I often bristled when someone referred to "soft skills" as a set of make-or-break career competencies. Over time, I've found these skills enable IT professionals to navigate their careers with greater finesse. It's the subtlety and nuance of how to word emails, how to seek a mentor (or even understand that you need one), how to deal with a difficult manager, and the myriad of other things that make up what it takes to climb the corporate ladder.
I’ve managed many individuals who had exceptional technical skills, but their deficiencies in “soft skills” (which we will more precisely define shortly) caused their careers to stagnate.
I have identified three major career tracks in the mainframe space: technical, managerial, and sales. There are numerous ways to sub-categorize these tracks, and my colleague Paul Newton has an excellent, more granular breakdown, but these have been validated by all the executives, managers, and technical leads I know. All these areas are viable career paths, and I have known people in all three areas who have had amazing careers. But ascendance in all of them requires more than technical acumen, it also requires proficiency in “soft skills.”
So, what are soft skills? For our purposes, let’s begin with the essential foundation of good communication skills, both written and verbal. In my 20 years of teaching, one of the things that has become abundantly clear to me is that business and technical writing are learned skills.
Tried and True Path of Practice
I had a student in one of my graduate classes with a good undergraduate GPA from a good school whose writing was so bad I sent him a confidential and carefully worded note saying simply that his writing was not at the graduate level. This young man was determined to improve and went to the school’s writing lab each day. Before the end of the semester, he refined his writing and later went on to publish several papers as a graduate student. His thesis won the award for best thesis.
So, it can be done with practice and an openness to other perspectives and critiques. And I always tell students, for whatever it’s worth, that the more you read, the better you write.
Remember: your organization is not expecting you to be John Steinbeck or Langston Hughes. Business English is at the seventh-grade level. All that is needed is clear, concise, grammatically correct, English business prose. I have all my mainframe intro students write a 100-150 word write-up of each lab. This serves two purposes: it allows me to see if they really understand what they did, and it also gives them an opportunity to practice their writing skill, which I’m sure they don’t get enough of.
As for verbal communication skills, again, practice, practice, practice.
I tell students, especially students for whom English is not their native tongue, to listen to audiobooks read by practiced readers. I observe many English as a Second Language (ESL) students seeking out native speakers to get articulation and inflection correct. And if you thoroughly understand what you are talking about, it can often compensate for heavily accented English. I had a calculus professor once with heavily accented English, as he was recently from China. But his notes on the board were so crystal clear that any words you may not have understood were right there in the equation while he was speaking. I got a B+ in the class, and math was far from my best subject.
On another occasion, I had some students interning with John Deere for the summer. They had final presentations, and I flew to Moline, Illinois, to watch them (if you’ve ever been to Moline, you know the effort this took). These were the same students I saw sputter and stumble during the term when making presentations, but during this event, all five were, without exception, flawless. The difference? Every day for eight or nine weeks, they took 10 to 15 minutes to practice their presentation, which was on their internship project. The result was an effortless flow from slide to slide — no looking at notes or the slides.
Soft Skills Development Through Mentoring
For written and verbal communication, practice is the key, and there is no substitute for it. But there are other soft skills that will be developed via mentoring, Career Services Offices, and professional development programs inside and outside of the academic department.
All my mainframe classes are intended to prepare students for internships or entry-level positions. I see it as my responsibility to teach them as best I can to survive the corporate culture. It is far more art than science. The school also has an excellent Career Services department where they can get help with their resumes and have practice interviews. This is a good start, but the “soft skills” issue needs to be addressed for the entirety of their academic program.
One ongoing cause for concern is my inability to get undergraduates, and to a degree graduate students, to understand the need to work collaboratively. Some in the industry have communicated to me that this is a potential deal breaker. I’ve had a few students with excellent technical abilities not get picked up after apparently successful internships because of their lack of ability to work in a group. Each term, I try a new “trick,” but so far, none of them have been consistently successful.
I encourage students if they do not feel they are getting the mentoring they need to reach out to individual professors or professional organizations for help. Toastmasters is an excellent way for students to gain the confidence and the skill to speak in public. One of my previous schools had a four-year professional development program that went as far as to teach students dinner etiquette and professional attire.
But the best remedy for teaching soft skills is for students to get an internship that understands they may not be familiar with corporate protocol and puts them in a situation where they can develop professionally. Soft skills take time to develop and to teach. Building corporate practices and expectations into training programs from day one can help new mainframers gain the skills they need for success, including taking ownership of their work, proactively communicating issues as they arise, and becoming effective members of a team. There are no buzzwords or magic incantations for soft skills training.
The bottom line is “soft skills” are essential for a successful professional career. If we want competent professionals, we must remember that there is more to being an IT professional than just knowing how to write code. I encourage all who read this to remember that.