I’ve been thinking a lot about the so-called soft skills. These are things like communication, ability to read people or a situation, ability to work with others, critical thinking, networking, professionalism, ability to learn, etc. Actually the Department of Labor has a list.
As I work with students and colleagues, I think about how important these are, and that they are, in fact, more important than so-called hard skills. I don’t remember all of the things I learned 30 years ago. Some of the math has stuck with me, a lot of the grammar and writing and books I read, some of the science, and much of the history. But partly those stick with me because I use them all the time through the soft skills. And I continue to learn and read, and there’s this machine I use everyday where I can look up information I don’t know.
Having good soft skills often means that you can get your ideas heard, that you can connect your hard skills to others’ interests and need and so you become an invaluable part of a project or an organization. Having a reputation of working well with others means that people will be more likely to ask you to participate in important initiatives or projects. The ability to communicate with others in all kinds of settings–and knowing the appropriate way to communicate–creates connections with others. All of these things can forward your career and/or your organization.
In my classes, I am teaching Computer Science, but I hope that I am also teaching the soft skills. Students learn to work together, find information and solve problems on their own, and communicate with each other, in writing, and in formal presentations.
I often tell people a story about lessons I learned outside the classroom. In college, I was in a sorority, which when I tell people that, they’re like, what? But I learned some valuable lessons through my participation. One thing we did was to practice having conversations with incoming freshmen and alums. We would all draw roles out of a hat, so we’d be assigned 80-year-old alum, freshman interested in English who is super quiet, or overly talkative freshman. We would run through scenarios several times, and the leadership would walk around and assess how everyone was doing, give tips for dealing with difficult situations, and sometimes cause trouble themselves. We would talk as a group afterwards about things that came up. There was an understanding that communicating took practice and that people need strategies.
That practice still pays off to this day. I’m comfortable going to events with all different kinds of people and carrying on a conversation no matter what socioeconomic group they’re in, what profession they’re in, or what they’re interests are. Being willing and able to talk to all kinds of people leads to all kinds of connections that may pay off in the future. It pays off in my connections online as well.
Often, when things go awry, it’s a failure of soft skills. Communication goes awry or is non-existent. A situation gets read incorrectly or someone didn’t think through a decision from multiple angles. Although I am always learning new computing skills, those are relatively easy, it’s the soft skills I work on more often, and those are sometimes harder.