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Chicken and Egg and Agile: What comes first Hard or Soft skills?

By June 19, 2019April 20th, 2022No Comments3 min read

How would YOU answer this question?

Stereotypically people answer based on their experience and expertise:  

  • technical pros choose hard skills first (programming, math, logistics, complex problem solving,) because they involve complexity and are quantifiable. Soft skills are seen as qualitative (less value) and simpler (aka “fluff”) and easier to learn on the job;    
  • business people choose soft skills first (communication, emotional intelligence, listening, time management, collaboration) because it can be impossible to work with people who lack them. Technical skills, they reason, are easier to learn. 

Ultimately, we need a combination.  The most successful agile teams possess a combination of both skills: clear communication, understanding, empathy, time management, collaboration AND technical competency.

Oft cited research states that 85% of job success comes from having well-developed soft skills (people skills) and 15% is a result of technical skills and knowledge.  Software development used to be an anomaly to this, but no more.

A Look at SD History 

A mere 30 years ago, engineers and computer scientists owned software development: programming was a specialized skill that afforded coders both job security and relative seclusion.  In the beginning, before SDLC (software development life cycle) methodologies, users wrote out bits of requirements and passed them over (“the wall”) to programmers who turned them into computer programs using “code and fix.”  Interactions between the business and IT (information technology) were isolated, formal, and controlled. 

I remember colleagues 25 years ago lamenting that “software development would be so much easier if we didn’t have to deal with users.”

Fast forward to today’s agile environment where communication, collaboration and frequent software deployment are norms.  Co-located open space team areas replace rows of stoic IBM coders working in isolation and according to a recent Career Builder study: 77% of employers now believe that soft skills are equally as important as “hard” or “technical” skills in the work environment. 

Yet… technical professionals go into their professions for the same reasons they always did: to solve complex problems based on math and science.

The Value of Soft Skills

Reading stories of agile transformation success leads one to think that every workplace is like Google:  teams of co-workers celebrating each other’s differences, playing games at work, seeking to maximize their collaboration – the perfect combination of soft and hard skills. 

In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by analyzing 15 years’ worth of hiring, firing, and promotion data.

This project led to the surprising discovery that hard skills come in last among the top seven qualities of Google’s top employees.

“The top 7 characteristics of a successful Google employee are in fact:

  1. Being a good coach
  2. Communicating and listening well
  3. Possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view)
  4. Having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues
  5. Being a good critical thinker and problem solver
  6. Being able to make connections across complex ideas
  7. STEM expertise

If nearly all of the top characteristics of success at Google are soft skills, then there is a strong argument for investment in those skills being not just a sound investment, but a vital one.”  https://insights.learnlight.com/en/articles/measure-roi-of-soft-skills/

Can soft skills be learned?

The jury is out on this – some say yes (emotional intelligence, awareness, communications classes) while others profess that soft skills are personality based.  

What is YOUR experience – do you think soft skills can be learned? 

Have we reached the Shangri-la in software development with agile?  

How would you answer this post: What comes first in agile – soft skills or hard skills?

Thank you in advance for your comments.

Carol