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5/14/2015
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5 Soft Skills Every IT Pro Needs

When it comes to being a great employee, an IT professional can no longer sit in isolation. It's time to develop some soft people skills to help your career. Here's what one recruiter looks for when evaluating tech talent.
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(Image: Yoel Ben-Avraham via Flickr)

(Image: Yoel Ben-Avraham via Flickr)

Whether you are an IT professional or a hiring manager looking for tech talent, you know that soft skills are becoming an increasing part of the IT job.

Consumerization of technology has changed the demands of a company's customers, and those of the people who work in it and rely of IT for their jobs. In turn, this process has changed the nature of what it means to be an IT pro. In order to get a better handle on soft skills and what they mean for IT, InformationWeek spoke to Tom Gimbel, founder of the respected recruiter LaSalle Network, to talk about the changing IT department.

"If you have a company that doesn't have a lot of customer interface, if you're just a technology company, and you want to have a bunch of technology people who are all head down, that's fine," Gimbel said in an interview. "Does that still exist? Yes, it does, but it is rare. Most larger organizations have internal and external customer needs. And with more customer-facing IT you need soft skills and empathy."

He also pointed to the changes in IT services procurement as a major aspect of the change as well.

"So many IT pros find themselves between two groups now. You might be between [the] end-user and the vendor," said Gimbel. Or you might find yourself negotiating between two parts of the business with different tech needs that touch the same application. This requires IT pros to navigate toward the right solution between multiple stakeholders, and it means a certain amount of nontechnical skills.

One thing Gimbel suggests to managers goes against the grain of much of the current IT hiring practices.

"If you can get IT folks with a good liberal arts education you are ahead of the game," he said. "Technology has to work, but it also has to interact with people. It isn't about how the technologist interacts with the technology, but how the end-user does."

Basically, what Gimbel is getting at is a set of soft skills to get you through your new responsibilities. He suggested five in particular that he feels every hiring manager should look for, and that every IT pro should therefore try to cultivate. Check out the list and tell us what skills you think are most important to your success right now.

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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio

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Whoopty
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Whoopty,
User Rank: Ninja
5/14/2015 | 7:53:35 AM
Time management
Time management and prioritsation are the biggest ones for me. Because I spend a lot of time working by myself, I often only have my own goals to work to. While they can occasionally be pretty extreme, I have to fight against letting myself have an easy time as that's no way to get better at what I do. 
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Author
5/14/2015 | 8:17:56 AM
Re: Time management
Even those who set our own schedules need to aim for deadlines for particular projects and manage the planning efficiently. 
TerryB
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TerryB,
User Rank: Ninja
5/14/2015 | 1:38:23 PM
Re: Time management
I can certainly vouch for the prioritization skill although not clear how a recruiter would possibly figure out if person was good at it or not. I hired a person to take care of infrastructure side of IT, from workstations to networks to antivirus. Overall, he was good hire, he lasted 10 years here. His technical skills were terrific and he essentially had the other 4 skills Dave lists in article. But the one skill I could never get him to obtain was triage/prioritization. He wanted to work on what he was working on, regardless of it's importance in grand scheme of things. Something could come up which might require 5 minutes of his time but he would queue it behind his other work, at least until user started screaming so loud he reacted. That eventually became his primary prioritization scheme, how high in rank was the requesting person or how loud is person complaining that their request has not been executed.

I repeatedly tried to mentor him that you have to reevaluate work constantly, just like a doctor in ER. You might be setting a broken leg but if someone shows up in cardiac arrest, you deal with immediately. He could never acquire that skill, even sent me an article once where someone wrote multi tasking was impossible for a human. Author meant at any given second you can only do one thing, not that you can't suspend one activity, do something else, then come back to previous task. But he wanted that as evidence that if you start something you must finish it, otherwise you aren't being efficient.
Stratustician
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Stratustician,
User Rank: Ninja
5/14/2015 | 1:58:33 PM
Re: Time management
I agree, the ability to prioritize is a key skill that with the influx of work and the trend to do more with less of a workforce, it's only going to get worse.  My second would have to be communication/patience.  In my field, there are often lots of folks who aren't as tech savvy as others, and sometimes we forget the benefit of slowing down, ensuring everyone understands exactly what the project/topic is, and to get the proper buy-in.  There is a lot of missed communication or waste of time if you have to keep going back because details were missed or guidelines/desired outcomes aren't properly communicated.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
5/15/2015 | 12:26:29 PM
Re: Time management
@TerryB- Fascinating. Ultimately, I guess the only way to deal with that person is to put them in charge of like one really crucial thing at a time. but how many companies really work that way? I suspect the bigger the company the more easy that is to find-- a role where someone can just own one thing and do it really well.
TerryB
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TerryB,
User Rank: Ninja
5/15/2015 | 1:11:39 PM
Re: Time management
Yeah Dave, his previous job was at a bigger company where he provided support from tickets assigned to him. And not much variety on type of issues. When he took this job where he was sole provider of infrastructure services on a wide scale, he struggled to manage the work.

