Soft skills: Get the right "soft"-ware for your IT career
Posted on
October 1, 2015

This feature first appeared in the Summer�2015�issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

The right mix of soft skill can help you go far in IT.

In a world run by technology innovation, job opportunities in the tech industry are among the strongest to be found anywhere � but you can't just walk into an ideal IT job role. With the web booming and public schools gaining ever better access to newer and faster computers, technology education resources are at students' fingertips almost continually, and savvy schoolkids can acquire IT skills sooner, and practice them longer, than ever before.

So it should come as no surprise that tech jobs are getting more and more competitive, and employers are becoming more selective in their hiring decisions. Based on my own experience as a recruiter for TestOut Corporation, one of the leading IT certification companies in the market, I can say with confidence that solid technical skills are only part of what employers look for when considering candidates for IT openings.

Don't get me wrong, technical skills are at the heart of any IT job. TestOut's core mission is to help people build a better professional future for themselves by acquiring reliable, job-ready IT skills. There's a vital skill set, however, that's harder to pick up from a simulation or training video, but may be equally important to landing a coveted IT position. Hiring managers want to know whether a candidate will be a good fit with coworkers, will represent the organization well to customers, and will blend well with their company's established work culture.

Indeed, prospective employees who want to catch an employer's eye need to strike just the right mix of hard skills and soft skills.

What are hard skills?

Hard skills are technical skills. If you are applying for a job as a network administrator, then you must be able to install hardware and configure an office network. That's just a given. If I'm a hospital, then I'm not going to hire a brain surgeon if she never went to medical school. Companies do, of course, hire individuals with lesser technical skills, and many employers offer training.

In most cases, however, one needs to at least have a solid foundation on which to build those improved skills. That's at the heart of what TestOut provides to students and other IT learners. There's no better way to instill confidence in a potential employer than with an IT certification that verifies that you have a specific set of technical knowledge and skills. Certifications are a powerful assessment tool to help employers gauge hard skills.

What are soft skills?

Soft skills aren't necessarily social skills. If a technician would prefer to find himself deep into troubleshooting a network connection, rather than in stuck in a room full of chatty coworkers, or playing phone tag with customers all day, that's fine. Yes, in a professional environment, any employee must be able to communicate and work with others. You don't have to be a social butterfly, however, to be successful at your job.

Think of "soft" skills like you would "soft"-ware. Software is the internal realm of IT, something that you can't put your hands on, but that is essential to computers. "Hard" skills, like "hard"-ware, are more obvious, tangible and clearly defined. Hardware and software are both vital for technology to function properly, and one isn't necessarily more important than the other.

OK, so what really are soft skills?

The right mix of soft skill can help you go far in IT.

Soft skills are individual attributes of a person � how they think, feel and act every day. These could be things like personality traits, work habits, interpersonal skills, problem-solving skills, decision-making skills, educational aptitude, drive, initiative, work ethic, attitude, dependability, trustworthiness � it's a long list. Assessing soft skills helps a company determine whether a candidate is a good fit for the team and culture of the company.

So you may still asking yourself: But I've got the skills and the certification. Why don't they just hire me?

Let me answer that with a story: While playing football in high school, I had a teammate who was one of the most talented players I've ever seen. He could run faster, throw farther, and tackle harder than anybody else on the team.

In other key areas, however, his athletic ability alone wasn't enough to keep him on the field. He lacked discipline. At practices, he would goof off and make little effort to learn plays, or participate in drills. He often ignored our coaches. Especially when a coach yelled, or got after him, he would zone out and lose interest.

In games, when the pressure was high to score or put a stop on the opposing team, my talented teammate would shut down and not perform. He had all of the talent in the world, and the skills to be the best player on the team � but he lacked focus, commitment, determination, work ethic. What was missing were his soft skills.

Keep your eye on the ball

I believe there are eight primary attributes that employers review when evaluating candidates and deciding whether or not to hire them. The first two are related to hard skills. The other six are related to soft skills:

1) Technical Proficiency

What employers are thinking: How many years' experience do you have with a given technology? Is your knowledge based on rote memorization of a textbook, or have you applied your skills in the real word? Are you merely "familiar" with the technology we use, or are you an expert? How have you used that technology previously?

2) Work Experience

What employers are thinking: Do you have practical experience performing the same duties, and utilizing the same skills, as those required for this job? Do you have experience doing something that's similar to this job? If you do have a skills gap, have you demonstrated an ability to learn? Are you an entry-level candidate, and is your degree, internship, or certification related to this job?

3) Work History

What employers are thinking: Can you show progress in your career and demonstrate an increase in responsibilities with each new job? Have you demonstrated the ability to stay at one job, show loyalty, and survive layoffs, or are you constantly changing jobs?

4) Self-Direction

What employers are thinking: Can you act on your own initiative, and solve your own problems, without needing to have someone look over your shoulder? Can you find things to do without everything being laid out perfectly in front of you? Do you have the potential to manage others?

5) Job Performance

What employers are thinking: What have you done that illustrates that you're above average and have outperformed your peers? Are you an active participator and fully committed to getting your work done and doing what's best for the company?

6) Ability to learn

What employers are thinking: Can you learn new things? Are you passionate about learning new technologies? Do you wait to be trained, or can you learn new things on your own and without being asked?

7) Teachable Disposition

What employers are thinking: Can you take feedback and criticism and follow established procedures? Are you an active listener and respectful to your managers? Can you voice your opinions in a positive way and not just be a complainer?

8) Problem Solving and Decision-making skills

What employers are thinking: Can you make tough decisions and solve hard problems? Can you work under pressure? Can you deal with ambiguity in your job and create solutions to unique issues? Can you present solutions to problems in a way that gets buy-in from your coworkers and managers?

The right mix of soft skill can help you go far in IT.

I hope that looking over that list doesn't make you squirm. There's no need to be anxious if you don't happen to match up flawlessly to every area. Nobody is perfect, and everybody has areas where they can find room to grow. Just remember that in the fight between hard skills and soft skills, both win.

You probably won't walk into every new job with a comprehensive background in the technology skill set required and, similarly, no employer expects you to have mastered every soft skill the first day that you show up for work. In the end, employers want to see how good you are at utilizing your technical skills with your soft skills. That's what will get you a job, and that's what will help you stay employed.

About the Author

Dave Alexander is certification product manager for  for TestOut Corporation in Pleasant Grove, Utah. A graduate of Brigham Young University-Idaho, Dave has worked in IT since 2013.

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