Hiring managers and recruiters bemoan a soft skills gap in IT, and recent data backs up the sentiment. A LinkedIn report conducted with consulting firm Capgemini found that more employers say their organization lacks soft skills (nearly 60 percent) than hard digital skills (51 percent).
Some firms, such as Vodafone and Citi, find soft skills important enough that they’re using surveys and AI in their interview process to assess communication skills, according to this year’s Global Recruiting Trends report from LinkedIn.
We talked with experts and hiring managers to produce a list of the most sought-after soft skills in IT today. If you’re a candidate with any or all of these skills, they’re useful talking points in your next interview. If not, you may find some areas worth brushing up. And if you’re doing the hiring, these are the skills your peers value most on their teams.
For those who argue that all work is essentially sales — of yourself, the company’s mission or a project or product — closing is the most important soft skill of all.
“At a certain level, irrespective of whatever role you might have, you’re in sales,” says Jay Jamison, vice president of strategy and product management at Quick Base. “Selling people on your ideas or vision for the future — or whether you’re carrying a quota and need to close out a month. Communication skills, self-awareness and the capacity to sell and influence are the top three soft skills I’m looking for.”
Dave Smith, senior director of compute/network/storage engineering at DigitalOcean, looks for good communicators, on teams and in those leading them. “Facilitating good communication patterns on a team not only gets the work done, it also ensures your team is high-performing and happy.”
Smith has a tip for assessing a job candidate’s communication skills: Ask them to walk you through the highlights of their career progression.
“This introduces a storytelling aspect to the interview because they are now sharing the ‘story’ of their professional experience,” Smith says. “At various stages, I like to ask deeper and probing questions to know them better and see how well they do when talking about a subject they know intimately.”
The ability to translate tech jargon
James Stanger, chief technology evangelist at CompTIA, prizes the ability to convert tech jargon into language both business people and consumers can understand.
“I have two valued co-workers who have the uncanny way of boiling things down to a perfect, pithy statement,” Stanger says. “Never mind that sometimes they can get a bit snarky — it’s all in good fun, and their approach has a real use. It really helps everyone level set and move on to discuss both technical and business requirements. You can’t move forward with only one — business lingo — or the other — geek speak.”
A collaborative mindset
Distributed teams in IT are on the rise and collaboration takes extra effort when coworkers are spread out and social cues you’d catch in the office can’t be seen on Slack, email or conference calls.
“The majority of developers work in teams, so good communication is crucial to effectively collaborate and execute,” says DigitalOcean’s Smith. “Additionally, many engineers and developers work remotely, so it’s vital that they can understand, communicate and empathize with their team members, even if they only see them in-person once every few months.”
Technical teams are increasingly expected to address design teams, executives, and marketers at all levels of an organization, says Jeremy Auger, chief strategy officer of cloud-based learning company D2L.
“These employees need the skills to be able to pitch their ideas, manage expectations, and collaborate with stakeholders with different views around what should be possible,” Auger says. “Empathy for users is a critical skill, which more often than not separates successful technology from the unsuccessful. While this has traditionally been thought of as skills for the UX team, engineers increase their value when they bring this thinking to the table.”
The ability to put things in context
Karen Hebert-Maccaro, chief content officer at O’Reilly, highlights the importance of technical and nontechnical teams trying to understand each other’s challenges.
“In my experience, it’s the deeply technical individuals who value the soft skill sets of their leaders more than is necessarily seen in individuals working in less technical functions,” she says. “A lot of technical career paths are not clear inside organizations. As a result, mentorship, a strong leader to inspire and the ability to coach are very valued. The important thing is that technical and nontechnical leaders alike understand the context in which their teams work, the individuals on those teams, and the challenges and motivators of those individuals. The context will be different, but the need to inspire, build trust, instill passion for the work and be a change agent is important regardless of function.”
Customer service — even with colleagues
IT managers are looking for staff who can respond to the needs of their business-side and other nontechnical colleagues, says Adrienne McNally, director of experiential education at New York Institute of Technology.
“They’re essentially their clients,” McNally says. “This means appreciating different personality types and respecting their client’s time. Additionally, IT workers need to think creatively about how to solve unique problems they will encounter on the job.”
The ability to ask the right questions
There’s an often-heard complaint in the IT world: The business people don’t know what they want. And whether it’s true or not, the disconnect has led to more than one smoldering pile of technology.
