4 Mar

Soft Skills are Actual Skills

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I will never forget my first day at my first programming job. I was excited, eager, and happy to be there, feeling like I had finally made the big time. I thought, “I am going to get to be a real software developer,” and I was stoked beyond belief.

In the elevator on the way up to meet my new boss, I stood with an older, grizzled and tired looking man. I was chatty and excited, and tried to strike up a conversation. I told him it was my first day.

“F%@! you, new guy,” he said as the elevator doors opened and he strode off into the hallway. I was stunned. I stood there dumfounded long enough that the elevator doors began to close before I remembered to walk out.

Over time, I got to know Mr. Elevator. His real name was Adam and like so many people that we tend to make excuses for, I can tell you that Adam wasn’t so bad once you get to know him. In fact, after some time, Adam became something of a mentor to me technically and I worked alongside him learning a lot as I did so.

Professionalism Isn’t Just in Your Code

My introduction into the world of work and many subsequent experiences all conspired to teach me that acting like an a-hole was absolutely accepted in the subculture of software development. I struggled for years in other organizations when I carried those behaviors to other employers.

Over time, I learned not only is this ridiculous, but that this institutional acceptance of unprofessionalism has contributed significantly to the negative perception many people have of our profession. Tolerance of behavior like Adam’s is pervasive in our industry and is often dismissed as “Oh, those pesky developers”.

You want to turn IT from a cost to a value center in your organization? This is where you start. I learned a lot of terrible behaviors from Adam and it took years to replace them with new ones. The good news is that it can be done and the way to do so isn’t a big mystery.

It’s Like Learning a New DSL

I struggled for a long time before learning that soft skills are, in fact, skills. That means they can be taught, learned, dissected, studied, practiced, and honed. This was great news for me because unlike so many nuero-typicals I know, providing good feedback (as an example) doesn’t come naturally to me. People who share my tendencies toward autistic spectrum disorders often think that soft skills are a magical talent some people are born with. BTW: If you are reading this blog you have a good statistical chance of having at least mild Asperger’s Syndrome (it’s a super power).

Learning soft skills is like learning anything quantitative. For instance, you know how user stories have a little pattern? There are patterns to effective communication, too.

An Effective Feedback Pattern

  1. May I give you some feedback?
  2. Here is something you do well.
  3. Here is an example of a behavior that could be improved.
  4. Here is the negative effect of the behavior.
  5. Express confidence in the person’s ability to improve.
  6. What are your thoughts about this?


Hey, Dave, may I give you some feedback?

Uh, sure.

You have some great development skills. Your OO skills are particularly good and it would be great if you could provide some design leadership to the team in helping them improve.

Being consistently late to the daily standup is hurting your effectiveness. When you are repeatedly late, it causes resentment in the team toward you. Ultimately, this undermines your own effectiveness as a leader.

I know you can do well at this if you choose to, but its up to you. What do you think about this?

It Actually Works

You may think this example is contrived and over-simplified. It isn’t. I have had this conversation and it really works. Books on the subject provide all kinds of reasons the formula works, but the bottom line is that there are patterns of human behavior and communication just like there are patterns of effective software development.

Now What?

If you care about any of this (and you likely wouldn’t have read this far if you didn’t) I think the best place to start is to do some reading about communication techniques. The cool part of this is that as you learn new techniques, you get chances to try them out on a daily basis, and not just at work. The world is a huge discovery spike for this kind of thing.

Here are some books I have found helpful.

19 thoughts on “Soft Skills are Actual Skills

  1. I like this feedback pattern.

    1. Hey !
    2. Is that horse crap how they code in ?
    3. How many times do I have to tell you to use foreach loops instead of iterators or !%&@ for brains retard?
    4. By the way, during scrum I don’t want to hear about the boring a$$ crap you did last night.
    5. Your dismissed!

    Hehehe, just kidding. Some really good points Dave. I have met several developers that were absolute geniuses, but they had temper problems which complete hampered their professional growth.

    Your feedback example is really good. One tip I would throw on there would be to make sure not to ever say “Something good, BUT something bad.” I have a tendency to do that and I have to stop myself, because as soon as you say the BUT the compliment is lost.

  2. I just wanted to fully agree. I am unfortunately not yet as enlightened as you have become. I am still the arse hole but I am constantly improving. Unfortunately I practice on my bosses and colleagues mostly.

    I reckon it’s better than to practice on your girlfriend though.

    Thanks a bunch for the books. I am ordering them after I finish writing this!

  3. This was a very interesting read. I am not a programmer/developer/architect … I work in the “fluffy side”, as one of the heads of R&D of a previous employer used to call it.

