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The Most Important Skill You're Not Hiring For

Level 12

Anyone who’s hired for a technical team can understand this scenario.

You’re hiring for “X” positions, so of course you receive “X” times infinity applications. Just because you’re looking for the next whizbang engineer, it doesn’t mean you get to neglect your day job. There are still meetings to attend and emails to write, never mind looking after the team and the thing you’re hiring for anyway! So, what do you do? Most people want to be as efficient as possible, so they jump right to the experience and skills section of the resume. That’s what you’re hiring for, right? Technical teams require technical skills. All the rest is fluff.

If you’ve done this, and I bet you have if you listen to the little voice in the back of your head, then you may be doing a disservice to your team, the candidate, and ultimately yourself. What the heck am I talking about? Yup, the “soft skills,” and today I’d like to talk primarily about communication skills.

I can hear the eyerolls from here, so let’s spend a few minutes talking about why they’re so important.

I’m a <insert technologist label here>. Why do I care about communications?

In 2019, continuous deployment pushes code around the clock; security event managers stop bad guys before we realize they’re there; and even help desk solutions where tickets can manage themselves. Yet even with these technological and automative advances, people want relationships. If you think about it, when you really need to get anything complex done, do you ask your digital personal assistant, or do you work with another human? We’re out for human interaction. By building relationships, we can move IT further away from the reputation of “the Department of No” and toward frameworks and cultures to enable things like DevOps and becoming a true business partner. Our ability to communicate builds bridges and becomes the foundation for our relationships.

Still skeptical? Let’s walk through another scenario.

Assume you’re an architect in a large organization and you’ve got an idea to revolutionize your business. You manage to get time with the person who controls the purse strings and you launch right into what this widget is and what you need for resources. You wow them with your technical knowledge and assure them this widget is necessary for the organization to succeed. Is this a recipe for success? Probably not. You might even get bounced out of the office on your ear.

Let’s replay the same scenario a little bit differently. You get time on the decisionmaker's calendar; but you do a little homework first. You ask your colleagues about the decisionmaker and what type of leader they are. You dig into what their organizational goals are and how they might be measured against said goals. Armed with this information, you frame the conversation in terms of the benefits delivered both to the organization and the purse holder. And you can speak their language, which they’ll most likely appreciate and will make your conversation go that much smoother. Due to your excellent communication skills, your project is approved, you have a new BFF, and you both go get tacos to celebrate your impending world domination.

Neither the world domination nor the tacos would be possible without the ability to convey benefits to the recipient in a language they understand. The only difference between world domination and coming across like a self-righteous nerd who cares more about their knobs than the organization is the ability to clearly and succinctly communicate with the business in a language they understand.

So now that we’ve talked a bit about why...

Let’s circle back to the original premise for a moment: you should be building communication skills into your teams. Obviously if you’re hiring a technical writer, communication is the skill, but chances are you’re looking for someone who has an attention to detail and can write some form of prose. The ability to craft a narrative will be vital if you’re looking for a technical marketing person. Anyone who’s in a help desk role needs to build rapport, so communicating with empathy and understanding becomes vital. If you’re hiring for an upper level staff position, the ability to distill highly technical concepts down to fundamentals and convey them in language that makes sense to the recipient is paramount. In my experience, this last example can be a bit of a rarity; if you find someone either within or outside your ranks who exudes it, you should think about how you can keep them on your hook.

How do you achieve this unicorn dream of hiring for communication skills? Classic geek answer, “it depends.” We can’t possibly diagnose all the permutations in my wee little blog post. Rather than try to give you a recipe, I think you’ll find by shifting your approach slightly, to be more mindful of what you’d like to achieve via your communications, you’ll inherently be more successful.

One last point before I bid you adieu. Here, we’ve focused on why you need to hire for these skills. This isn’t to say for one second that you shouldn’t also build them within your existing organizations. This, however, requires looking at the topic from some different angles and a whole other set of techniques, so we’ll leave it for another day. Until then, I hope you found this communication helpful, and I’d love to turn it into a dialogue if you’re willing to participate in the comments below.

44 Comments
Level 13

Great article.  Thanks for writing it.  Your ability to articulate the importance of communication skills is high quality! 

Level 12

Thank you for the kind words. I appreciate the comment.

Best

MVP
MVP

Agreed, without the communication and "relationships", it is hard to get things done in a timely and efficient manner most of the time.

Level 12

I can't agree more. I dive a bit deeper into relationships in a future post. 😉  I hope you come back to check that one out.

Level 13

Excellent post. Couldn't agree more.  Soft skills are difficult to define and see in a resume but are so essential to success.

Level 12

Thanks df112​ for taking the time to read and comment. Cheers

Level 11

Thanks for the article.  Completely agree, effective communication is a cornerstone, prevents issues with clients and co-workers alike.

