Miss Manners meets MIS

There was a time when women wore ties. Not anymore. That stays in the ’80s. The style-savvy instructor uses her pointer to illustrate various fashion faux pas. “Never, ever wear white socks with black shoes,” she states emphatically.

“Apparently, I need a little help,” jokes Todd Thompson, a third-year MIT graduate chemistry student, gazing down at his black shoes and white socks. “And my belt doesn’t exactly match my shoes.”

Chances are, Thompson’s belt/shoes combo won’t make or break his career. And many of the courses offered at MIT’s annual Charm School created in 1993 as a way for the school to poke fun at its reputation as a haven for brainy nerds are clearly just for laughs. But as today’s corporations push for ever-improving customer service and expect IT professionals to spend increasing amounts of time with end users and external customers, MIT’s daylong program has evolved to offer students some practical lessons in social skills that are likely to come in handy as they enter the job market.

“I think they should mandate Charm School,” says Thompson. “They should add a personal hygiene booth.”

MIT’s Charm School is one of a growing number of programs that, while presented in a light-hearted fashion, are geared toward raising future IT workers’ awareness of the need to hone their soft skills, such as communicating with users and working on a team. At several Philadelphia-area colleges and high schools, for instance, workers from Lockheed Martin Corp. teach business etiquette courses to students. And as IT becomes ever more closely aligned with core business strategies, even technology veterans are lining up for social development courses. Workers at Woburn, Mass.-based Genuity Inc. and Boston-based Fidelity Investments, for example, have taken “Teaching Techies to Talk,” a program offered by New Castle, N.H.-based Loyalty Factor LLC.

“There really is a need for it,” says Calvin Sun, principal of Paoli, Pa.-based consultancy Calvin Sun & Associates, which has taught IT charm school classes at companies such as Philadelphia Gas Works, Triton PCS and Potomac Electric Power Co. Just last month, he taught the classes at NStar, a Boston-based energy distributor whose CIO has been focused on making the IT division more customer-centric since he was hired last fall after a series of high-profile and controversial blackouts.

“IT people have to deal with nontechnical people all the time…[and] they either use jargon and totally confuse the person, or they talk down to the person and insult their intelligence,” says Sun. “They’re so intent on solving the technical problem that they forget to acknowledge that the customer is frustrated by the technical problem.”

The Skinny on Soft Skills

Just glancing through MIT’s Charm School agenda with courses on topics such as small talk and attentive listening, table manners and connecting with alumni gives Gil Alterovitz, a second-year health science graduate student, an idea of some of the things he should be paying attention to as he gets ready for the business world.

“As a graduate student, you might be isolated in a lab, so you don’t really need [social graces] here. But outside, it’s important,” Alterovitz explains, after asking the accessories instructor, Sharon Shamir, if it’s acceptable to wear a turtleneck under a sweater. “Normally, it would be embarrassing to ask people, but here, it’s OK.”

While Alterovitz’s inquiry is geared more toward pleasing his girlfriend than a potential employer, he says he’s picked up a few valuable lessons at Charm School.

For instance, he learned from the body language session that 60 percent to 80 percent of the messages you send are through nonverbal communication. So you might say something, but if you don’t look convinced that what you’re saying is right, it will be hard to get your point across to co-workers or prospective employers.

Alterovitz is on the right track. Robert Bowman, information manager for Stamford, Conn.-based Xerox Corp.’s developing markets and integrated supply chain division, says communication skills are something he always looks for in new hires.

“Today, a lot of the IT youngsters come out of school with a lot of good school background but not a lot of business knowledge,” he says. “Technical competence is outstanding, but if they can’t apply it to the business process, they’re really limited.”

In interviews, Bowman asks students to tell him about times they worked with others to develop solutions. They could be classroom projects or group papers, work experiences or volunteer activities, he says.

Diplomacy is a soft skill that Sharon Karackattu, a second-year MIT biology graduate student, says is critical for the workplace. At Charm School, sessions such as “Working With People You Really Need in Life” or “How to Tell Somebody Something They’d Rather Not Hear” offer students tips on navigating their way through some of the touchier aspects of the business world.

Allison Hemming, president of New York-based recruiting firm The Hired Guns, says one of the most common turnoffs for hiring managers and recruiters is young IT workers who feel that they’re doing companies a favour by interviewing with them.

“Confidence in your abilities you have to have that when you go out on an interview,” she says. “But there’s a fine line between that and entitlement.”

Hemming also suggests videotaping mock interviews with friends and then watching them to see which areas could use improvement.

Luc LaFontan, vice-president of corporate technology at New York-based About Inc., suggests that students go to actual interviews for practice. “The advice that I wish someone had given me was you should go on 20 interviews at places that you don’t want to work before you go on one where you do want to work,” says LaFontan.

Plenty of students break basic social rules, such as keeping cell phones on during exams and answering them, says Simon Lawrence, an MIT senior majoring in electrical engineering and computer science. One Charm School course, called “Exemplary Locomotion,” is a must at MIT, he says. It teaches students how to walk, which might seem like a given, but many students start to hunch forward after trudging around campus with multiple laptops in their knapsacks, he explains.

Problem is, the students who are most in need of charm school classes aren’t likely to sign up for them, says Laura Noren, a senior comparative media studies and architecture major. “If you still have four laptops in your bag, you’re probably in the lab,” Noren says.

Many of the students at MIT’s Charm School see it as no more than a goofy way to spend a rainy Friday afternoon. They attend their courses with gusto, collecting their credits from instructors so they can earn a bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate’s degree in charm, but they’re not really expecting to pick up too many life lessons.

“I don’t know how practical it is,” says Leah Schmelzer, a senior math major watching the session on how to tie a bow tie. “Some of it’s fun, and some of it, you’re like, ‘OK.’ ”

When asked what made him and his friends trek to the student union for Charm School, Chris Roberts, a first-year technology and policy graduate student, flashes his savviest smile. “We want to become charming. Is it working?” he asks with a wink.

Despite the stereotype of MIT bookworms, Roberts says he’s been pleasantly surprised by the emphasis on working with and giving presentations to other students.

“Technical skills should be a given,” Roberts says. “But you need to be able to communicate that to work on a team.”

Kelly Han, a freshman majoring in brain and cognitive science, had no problem communicating her excitement as she stood atop a bench, whooping it up for her schoolmates as they strutted their stuff on the catwalk during the Charm School business fashion show. It was the final event before MIT President Charles M. Vest, clad in a hard hat bearing the school’s logo, conferred Charm School degrees on students, following, of course, a kazoo rendition of “Pomp and Circumstance.”

“It’s my first doctorate,” says Han, who learned how to tip a maitre d’ and to pass the salt counterclockwise in her classes. “It feels good. It was a lot of hard work, though.”

Job Hunt Etiquette 101

It may require some extra legwork, but make sure to personalize the salutation in your cover letter, says Allison Hemming, president of recruiting firm The Hired Guns.

Hone your administrative skills, even if it means working in Mom or Dad’s store for a while, says Luc LaFontan, vice-president of corporate technology at About.com.

Take advantage of your alumni network, but don’t expect a stranger to help you off the bat, says Hemming. Start with an e-mail or letter asking for an informational phone interview.

Demonstrate your eagerness to learn and grow on the job, says Robert Bowman, an information manager at Xerox. Don’t expect your first job to be in management.

Dress at least one step up on interviews, erring on the side of formality, says Hemming. So if everyone in a company wears khakis, wear a sports jacket. If everyone wears sports jackets, wear a suit.

Try to take summer jobs in your discipline to show your commitment to IT, suggests Bowman.

Create a job-searching group with friends, where you share ideas about r