As an example, our Sales Mgr asked for something to cover up some wiring for his computer which stretched across his office floor. He let that sit for a month until guy asked again. The little things that can hardly be called IT work killed him. Technically, he would tackle problems from 30 year old tensile testers running on DOS computers to spinning up VMWare Win 2008 servers to network outages. But he eventually lost the confidence of his users from lack of timely response. And he wasn't just overworked, he'd be working on some R&D project while some small break/fix request just sat. Frustrated me as manager that I couldn't get thru to him on such a simple skill he needed to acquire.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
5/15/2015 | 1:15:57 PM
Re: Time management
@TerryB- I can totally see your frustration, bu tI think we're seeing it isn't a "simple skill." If it was simple, we'd have so many people with it that it wouldn't be on the list. And you'd have been able to teach it to him. Interestingly enough, I'm writing an article about attnetion span that should be out today. It talks a lot about the good and bad side of task switching. Seems like he could have used it to learn some of the good sides.
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
5/14/2015 | 6:14:06 PM
Re: Time management
IT pros aren't the only people who could benefit from communication skills. Pretty much everyone should know how to speak diplomatically.
Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
5/15/2015 | 12:05:58 PM
Re: Time management
@Thomas   Good point.  Something that really has to be practiced everyday regardless of job, in this highly sensitive world we live in today.
shamika
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shamika,
User Rank: Ninja
5/15/2015 | 7:20:41 AM
Re: Time management
@whoopty, I agree with you. Time management is an important aspect for any industry. I believe that why ii has been considered as one of constraints in managing projects.
Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
5/14/2015 | 12:09:27 PM
What Time Is IT ?
"...Some workers are more or less capable of working under certain conditions and times"


I think this is an important aspect, I don't think I am as effective at 3am as I might be at 1am. So employers would be wise to take these things into account, when positions like this need to be filled.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
5/15/2015 | 12:28:12 PM
Re: What Time Is IT ?
@technocrati- I have yet to meet the person who is just as effective at 3AM. I worked a night shift job once. Hated it. Never was able to feel human. I think the only thing I enjoyed about that at all was the peace and quiet. :)
Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
5/15/2015 | 1:33:23 PM
Re: What Time Is IT ?
@David  Me neither.  But you might be surprised ( or probably not) how much companies expect now-a-days. I have applied for night shift positions before and have yet to get one - that is probably a good thing.

But that silence would be golden ! : ) 
shamika
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shamika,
User Rank: Ninja
5/15/2015 | 9:51:44 PM
Re: What Time Is IT ?
@david. Yes you are correct. Do you believe in having a specific time frame for IT staff? 
zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
5/15/2015 | 2:52:07 AM
Re: 5 Soft Skills Every IT Pro Needs
You won't find an argument from me that any of these are important skills. Dave's intro did a good job of setting up how and why the current IT landscape has shifted to make this a priority. I'd add that marrying your technical skills with these soft skills is an important art unto itself - you need to be able to translate technical jargon in real time, you need to be able to already be thinking of possible technical solutions to problems even when non-technologists are talking, without being overly IT-centric. There's a lot to chew on there. Mr. Gimbel's comments about the skills themselves seem to dig to varying depth. Maybe some anecdotes from hiring managers would have added more here - something like what TerryB has shared in the comments, which was very relatable.

Communication is essential - but, as you said, that leaves some room for what exactly that means in an IT context (though I did like the exercise idea). No tips are given as to how to present yourself as having good prioritization or patience, or how to identify it in others. They certainly are important, though. I know IT pros of the easily frustrated type, and it doesn't have to be with users - sometimes, it is the technology. Once you're in the 'I can't even look at this thing anymore' mood, the quality of your work for the rest of the day suffers. Communication goes out the window. Workers who can resist this are certainly underappreciated. I like his idea on flexibility - initiative, too, but again, where it ties into technology is left out. A combination of these skills would certainly make for an IT marathon man, but I'd call this a starting point towards further reading for both hirers and hirees.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
5/15/2015 | 12:23:49 PM
Re: 5 Soft Skills Every IT Pro Needs
@zerox203- You can blame me for if Mr/ Gimbel's comments had "varying depth." I probed some more deeply than others because I thought certain ones would resonate more. I'm quite sure he could elaborate on any of them. 