Level 12

Face to face or in-person communication is one of the skills that has held me back a bit in my career. It is definitely something I have been working on. 

Level 9

Love this article! I know one of the key reasons I was ever even given a chance to begin in network operations was because of my soft skills. They really can go a long way and help to get your foot in the door to create some opportunities for more success.

Level 12

If you know the software(s) for which you're hiring, you should be able to confirm the candidate's resume in 10-15 minutes.

Verbal and presentation skills can be checked during this process.  I recall one interview where the candidate ended up getting very much on my nerves while avoiding properly answering the questions, less subtly than he thought.  Needless to say he was not hired.

Does anyone request examples of candidate's writing skills?  It would be difficult for a person to write a technical document in a few minutes.  Perhaps instead a question like "How would you announce the unexpected emergency patching of a key application database to its users?" and if they suggest an email ask them to write it.

Level 12

Great points joepoutre​! I really like the idea of asking them to write based on a prompt. Thanks for contributing!

Level 12

Soft skills are as important as technological skills. You can't reliably educate a wayward user without these skills and you can't reliably educate a clueless executive on the need for a serious security posture without these skills.

Every person who has had to deal with helpdesk duties knows the frustration of users who can't be bothered to learn the basic computer skills needed for their jobs, but it is a special person who can persuade the manager to make computer literacy a priority for people whose jobs require using computers. I am not a special person in this context.

MVP
MVP

Nice write up

Level 12

Thanks for the laugh!

Level 11

Used care salesmen have great communication skills. as do Politicians and many other confidence tricksters. that is a powerful skill in the wrong hands it can be dangerous.

Level 13

It used to be that the help desk was the interface between the user and the technician. Nowadays this is no longer the case and the technician needs to be able to be able to communicate with and listen to the user in order to resolve their issues. Listening properly is probably more important.

MVP
MVP

Food for thought, thanks for the article. Communication is key.

Level 14

It is one of the toughest things hiring managers do.... Hire for soft skills in the technical arena.

If you find one... great..... if not it takes a lot of care and feeding on the manager's side.

great article.

Level 12

I see your point, although I don't necessarily agree. They do have a talent in a certain type of communication, but that doesn't necessarily equate to direct inter-personal communication skills, which I think was more the focus of my post.

Level 12

Thanks for sharing your success story!

MVP
MVP

Everyone believes that they are a great communicator because they understand what they are trying to say. That is not the standard. To be a great communicator you have to be able to reach your audience - no matter who, what skill level, etc.

Level 13

Good point.  The point is to be able to convey it to your audience in such a way that *they* understand it.  If you haven't done that you've failed.

Level 15

Excellent post. I have always thought that being able to get along with the other kids playing in the sandbox about the first skill everyone needs. Sometimes this isn't always the case, even when the person may be a genius in their trade.

Level 12

I completely agree, this is just one piece of playing nice in the sandbox. To that end, I hope you come back and read my next piece (probably next week).

Thanks for engaging!

MVP
MVP

WOW ... very interesting.. hit the nail on the head!! Can't wait for your next post.. I really like this community .. for the articles that you all publish.. I appreciate you taking the time scott.driver

I rely upon my work ethic.. I am always attempting to better my communication skills.  I truly understand the importance of being able to address the target audience!

Thanks for the share!

Level 12

Thank you for the kind words zennifer​. It's great to know that the efforts are well received. Have an awesome day!

Soft skills make the icing on the cake for the hard skill's foundation.  Some examples I've personally witnessed:

  • A woman I know graduated from a U.S. university with an English Major.  She earned a teaching degree to please her parents, but didn't want to teach.  She taught English to the English in England for a time, and taught English to high school students in the States for a period, and left Education because of the poor pay and politics and problems with students' parents.  She was quickly hired by a multi-national Telecommunications corporation for her communication skills.  They put her into corporate sales where she excelled. Her starting salary (with no experience in sales or in the world of international telecommunications) was four hundred percent of her teaching salary.  She was well satisfied with the corporate environment and her peers.  Later, when that telco was broken up, she found her English degree got her employed elsewhere immediately.  That "soft" Liberal Arts degree brought her steady employment and an impressive salary.
  • A different woman I know earned a degree in Fine Arts--Stage Management in the Theater division.  Watching her work, seeing her job description, listening to her describe her day at work (well, her evenings at work) made it clear she was not "merely" a Stage Manager--she is a Senior Project Analyst and Project Manager.  She communicates swiftly and effectively, keeps MANY plates spinning, and is able to work with people of every disposition and age and ability.  She knows where everything is located, knows what's about to happen, knows who has to be where and what they must be wearing, and instantly responds correctly to backstage events, mishaps, and emergencies.  I'd be proud and happy to have someone like that on my team, and she's had no problem finding employment.

When I go to hire my next tech person, I know what I want that's above & beyond the ability to use a CLI and build scripts.  People skills, communication excellence, and the ability to perform in many environments with any kind of coworker or customer.