“My response is that the business people do their job every day — they know what they want, and need, but you’re not asking them the right questions,” says Hettie Tabor, of the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University. “Understanding how to translate business ideas into technical design and being able to discuss this with both the IT and business people is a valuable and necessary skill.”
Writing is the ultimate soft skill because it’s needed at every step, from a project’s conception to its completion, says Matt Wilgus, practice director at Schellman & Co.
“Great knowledge in a vacuum doesn’t benefit an organization,” says Wilgus. “Every IT project — and position — is going to conclude with a deliverable, for example a design document, presentation, attestation report or updated code base. Without the necessary soft skills, the intended message being expressed in the deliverable could be lost. Candidates that have presented at conferences, or have been published, will have a leg up on other candidates. Additionally, misspellings on a resume can quickly eliminate a candidate for consideration. If there are errors in a two-page resume, what’s the likelihood this candidate can produce a formal report of more substantial length? Candidates should expect hiring organizations will ask for a writing sample."
Developing a problem-solving attitude toward the job is what separates the good from the great, says Vincent Tran, president and senior IT consultant for Technology Group Consulting.
“If something goes wrong, which it often does in IT, we need to be able to find solutions that work for the organization,” he says. “There are always unexpected challenges, and with an IT background, we're able to create tools and processes to efficiently resolve those issues. Those are the IT individuals that get noticed and become highly valued in an organization. In the same way that data analysis has become quite important for many organizations, being able to identify patterns and create intuitive solutions is just as crucial.”
Jon Toelke, senior manager of talent acquisition for Paycor, says organizations need staff who understand that change is essential to IT work, and who can comfortably take on challenges as they occur.
“Most technology organizations move relatively fast, and pivot on a moment’s notice,” Toelke says. “Work that took a week to accomplish could potentially be scrapped when a new solution is recognized. Can the candidate move forward or backward without angst or resentment? I need the candidate to have a desire to complete work the way it’s designed, and not necessarily the way they believe it should be done. Coding is often perceived as a math problem, where 2 + 2 always equals 4. In many cases this is true, but development is as much an art as it is a science.”
Al Smith, chief technology officer at iCIMS, notes that half of recruiters say adaptability is the most sought after soft skill.
“We live in a 90-day technology innovation cycle and employees who exhibit a thirst for knowledge and learning as part of their career success are the ones who will really excel. With the speed at which technology evolves, perhaps the most valuable soft skill an IT professional can exhibit is adaptability. As different technology gains momentum, employees’ projects often incur their fair share of challenges. A strong IT professional should be able to navigate their work with the focus and drive needed to overcome any setbacks they might face.”
The ability to set aside ego
The ability to put aside personal preferences and work the process is key, says Toelke, who considers the skill critical to building and sustaining a culture.
“An important soft skill is the ability to put aside ego,” Toelke says. “Technologists can be particular, and although their input and creativity is needed to lead decisions, we need them to be united and drive outcomes, when a directive has been established. In candidate interview discussions, we talk about ego. The ability to put aside preferences and follow the process are important. It’s relatively easy to determine which candidates believe they know all the answers, and which realize they can never have all the answers. We don’t need or want someone who has all the answers. We look for the candidate who has the foundation of knowledge, and the ability to pivot and learn, who can realize weakness and acclimate to what’s needed.”
Emotional intelligence “drives the ability to read people’s signals and react appropriately to them,” says Kong Yang, “head geek” at SolarWinds. He considers emotional intelligence as one of a number of soft skills that help break down silos and meet business goals. “It’s integral to the success of your adaptability, communication, and collaboration.”
His fellow head geek, Leon Adato, says he picked up active listening skills, a component of emotional intelligence, from his experience as a parent. And the skill translates well to the office.
“Active listening is the process of reflecting back not only what you hear the other person saying but also to validate and verbalize the nontechnical aspects of the conversation,” Adato says. “This is one way to demonstrate emotional intelligence. Leveraging this technique gives the individual speaking the opportunity to clarify, while simultaneously demonstrating that this information matters to you personally.”
Comfort with uncertainty
The joint LinkedIn-Capgemini digital skills report noted above also found that, along with collaboration, comfort with ambiguity was considered a critically important need in IT.
“There are often generational differences that we need to be mindful of,” according to the report. “Millennials have a huge appetite for learning, but resiliency and working in ambiguity are often challenges for them whereas Baby Boomers may be more resistant to change and better handle ambiguity. Knowing your workforce and empowering them to learn by bringing the learning to where they are ... will be critical for future success.”