nurturing the development of these competencies, you can stand out from other candidates when recruiting and secure your career in an industry that – famed for its high technical demands – increasingly relies on employees who are simply good to work with.

I have worked in IT for more than 15 years and I have seen how attitudes to soft skills have changed. There used to be a lot more emphasis on specialist and technical knowledge. At this point, we know how important interpersonal skills are in the work of the development team. As a Project Manager, I often use communication and negotiation techniques. I place a strong emphasis on building relationships both within the team and with the client or subcontractors. I constantly learn how to deal with difficult situations and how to manage my time optimally. I think that soft skills, just like expert knowledge, are worth acquiring throughout your careersays Ilona Sot, Project Manager in the Marketing Production Department at Comarch.

And what about you? How do you assess your own abilities in this area? Do you include soft skills in your CV alongside hard skills and expert knowledge?

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