A Hard Look at Soft Skills

IT executives are being called upon to demonstrate soft skills like business smarts and communications.


Cars. Advertising. Shower-curtain rings. Sales veterans like to say that “a good salesperson can sell anything.” It’s a maxim of the profession that it’s not what the salesperson is selling but her inherent selling skills and experience that determine success of the sale.

Can the same be said of an IT professional? From network management to enterprise applications to mobile computing, are there inherent skills and experience that allow a good IT professional to move over — or up — in any area of IT?

Yes, according to hiring experts in the IT industry who spoke with Ladders. This is true in many industries, they say, because transferable ” soft skills ” are now among the most important when selecting a candidate.

For IT executives, an alphabet soup of certification acronyms is a job requirement. But the industry has focused increasingly on hiring senior managers who can demonstrate traits like common sense, business smarts and good communications skills, said several experts in IT hiring.

“One of the top [qualities] employers are looking for from IT workers is soft skills,” said J. Tod Fetherling, president and CEO of the Nashville Technology Council. “No certification is required, of course, but lots of sensitivity and good old common sense are prerequisites.” Fetherling, who works with displaced workers to help them find new jobs, added that most companies will work with new employees to help them acquire any certifications necessary for the job.

“The nice thing about IT jobs is that it’s about your capability more than your pedigree,” said Gayle Laakmann, a software engineer who has worked for Microsoft, Google and Apple.

While at Google, Laakmann served on the company’s hiring committee, so she knows a bit about what determines who gets an offer and who doesn’t. When looking to fill a software engineer position, for example, “it’s not about knowing a particular flavor of Java, it’s about whether you are inherently a good coder and you are inherently smart,” said Laakmann, who is currently an MBA candidate at Wharton and author of ” Cracking the Coding Interview.”

Business Smarts

Until recently, most businesses treated technology as part of the infrastructure: there to support the business, barely more important than the plumbing and electricity. But the advent of business applications has made technology a business driver, and business savvy is now a required skill for IT professionals.

“Business-analysis skills are critical to being able to understand the ultimate business objectives driving a technology initiative,” said Sean Ebner, regional vice-president at Technisource, an IT staffing and solutions provider. “Having the ability to see the forest through the trees in an IT effort is extremely important, sought after and highly transferable.”

Paul Kostek, chair of the Individual Benefits and Services Committee of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and principal systems engineer at Physio Control, said understanding business and how IT fits in can be a way to differentiate yourself in a crowded job market: “Too many IT professionals only see a project from the software/hardware side and not the business impact.”

Indeed, said Ebner, business capabilities are important not only for landing a job but for keeping it. “We have seen in the most recent recession that IT organizations are doing more with less,” he said. “Having the acumen to work seamlessly between the business organizations and the IT department is no longer a nice-to-have; it has become indispensable.”

Ebner said a record of performance in business means IT professionals can move into a wider array of functions and organizations. “It is now much more common to see associates move between the functional business departments and the IT organization and back,” he said.

Organizations are also looking for IT professionals who can demonstrate that they have successfully budgeted for, planned and managed a project – no matter what the IT discipline.

“Whether it is rolling out new hardware, upgrading existing systems or building new applications, the process, structure and experience around leading projects and ensuring that they are delivered to schedule and to design are very important,” said Technisource’s Ebner. “Individuals who possess strong project-governance skills and experience are highly sought after, as these skills are highly transferable.”

In technology, the soft-skills trend is even affecting the hard skills on which the function was founded. Some of the newly important certifications focus on cross-technology practices like information organization, project management and systems integration. According to Ebner, Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) certifications for help desk associates have increased in relevance and demand, and Project Management Professional (PMP) and Six Sigma are important certifications for project-governance associates in some organizations. Ebner also cited Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) for supporting Cisco equipment as well as anything related to security as certifications that make a difference when seeking new opportunities.