Soft skills in hard times

couple of weeks ago I had a baby.

Right after I felt the first contraction, I told my husband that I was going into labour. Then I called the hospital. Then I called Michael, user services specialist at CXO Media (parent company to CIO).

Maybe I should have called my mother first, but I was having serious problems setting up my home office. I had an appointment with Michael that very morning so that he could fix everything before I found myself homebound. I could not focus on the day’s event without first rescheduling that meeting.

In the week following my daughter’s birth, I clocked more time on the phone with Michael than with my pediatrician, my husband and my mother combined. Michael rose to the challenge of dealing with a new mother with network configuration problems. Despite the cries of a three-day-old baby and the short temper of a frustrated postpartum user, Michael gently talked me through a troublesome printer software installation, a tricky port problem and a network path dilemma.

Most of us have a roster of trusted professionals – our family physician, our attorney and perhaps even our therapist – to whom we turn when life goes awry. The user services specialist, it seems, is on the verge of becoming a member of that elite group. Strong technical skills are no longer enough. Along with solid programming and network experience, today’s IS worker needs a good keyboard-side manner.

But a look at the job descriptions for user services positions on sites like and reveals that employers don’t value these softer skills in their IS workers. The requirements for most IS jobs include items like five years’ experience in a Windows environment or knowledge of TCP/IP, WINS and DNS. While several of the descriptions ask for general communication skills, none stress the importance of relationship building among users or sensitivity to user concerns.

One could argue that because technical skills are easier to acquire than those elusive softer skills like patience and good humour, CIOs should place a stronger emphasis on the latter. If Michael had the best technical skills in the world but exhibited the poor interpersonal abilities endemic to so many IS workers, I might have thrown in the towel, and my editor would have had a real problem on his hands. So the question is, do you care enough about the soft skills of your IS staff?

Senior Web editor Heller can be reached at [email protected]


From their own mouths

We asked a selection of tech managers to offer their take on the soft skill situation.

Many talented technical people have never achieved a position of authority over their peers because they lack soft skills. The simple truth is that as a manager, you get things done through others. I believe an IS leader with poor soft skills will have an underperforming tech group, poor morale and high turnover.

Keith A. Rothe, CIO, Twenty First Century Communications

It’s difficult to lead IS engineers into a new mode of performance. The value systems aren’t always aligned between the IS expert and the business analyst. Both are experts in their areas of interest, but unless proper guidance is provided it’s often difficult for the two types to build a lasting partnership. This partnership, however, is how the organization as

a whole can really be successful.

We are looking to internal customer relationship management (CRM) specialists for IT to begin this activity and carry the mantra to the rest of the organization outside IT. We take senior IS specialists who understand some of the dynamics and provide them with CRM training and a charter to be a business advocate and single point of contact for IT. The engineers become engaged by the internal CRM people in meetings with clients and this begins the training/mentoring process for the IS engineers. It can also become a career path. As IS engineers achieve project management expertise and customer service skills they can move into higher positions of management including the IT CRM function.

Steve Passer, VP of IT,

We have made a concerted effort to hire IS user services people with both hard technical skills and the softer people skills. It has a direct impact on customer satisfaction. A customer will be much more patient if the IS person is personable and patient. Our customers want to feel that IS is not treating them like “just another dumb user.”

Roxanne Reynolds-Lair, CIO, FIDM

I believe soft skills are very important, however you need to take a look at the entire company before placing the burden of good relationships on the IS staff. What if the management above the IS department frowns on the use of soft skills. What if the management has a “just get the job done” attitude and actually comes down on the IS staff for using their soft skills? The soft skills are very important, but remember that the IS department may not have a free hand.

John Sestak, MIS manager, Interstate Chemical

For the very reasons mentioned in the article, we have established a fourth team in our technical support branch. These are people who are strong in soft skills but need a little training for the IT skills. This is our “farm team.” We find people who are eager learners, have some IT background and strong customer service skills. After a year of developing

the concept, we received approval to implement it. In a few months, we will see if it pays off.

Bart Hill, manager of tech support, U.S. House of Representatives

When you boil it down to the basic components, all business transactions are a form of personal communication. Failure to communicate means failure to conduct business. Soft skills such as really listening to the other party in a conversation, empathy and compassion cannot be stressed enough in IT. Far too many of the IS workers (from the CIO to the help desk) forget that the reason IT exists is to support business, not the other way around.

Greg Bassett, executive director of systems, Hurley Consulting Associates

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