    Regardless of that though, I think that feedback pattern is universal. No one wants to be called out and never offered positive feedback.

    It strikes me that this attitude has historically come from the top. The CEO of the aforementioned previous employer would bluster around our office, getting red in the face, using awful language and generally directing all his rage at the R&D teams. The senior level managers of the department(s) were always out of the firing line in their corner offices with the door shut, leaving their teams to cop the brunt of the CEOs fiery temper. Talk about lack of support.

    I’d like to think this is changing.

    One book I also recommend is Persuasion: The Art of Influence by James Borg. Great book with very practical examples.

  4. Another great book for this is ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People,’ by Dale Carnegie. It specifically addresses most aspects of working with other human beings. The book is in no way as Machiavellian as it sounds. The writing is in a dated style but the techniques are spot on.

  5. Soft skills definitely includes respect for others. Without an atmosphere of respect and trust, individuals won’t feel safe to raise issues, change for the better won’t happen. Plus, why not just be nice, it’s a lot easier on everyone!

  6. Say what you will about geeky guys being not that athletic…I see a lot of the same behaviors in a typical workplace as I would in a male high school or college sports team. (You could also note that male sports teams do not behave like girl sports teams…but that is probably another post).

    How many people have not upgraded their “team skills” from those experiences? And weren’t those things supposed to teach us team skills?

  7. Ah, the template management “complement sandwich”. I think a lot of intelligent people will find this pattern obvious, hollow and lacking sincerity. Developers tend to be pretty smart people.

    Learning to be direct, honest but respectful of your peers is what is truly important but I try to avoid relying on standard management book patterns for communication with people.

  8. @Chris Nicola

    Your wrong about this. Even when I find people doing these people skills to me. Especially things I have learned about in How to Win Friends in Influence people. They still work. I know the person is doing it, but it still works on me. I can’t explain it, perhaps it is just because you know that person is being considerate or putting forth some effort to communicate nicely.

  9. I find different things work for different people. Soft-skills have always been one of my strong points, as I’ve had to work with a lot of different personality types.

    Typically I find light, non-offensive humor very effective at difusing potential fur-ruffling situations. Don’t take it personally and don’t make it personal. The other important aspect is to listen, absorb, and make sure you understand before you blurt out opinions. One of my favorite sayings from somewhere: “You were given two ears and one mouth so you should listen twice as much as you speak.”

    Chris has a point in that developers tend to be pretty smart and can see through/ignore compliment sandwiches. Ultimately when these situations arise and you need to make a point that’s likely going to go against someone’s grain, you need to be sure to back it up with “fact”, and/or suggest that new ideas are tested out before adopting.

  10. David, I like your post, and I agree that soft skills are learnable. There’s no reason we shouldn’t all be “sharpening the sword” with those skills just as we do with our technical skills. I think it’s the combination of technical prowess, soft skills, and cultural literacy that make a great developer.

    I posted my own follow-up thoughts about cultural literacy here:

  11. From: Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach in a Technical World

    Excellent article and I love the title — Soft Skills Are Actual Skills. My applause to your other key point that tolerance of unprofessional behavior feeds the bad reputation of the technical professions. Bad behavior is not a strength. It is a weakness that weakens the profession.
    I was in IT before starting my people-skills (aka soft skills) training business. Thus many of my customers are IT, Engineering, Scientific teams. These are intelligent people with the capacity to learn anything including good to great people-skills. Here’s a related post on my blog “Smart SenseAbilities” that you and your readers can share with others:

    Many thanks for this post. I will RT on Twitter.

  12. @Chris Nicola

    I agree that the receiver of a message like this one is able to disect it, but I also think that in order to gain comfort with skills, those new to them need a tool. This is a tool like any other and as the wielder becomes more proficient with it the message gets better.

    This is a starting point for people who struggle with where they are today, not an end-game.

  13. If this blog resonates with you go directly to Manager-tools.com and start listening to the podcasts. The very first, “Stalled Technical Career” will change your life.

  14. Hi,

    Just wanted to say thank you for this blog post, it changed my life! I bought all the books you recommended and while they are good it was your post itself that opened my eyes. It was fantastic to hear someone like me but ahead of me.

    I have bought many more books about “Yes/positive” attitude and how to stay free of worries, excuses and also how to hone my soft skills in all areas.

    I have been a happier person since. Most people have that AHA! trigger somewhere out there. It’s just a matter of finding it. A friend of mine read 4 hour work week and that changed his life!

    Thanks for being open about your dark past! 🙂

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