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5 career-boosting soft skills

'Soft skills are what help you climb the ladder'

By Mary Brandel, Network World
September 11, 2012 06:09 AM ET

Network World - Soft skills are not a new concept for IT. But time has run out for IT professionals who have been avoiding developing them. Now that technology is an integral part of business strategy, very few employers would settle for a candidate who could not function beyond the computer screen. And with teamwork and collaboration a mainstay of many work environments, personal interactions count, even within IT itself.

"The great companies are proving time and again that culture beats strategy, and when you're trying to develop a winning culture, soft skills are important," says Matt Ripaldi, senior vice president at Modis, an IT staffing firm in Burlington, Mass.

Ripaldi says hiring managers consistently report that given the choice of two candidates, they would choose the one with better people skills, even if candidate "b" was superior on a technical level. Even if the tech skills get you in the door, Ripaldi says, "The soft skills are what help you climb the ladder."

After all, says Dan Roberts, CEO of IT professional development firm Ouellette & Associates, it's often human behavior and not technology that causes IT cost overruns and project delays, whether it's the inability to communicate, build relationships, collaborate, manage change, negotiate, etc. "Savvy IT leaders no longer use the term 'soft skills' -- they call them 'core skills' because they're the ones needed to achieve hard results," Roberts says.

In a recent CompTIA survey, nearly half (48%) of companies said it was equally important to close the perceived gap in their IT organization's soft and hard IT skills, and 19% said they were focused solely on soft skills. But that's easier said than done.

In a recent Accenture survey, more than half (55%) of workers said they felt pressured to develop new skills to be successful in their current and future jobs; however, fewer than a third had updated in-demand skills such as problem-solving, analytical skills and managerial skills.

MORE: 10 soft skills techies need -- and five ways to get them

Here are five soft skills that IT professionals can pursue, as well as an idea of how to make even just a little improvement, right now.

1. Communication: You've heard it before, but communicating well -- in writing and verbally -- tops everyone's list of in-demand soft skills. "A good tech professional needs to effectively connect with managers and non-tech co-workers without drowning them in tech acronyms and terminology," says Alice Hill, managing director at Dice.com.

One way to improve, Hill says, is to practice describing a highly technical system with family and friends in a way that they'd understand. "This will help you in the office and at landing the next job considering most HR managers won't understand the jargon," Hill says.

Communication is not only what you say -- it actually covers a wide range of behaviors, according to Roberts, including listening, empathy and diplomacy. "Good listening actually requires a lot of work," he says. Roberts suggests tech professionals start by paraphrasing what they hear, to avoid making incorrect assumptions. For instance, the deceptively simple request, "Can you have the system ready in 20 days" can mean anything from "up and running with full reporting capabilities" to just high-level design.

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