layout: post title: “Soft Skills for Technicals” date: 2019-01-22 23:00 -400 categories: General —-

“Soft Skills”, as a term, refers, broadly, to all those little, irritating, fiddly, vaguely-defined “social” skills that are more ancillary to what we think of as “our job”, rather than the meat-and-potatoes technical engineering awesomeness we spent our formative years teaching ourselves how to exude. They’re what management looks for when trying to “promote from within”, and what the rest of us complain about when we’re gathered around the water cooler trying to discuss that one co-worker. You know the one.

With the general association of technical roles with nerdery, it’s no surprise that we’ve filled our ranks with the typical nerd: a slightly-soft-bellied white dude who can’t be arsed to wear pants, shoes with laces, or a shirt that doesn’t have silkscreen ink on it.

Yes, I’m grossly over-stating the role of a particular subset of white males in this discussion. And yet, you’d have a hard time finding an office where I didn’t just describe one of your technical colleagues.

So I’m here to tell you, fellow Guys With ‘Interesting’ Social Choices - soft skills are more than just something to tell your female colleagues they need more of. Your inability to communicate effectively is why, yeah, actually, that new guy got promoted past your tenured backside. Funny, that.

Okay But, What Do You Actually Mean?

When I’m talking about soft skills, it all fundamentally boils down to your ability to communicate. I don’t expect every single one of you to stand up tomorrow and become Lorenzo the Magnificent. But there’s a trick and a knack to communicating effectively and it doesn’t involve forcing everyone who wants to reach you to jump through a bunch of hoops.

There’s also a subset of the Soft Skills that relate to your ability to manage, and I’d argue, from experience, that whether you’re managing a whole team or just yourself, there’s two components there: Tracking and Situational Awareness

As a general rule, getting good at tracking and situational awareness will improve your ability to communicate effectively, and communicating effectively will improve your ability to track productivity and be aware of your situation.

How Can I Learn To Communicate Effectively?

The MUD player in me wants to point out that you learn everything by doing it. And that’s kind of true. But if we’ve already been doing something badly for a while, or we’re talking about a really nebulous subject like communication, sometimes it can help to have something to study.

My day job uses Skillport by Skillsoft to deliver e-learning assets for us to use. Some mandatory ones, obviously, but also a whole massive library of supplemental instruction. There’s a good deal of communication training on specific topics on the site. Your company probably has a similar resource to leverage. Short of that, your library also might.

Seriously. I know it sounds dumb, to read books and watch videos to know how to communicate. But it sure beats the alternative, which was listening to Leslie Wilson teach four credit hours of business communication. Particularly when you felt you already knew how to write.

A few general pointers:

  • Be Personable. You don’t have to be Gilderoy Lockheart or anything, but keep a mental map of people you’ve dealt with in the past and gather just enough information about them to make small talk. This becomes a natural habit after a while. A quick round of banter (no more than a minute or so) at the start of a call, or an acknowledgement that yes, you do remember so-and-so, can really lower the pressure of having to, you know, engage with people.
  • Brevity Gets Things Done There’s nothing wrong with a long email. There’s also nothing wrong with a short one. Both statements can be true so long as the length is appropriate to the message. Be florid at the start of an exchange and direct throughout. Elaborate no more than necessary to get your point across.
  • Always Use the Right Medium. Email is great. Email’s wonderful. But some conversations are going to take days in writing which could be sorted out on a quick 30-minute-or-less call. Schedule the call in advance, but don’t be afraid to pick up the phone if the matter is pressing or if it’s complicated.

What About The Rest?

Situational Awareness is, in my opinion, the single most important asset you can bring to the table besides what’s actually necessary for your job description. I would go so far as to say the ability to remain situationally aware throughout the work-day is an unstated requirement of every position currently in existence.

Situational awareness, in this context, isn’t so much about knowing who is coming and going as much as it is about knowing what is going on. There are a million and one ways to do that, and no one prescription is going to suit every worker. We all have wildly different brains.

That said, whether you’re flash-frying chicken wings in the middle of the local festival season or remotely flashing UEFI for a managed server contract, the ability to know, more or less at the drop of a hat, what is happening with not just a given task/deliverable but the entire state of your work is invaluable. Not just for impressing your boss when she asks, but also for your own peace of mind.

Personally, I find the best way to do this is through Tracking. Different levels of tracking are going to suit different people, and no two people are going to be totally satisfied by each other’s tracking solutions. Myself, I use a bastard version of a ticket system and David Allen’s getting things done. Everything gets sorted. Everything is retained, somewhere, in some way.

The result? A hectic 45 minutes every morning catching up on emails from overnight, putting new cases into my tracking system, updating the company’s tracking system, and sending my follow-up emails to people I haven’t heard back from in a while. The rest of the day can be used effectively for actual, goddamn troubleshooting.

Wait, why are there two tracking systems in your workflow?

This is another soft skill I failed to mention earlier, but you have to be willing to conform, at least to a degree. In my case, the company I work for use a really unwieldy CRM system. I hate it. It’s garbage. But it’s what I have to work with.

So I have their system - and I can use it pretty effectively. But for that instantly-readable, at-a-glance, always-visible snapshot of my current stack? Why, a tab in Notepad++, of course.