The Most Critical Skills in the 21st Century - are they Hard or Soft?

The past few months I’ve found myself instructing a series of Leadership and Communication workshops for adult professionals across the United States, together with delivering a series of Keynote Conference addresses in Europe on similar topics.

At one particular address in Dublin, Ireland, I emphasized that the beauty of modern software development approaches (such as Kanban) is that the development team can lay bare their work pipeline and ultimately collaborate (through effective leadership and communication skills) with the business. After a series of illustrative exercises (yes, at a keynote address!), attendees by and large embraced the principles of collaboration along with the concept that we need to refrain from treating each other as “machines” at work (formulated along the lines of Margaret Wheatley‘s ideas.) By treating each other as human beings from the kickoff meeting (at least), projects can achieve resounding levels of success.

One particular conference on Quality Assurance and Testing featured not only my keynote (A Soft Skills Toolkit for Testers!) on Leadership and Communication,  but at least three others of similar slant: presentations that emphasized teamwork, respect, and collaboration.  I believe that these are essential components to the success of any project!

One key point I bring home in all of my training and keynotes is that as engineers and computer scientists, we tend to minimize the emerging importance of soft skills such as leadership and communication (I have an entire 16-piece toolkit for this) as “fluff” in favor of what we often see as superior technical “hard skills”.  As an engineer myself, I see the pitfalls of a technically competent workforce that cannot talk outside of its own niche – and many others agreed.

But, it came to fully illustration the evening after one keynote.  A group of us had gathered at a local pub to sample the local beverages when the wife of a conference chair (a science based PhD herself) approached me to comment on what she had heard about my morning keynote:

“Carol, I heard that you gave an entertaining keynote presentation today, “

she started,

“…but it was “entirely without substance.”

What she was in fact saying was that my keynote, in her and her husband’s opinion, had some redeeming entertainment value, but the lack of research-data based charts and advanced equations, rendered it “entirely without substance.”

I did suppress my inclination to applaud and say “thank you for illustrating my point so eloquently” when she said this because I realized it might be a futile discussion.  Instead, I simply smiled, thanked her for her comment, and turned back to the business and beverage at hand.

Now that I am contemplating a series of workshops for future conferences (technical software engineering and quality conferences) to continue the discussions on Leadership and Communication, it occurs to me that calling these skills “soft” may actually diminish their importance – regardless of proof that Leadership, Communication and Collaboration are some of the most important and hardest skills to teach our industry leaders in the 21st century.

What do YOU think?  Are Leadership skills (such as managing to relationships, emotional intelligence, cultural intelligence, diversity, and working with teams and people) considered more as Soft Skills or as Hard Skills (akin to programming in dot net or Java) or a mix of both?

As a technical professional – how important do you think are Leadership and Communication skills to the success of your projects?

I will be awaiting your comments!

Happy holidays!


p.s., Send me an email if you’d like to see more about the Soft Skills Toolkit for Testers presentation I did in October. I would love feedback and recommendations.

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Comments (4)

  1. Carol, I think that Soft Skill often make the difference between projects that are successful, and those who are not. The ability the communicate, collaborate, reflect and continuously improve the way of working is crucial for project team members to deliver value to their customers.

    Is there hard evidence? There must be, in social and psychological research. And books like Peopleware and The Mythical Man Month make sense. Most of the Root Causes that I have found when examining defects or project problems have to do with knowledge and soft skills. Agile retrospectives focus upon the way teams collaborate, and look for strengths that can be used to further increase team performance. Methods from the positive psychology, like Solution Focus, Theory U, and Appreciative Inquiry have evidence that recognizing and developing soft skills makes a difference. For me, that’s enough evidence!

    • I love your comment and definitely agree! Unfortunately, this is often the modus operandi (way of doing business) in IT shops where unrealistic overoptimistic estimates create a dysfunctional (impossible) schedule and scare tactics and carrot/stick are seen as the only way to “motivate” the team.

      It reminds me of a dogsled team where the driver whips the dogs (whether on or off the leash) to make them go faster! It’s time we remind the industry that people are not machines, and definitely not dogs!

      Thanks for commenting.

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