The value of soft skills in a high-tech world

Tech skills get you on track, but communication skills get you across the finish line

tech soft skills
Credit: Thinkstock

A recent study by Glassdoor found that in 2017, 14 of the top 50 jobs in the U.S. are in tech. So it goes without saying that technical skills are in high demand.

But hiring managers say that communication skills are even more important than top tech skills.

In layman's terms

I recently attended the Federal Data in Action Summit in D.C. where the White House convened the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine personnel management team, along with a group of hiring managers in the data science and technical fields to discuss topics such as data science education, training and hiring. During a panel where hiring managers, including the CTO of the Environmental Protection Agency, discussed the "Future of Data Science Education and Recruiting," a clear theme emerged as each panelist spoke about the number one skill they look for in candidates.

The surprise? It's not data science skills they all seek -- it's communication skills. For data science to be effective, the panelists argued, they need people who can articulate the data in a way that makes it understandable to the rest of us -- those who need to apply and use the information.

Communication is critical in technical jobs. As tech becomes increasingly integrated into all aspects of business, but is only understood by a fraction of the workforce, it's important that technical workers are able to communicate well. They need to be able to understand client and business needs, translate those needs into production, and articulate the results.

I asked Carolyn Wilcox, head of recruiting for The Iron Yard and a senior tech recruiter with 19 years of experience, why it's so important for technical talent to have strong communication skills. She said, "Ultimately we are hiring technical developers to solve business problems or to meet company goals. Their ability to understand and comprehend the organization's challenges, then translate those into technical solutions is imperative."

Hot coding jobs that include tech and communication skills

Not only are communication skills imperative to land technical jobs, they also prove to be a key differentiator in career progression. Some of the hottest jobs within tech require not only technical expertise, but strong interpersonal and communication skills.

For example, the role of a solution architect (a job that organizes development work and technical solutions between the technical team and the organization or customer) has a national average salary nearly $35,000 higher than that of a software developer (which sits around $85,000 nationally). Solution architects are critical to businesses because they are able to translate the needs of a company or client into the technical solution. Solution architects are highly sought out because they are both client facing and technical, requiring the hybrid of communication and technical skills.

Additionally, for those who are interested in management positions within tech, communication skills are absolutely necessary. Many code school students have backgrounds in liberal arts and social sciences -- fields that typically foster solid communication skills. A great joke from developers with those backgrounds is that though they may be competing for entry-level technical jobs with those who have computer science degrees, they'll be managed by someone with a philosophy degree.

Why career changers make great technical hires

In the code school world, many of our students are career changers and have lived "past lives" in other fields and other industries. What I've learned managers who have hired from code schools want most are the traits code school grads got from their non-technical career experiences. Fused with their newfound technical prowess, these career changers can make strong hires for junior developer positions. An advisory board member from The Iron Yard, Russel Dubree of Lifeblue said it best:

"I've talked to a wide range of grads from various code schools, and what we find endearing and something we feel comfortable taking a chance on is that yes, they have the technical skills, but more importantly, they've mastered the softer side of being a developer. We find that code school grads use their past experiences to color their work in terms of what makes good usability, what is good layout, what is good design. This isn't necessarily colors or pixels, but a human, user analysis.

Honestly, code skills are one of the last things we really look at. The other things really matter more -- code can always be learned. The more experience you have outside of development, the more you can contribute to what you're developing. For junior developers, yes, you have to have those basic tools, but don't devalue your past experiences."

Good communicators wanted

As the need for technical expertise in the workforce continues to grow, I invite those who have strong communication skills to try their hand at coding. Take a look at online resources or find a Meetup near you. The opportunities are endless.  

This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?