I was especially interested in his concepts of communication and initiative. Thet felt very counterintuitive to me and I really wanted to get into those.
shamika
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shamika,
User Rank: Ninja
5/15/2015 | 7:11:04 AM
Human Skills
This is an interesting article David. Thanks for sharing this. I think human skills also an important aspect. They will be working with a team all the time and should be able to understand difference between people and machines.
mpochan156
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mpochan156,
User Rank: Author
5/15/2015 | 10:31:57 AM
soft skills for IT people
I agree with the premise and points of the article. Many of the entrepreneurial successes in the software industry of the last 20 years had IT people with techno depth and great people skills ( and even great marketing skills). I would like to think we were one of them.

But I would hate to see the IT stereotype disappear of the bespectacled nerd with masking tape holding the frame together who you hide in the basement when the Customers visit.

And who will attend Star Trek conventions ? 

Ike, an entrepreneur

former CEO and co-founder of LeaseTek
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
5/15/2015 | 12:20:08 PM
Re: soft skills for IT people
@mpochan156- Oh, we don't have to get rid of them. We need nerds, too. For one, not everyone needs all five skills. If you can find the nerd programmer who never needs to meet people but can sow initiative and flexibility (but you hide when the customers come) that's cool, too.

Sometimes you also find the "King of the Nerds" who has the communication skills nerds lack but is the social butterfly that holds the Star trek convention together. :)


mpochan156
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mpochan156,
User Rank: Author
5/15/2015 | 12:51:27 PM
Re: soft skills for IT people
I was VERY fortunate to find / hire / keep happy the KING, but he preferred the title "Master of the Universe" and that was what I had printed on his business cards. 

Great IT people / developers who can understand with some depth the BUSINESS domain are precious resources and should be treated as such. Feed and water regularly. 
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
5/15/2015 | 1:03:36 PM
Re: soft skills for IT people
@mpochan156- I want to work for you just so I can get awesome business cards. Can mine say "Destroyer of Worlds" on it? :)
shamika
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shamika,
User Rank: Ninja
5/15/2015 | 9:48:33 PM
Re: soft skills for IT people
@mpochan156 I agree with you. By knowing the business it will help in providing the best solution to the business.
jries921
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jries921,
User Rank: Ninja
5/15/2015 | 8:45:08 PM
Much of this is not new
My now-retired father who was a long-time systems analyst and technical consultant and manager was stressing communications skills (especially writing) back when I was in high school in the 1970s; and the software design and development class I took in college had a good deal to say about the importance of building systems around the user's wants and needs (requiring real communication between the designers, developers, and users).

The purpose of the computing profession is to serve computer users, not to amuse the supposed professionals or to extract money out of their employers (or said employers' customers).

 
Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
5/15/2015 | 10:04:47 PM
Re: Much of this is not new

"...The purpose of the computing profession is to serve computer users, not to amuse the supposed professionals or to extract money out of their employers (or said employers' customers)."

 

 

@jries921   While I agree with your point that writing skills are paramount,  and this applies to any profession actually, but I wonder if Gates, Jobs and the countless others who have made outrageous sums would feel the same.   Not saying it 's  right, but it certainly is.

David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
5/18/2015 | 1:12:27 PM
Re: Much of this is not new
@technocrati- I'm not sure Gates, Jobs and the others felt like their job was "the computing profession." I think they thought of themselves as technology pioneers or entrepreneurs or visionaries or some other lofty word. :)
Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
5/18/2015 | 1:50:38 PM
Re: Much of this is not new
@David    Good point and you are probably right - so this is where I am making my mistake! : )   It is all about how one sees themself.   
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
5/18/2015 | 10:09:50 PM
Re: Much of this is not new
that is a good point. Right now, IT skills only aren't enough to juggle all the challenges found in the workplace. I think people skills are important, if you don't get along with your teammates or aren't very cooperative with others.  It could really impact a project's results.
mejiac
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mejiac,
User Rank: Ninja
5/16/2015 | 9:52:19 AM
Re: Much of this is not new
@jries921,

Thank you for your comment.

This is within companies and project teams you have Business Analyst that can help the process of trying to nail down what the end user wants, what the developer needs to deliver and any limitations that may exist.

When dealing with matrix teams, where a single person is assigned to 6 different projects, it takes a lot of effort to be able to succesfully manage all of the business requirement to assure things get delivered as requested.

Agile methods teach us that dedicated teams leads to the greatest productivity, but we can all atest that most companies have the same resource assigned to multiple efforts.
kstaron
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kstaron,
User Rank: Ninja
5/29/2015 | 8:02:03 AM
Testing for soft skills
One company I know of has a series of technical questions to solve in front of a group of potential coworkers. Seeing how they react helped them narrow down their possible hires. The ones that got flustered at the simple questions were not only not technical enough but had neither the patience to deal with difficult customers or communication skills to talk through the problem. They wanted to make the people sweat a little to see their gamut of soft skills.

If soft skills are important enough within a company they can also work on training their employees. Even patience can be learned.
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