MVP
MVP

rschroeder I am inspired !!!   You know what I just learned from what you posted.... I CAN WORK AS LONG AS I WANT TO!

I do enjoy the dialogue created from our community .. quite stimulating!! I have enjoyed myself today!! 

zennifer​ , you'll never be obsoleted or unemployable as long as your mind can function and learn, and as long as you're interested in doing the tasks for which someone is willing to pay.

I've been doing more volunteering as I age, and while it's not "employment" in that I don't get paid money for my efforts, I DO reap personal rewards and satisfaction and have fun with new people.

Things change as we age.  It's just HOW we let them change, or whether we do.  I release all the fish I catch, where I used to keep them when I was less interested in a future of fishing for myself and others.  It might be part of aging that could equate to maturity.  Time will tell.

As long as I can sing a song and teach it to someone, or show someone a new part of Nature's beauty they'd missed, I'll have a happy full-time employment as I age.

Level 15

You know, I have found your words true.  I find the older I get the more i volunteer and do service work, I am busier now than ever.  I am very much working and earning, and getting ready to transition to the next chapter.   It's always scary as you move up and take  on more and more to wonder how long the run can last.   I would add rschroeder​ in addition to what you posted, as long a you truly love what you do, you will stay teachable, thus willing to learn, and thus very employable. 

Level 12

You sing!  Right, you're invited to the karaoke battle, along with Dez and me and whoever else offered to engage in a sing-along sing-off, if we ever find ourselves the chance.

I promise to buy the first bottle of wine to lubricate our throats!

MVP
MVP

Great read! After working for the one company for almost 23 years, I was made redundant in March last year. Since then I've been doing contracting. I'm about to start my fourth contract. And I've found that if I'm given an interview, they've given me the job bar one. That particular interview was almost like a Cisco exam for which I wasn't prepared.

I accept--you're on.  But there's a LOT of distance between Duluth, Minnesota and Jersey City.  I might be safe from an embarrassingly ignominious defeat through simple convenience.

If only we had Star Trek transporter technology . . . we could serenade in competition until the cats and dogs cried for mercy.

MVP
MVP

completely on board with that.

Technical skills can easily be taught to someone with good soft skills.

Our interviews are now 35% technical 65% soft skills focused.

Level 13

100% agree.  Communication is key.  Don't need a bump on a log.

Level 12

And honestly, if you're getting a technical exam in the interview... Is that where you want to be spending 40+ hours of your life every week?

Cheers!

Level 12

Hey mcam

If you have any easy actionable items that you'd like to share from your interview process, I'm sure that others would find value in that.

I think our mix is less than yours, but to be perfectly honest, our process is less structured and more soft in nature.  (sorry, bad dad joke).

Scott

Level 15

A lot of our engineers started out in the the Help Desk or NOC. The ones that had the best communication skills, quick learners and the ones that would show some initiative like write programs, scripts, or processes to improve their existing job.

Most of all the ones that got along with everyone and made you happy to work with them.

Those are the people that get scooped up by other areas of IT, trained and turned into great engineers. In the long run most of them end up staying with the company so whatever was spend getting their technical skills

improved almost always paid off.

Level 12

My trajectory somewhat speaks to the phenomena you speak of bobmarley​, so your words ring true. We so often highlight the technical skills, but there are so many advantages that come from highlighting and growing the "soft" stuff.

Have an awesome day!

Level 14

Things have really changed.  It used to be that senior technical people had long hair, beards, wore sandals and worked their magic behind closed doors with no user interaction at all.  Now we all go to business meetings where we talk to users in their language, find out what they really need, propose solutions (and explain it to them in their language again).  Then we use out technical skills to implement the solution.  After that we go back to user language to make sure they are working well and making the money for the business to pay for more techie stuff.  Everyone wins.

I recently wrote a justification for replacing our systems monitoring solution.  It was in language the beancounters could understand.  I put together a costs / benefits analysis and a product comparison document.  Of course I slanted it towards what I wanted to get and I now have signoff for Solarwinds.  I wouldn't have it if I'd just used techie jargon.  See, you can teach an old dog new tricks (I used to have long hair, still have the beard but have NEVER worn sandals).    

Level 12

There's nothing wrong with sandals! Well, there's a lot wrong with sandals at work, but in general...

Thanks for sharing your perspective with your monitoring solution analogy. I'm glad that it worked for you and that you've shared your success with us.

Cheers!

MVP
MVP

Heck NO!!!

Level 14

I love having a technical exam in the interview.  It is so easy to spot when they are fishing for a free fix for an existing problem and then watch them squirm when you challenge them.   When I was contracting I used to double the rate I was asking for if they did this secure in the knowledge that they could say no but would know that I knew how to fix their major issue.  I made quite a lot of money that way.   

Level 12

That's a take on the topic that I hadn't seen before!

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