The days of the dark and lonely basement programmer are long gone. In order to compete in today’s competitive business market, IT professionals need soft skills as well as technical acumen in order to maximize their contribution to the enterprise, according to a recent Knowledge Gap survey.
The national poll included responses from more than 1,400 CIOs from a random sampling of U.S. companies with 100 or more employees. Some 47 percent of the CIOs polled said their companies do not provide non-technical skills training such as project management, leadership and communications for their IT staff. This lack of soft skills can have a negative effect on productivity, peer-to-peer collaboration and efficiency.
“The days when computer programmers could be basement programmers are over,” said Melissa Maffetone, branch manager, Consulting Services, Robert Half Technology, Florida. “We’re starting to see more and more companies that need IT professionals to not only have the IT skills, but soft skills, and the reason they need that is primarily because of what they’re working on.”
Today, IT staff are more likely to work on strategic projects that actually make an impact on the bottom line. “The types of projects that companies are investing in are strategic in nature,” Maffetone said. “They’re either going to make the company money or save the company money. As an example, if these programmers are working on a sales application that the sales department’s going to use to offer volume discounts, (IT) needs to understand what inventory is on the company’s shelves, etc. If they don’t have the ability to interact with the sales team to understand what are their product and business needs, the products aren’t going to be built in a way that’s advantageous for the company.”
A lot of companies have been under fairly severe budget cuts during the past few years, Maffetone said, and now that the economy has lifted a bit, companies need people in their seats who can do a lot of different things. “Companies are asking for a lot more from candidates in terms of leadership skills, project management skills—so for candidates who don’t have it, they’re going to be behind the curve.”
Some executives who don’t seem to value soft skills or who have ignored them have done so because they’ve been short-staffed, budget-constrained and forced to focus on technical skills and solutions first, Maffetone said. “They may not have considered that IT professionals need to work hand-in-hand with all these different departments to capitalize on all the value they can bring to an organization. We’re seeing that there are a lot more IT executives who are seeing the need for it. Now it’s more, ‘What’s the return on investment? What’s this going to make us?’ IT professionals have started playing a much more strategic role in these companies, and the changes – what’s right for the business – is what’s driving the need for all these skills.”
The soft skills that are most important to IT professionals include communication, business fundamentals, project management and leadership skills. IT staffers must understand their company’s business units needs in order to figure out how best to translate those needs into IT solutions. “As businesses place more focus on technology and really leveraging it to help them grow, they need people who can clearly explain complex technical concepts,” Maffetone said. “The second piece is business fundamentals. Our clients need people who can understand the company’s operations. They need people who can actually translate business requirements into some kind of cost or time savings. They want to see that past work experience has synergies with their company’s operations. Then, (IT staff) need interpersonal skills, and I’m talking about something as simple as diplomacy and using discretion and tact when it comes to conversations while working within a team so they can build the relationships with colleagues.”
“IT executives should really take a gap analysis of who they have on their team, and who can benefit from partnering or shadowing another person who has better communication skills to hopefully gain a transfer of knowledge,” Maffetone said. “Employees who see that the company is moving in a new direction of that IT/business professional can talk to their supervisors, the IT executives, and ask about taking on more responsibility that would expose them to some non-technical functions. Employees can volunteer for something that’s cross-departmental in nature that allows them to learn about other parts of the organization. There’s tons of courses out there for employers as well as employees that involve topics such as project management, leadership and communication skills for IT professionals. There are online courses for overall business knowledge the employer can invest in, and it’s a small price to pay to have someone fully understand your business needs.”