Empathy is a Technical Skill

[ technical-skills  soft-skills  ]

If you look up the word technical, you’ll see it defined as “relating to a particular subject, art, or craft, or its techniques.” Nothing about that description indicates that understanding programming is a technical skill and understanding people is not - yet somehow the idea of technical skills has come to mean just that, with the inverse being soft skills. This distinction between so-called technical skills and soft skills sets up an unbalanced system where people with technical skills are assumed to be valued in a way that non-technical people aren’t, and does a real disservice to the importance of soft skills.

I’ve been mulling over this blog post for awhile now. That opening paragraph has been in my drafts since November 2018, waiting patiently while I worried about whether this topic was “technical enough”. Since then, I’ve created and given my favorite talk Why is There a Marble in Your Nose?, and I’m no longer worried about it. I know that my soft skills have helped shape my career in tech, and I’m proud of how they’ve allowed me to thrive and grow.

As I dust off this draft and get to writing, I think back to my testing days. Who was I, as a tester? From person to person, one company to the next, the role of tester can look very different. My career as a tester involved a lot of process improvements, release management, incident remediation, thinking about quality and risk, coaching, and of course - testing. The common thread running through all of those things is the need for soft skills.

But what are these soft skills? They’re things like adaptability, leading through influence, and cultural awareness. It’s change management, building positive relationships, and understanding the impact of emotions. It’s how to understand the big picture as well as the little details, and how to learn from mistakes. It’s thinking about the people side of tech - the people who are building it as well as the people who are using it.

So instead of wondering whether I’m “technical enough”, I’ve embraced my soft skills. I’m good at what I do because I’m good at soft skills, and I’ve accomplished quite a lot in my career because of soft skills. Learning and improving my soft skills as a teacher made me a better tester, and I’ll use the experiences from both of those careers as I’m continuing into my third career as a people manager.

It feels good to finally be publishing this post. I like thinking about these things, about the importance of soft skills in tech and how we can do better at making that positive impact visible.

It’s also nice to just be writing again. I think I’m going to use this as a jumping off point for converting and expanding my Why is There a Marble in Your Nose? talk to a series of blog posts. No promises on cadence, but my goal is to start writing on some sort of regular basis. I’m taking a bit of a break from the ol’ interwebs this month, but I’ll stop by to share out these posts as I write them.

What’s a soft skill that has impacted your work or career? Is there a particular skill that’s felt harder to learn for you?

Written on August 1, 2021