Interpersonal skills for technical fields and technical skills for interpersonal fields

Another reason for reading ex-Puppy leaders is that they say such wonderfully ignorant things while thinking they are saying something clever: in this case a quote from Vox Day. This time he is criticizing calls for improved interpersonal skills in the IT industry.

“It would be amusing if technical people began imposing this manifesto of mediocrity in non-technical areas. If interpersonal skills are as important as technical skills in the tech industry, are not technical skills as important as interpersonal skills in the service industry?”

http://voxday.blogspot.com/2018/11/post-meritocracy.html

Oh ho ho, how amusing…except…well that’s close to what people analyzing employment trends are asking for. Now I don’t want to uncritically regurgitate the recruitment industry — the standards of underlying research can be very variable and there’s a degree of hype in terms of trends. Also, you know, capitalism and a tendency to treat people as if they have a moral obligation to fit into templates that suit the needs of industry rather than vice versa. That tendency is of particular concern when considering our increasing understanding of people as being neuro-diverse — there’s a danger in these templates of perfect employees in creating systematic biases against some groups. However, my point is that what I’m discussing is coming not from starry-eyed idealists, leftists or “SJWs” but from the world of businesses trying to maximise their profits.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/au/Documents/Economics/deloitte-au-economics-deakin-soft-skills-business-success-170517.pdf

There’s lots of ways these things are being talked about (“soft skills”, “twenty-first century skills”) and lots of varying taxonomies of them. However, it is notable that there’s a significant push coming from industries for people with a broad mix of such skills and that push comes from multiple kinds of industries.

Without focusing on any one scheme, the kinds of skills talked about include:

  • Broad flexible IT skills
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Communication skills
  • Research skills
  • Creativity
  • Intrapersonal skills (such as self-management, resilience etc)
  • Interpersonal skills (teamwork etc)
  • Ethics

I’ve tried to organise this list in a particular way. The first two are skills associated with (but not unique to) STEM fields, the second two are more associated with Humanities fields and overlap with the fifth in the Arts. The last three pertain more to personal traits of character.

The point being that industries have noticed repeatedly that while specifics jobs will have particular emphasis on skills (obviously) a broad mix of skills is almost always an advantage. With most modern business having a heavy reliance on IT, an employee who has strong digital literacy is more productive especially in industries without an IT focus. IT professionals who are effective listeners end up doing better, more efficient work for their clients because they have a better understanding of their needs.

It doesn’t take much reflection to see why employers would prefer employees who have skills that cross stereotypical academic disciplines. There are downsides, as I pointed out above, to this call for everybody to be good at everything (frankly I’d be much happier if work didn’t involve other people) but the demand from it in modern workplaces is genuine.

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36 thoughts on “Interpersonal skills for technical fields and technical skills for interpersonal fields

  1. My wife’s in IT. The idea that interpersonal skills are somehow unimportant besides the tech stuff is a myth, though I know it’s a common one.
    Heck, just pick up any book on managing your career. Every one I’ve ever read (I used to work in a bookstore. I read a lot of stuff) emphasizes that doing your job well is never going to be enough. You have to network. You have to promote. You have to interact with people who can help your career. Knowing your name and thinking “Yeah, they’re cool to work with” counts for more than a cool CV and nobody rooting for you.
    Possibly Vox Day disdains interpersonal skills because he doesn’t have any?

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    1. I can’t calculate how much time, effort and money I’ve seen wasted by IT teams who 1. didn’t spot the simpler, easier solution 2. Didn’t listen in the first place so misunderstood what was wanted 3. Reacted badly when what they produced wasn’t what was wanted.

      “Nobody told us!”
      No, I frickin told you MULTIPLE times!

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Mr. lurkertype is only so-so at networking, but even he managed a bit. He’s easy to get along with, and his contacts from 30 years ago both got rid of some boxes of stuff we had in the garage, and got him a few thousand in a quick “consulting from home in his spare time” gig for a Very Big Tech Name Indeed.

      My networking once got me a temp job in tech that paid twice the then-minimum wage, again setting my own hours, with a job interview that consisted of “Hi, I’m the one X vouched for, yes I can start Monday.” Plus stuff like people who buy me food, free e-books, and an invite to the Hugo Losers’ Party.

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  2. Basic technical skills are needed in service industry workplaces — I have seen trivial mechanical issues (e.g. clogged toilets, loose wires) bring workdays to a screeching halt. Day sounds like the sort of tech industry management types who sows chaos in his projects.

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    1. Oh yes and it can spiral across both eg (true story) non-tech team has a problem they get that it sort of maybe might have an IT solution. A request goes up a chain of command, meetings held, IT solution investigated, requirements scoped out, more meetings, procurement processes etc…
      Coincidentally there’s a minor change in personnel in the non-tech team. They look at the issue and go “oh in my last workplace we do X”. Turns out that the software they already HAD and were using already had a solution to the issue but it just required some small change in their work practices and (the tough part) a change in perspective

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      1. I have a similar story about a uni I used to work for. Basically, I worked in admissions for various departments for a little while and *usually* what’s meant to happen is that any time you move department your profile basically gets all its permissions removed and then replaced with permissions from a template for the next department you’re going to. What actually happened instead was I ended up with all my central permissions plus a few more that were International specific.

        Anyway 6 months later as we were processing documents to issue CAS numbers for student visas I was checking a particular set of screens to see how far along the process was for some of our students who’d been emailing wondering why it was taking so long, and my manager happened to be walking past and asked how the hell I’d found that information. Turns out it was a “central admissions” permission, and the international admissions team didn’t have access to this set of screens despite being the ones having to field all those inquiries from international students. And that’s how I escalated the growing friction between two departments at a prestigious university, right before I skedaddled to a totally different role!

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  3. In other news, amusingly enough, Beale actually seems to be tiring somewhat of Trump’s shtick. How much of it is sincere and how much is him triangulating after 2018 remains to be seen. Though I expect plenty of quibbling by him in the weeks ahead.

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  4. While mostly trained in programming, I also later took a Technical Writing certificate program at a local college. Because way too few programmers actually know how to document.

    One of the courses for that program was a course in editing. Roughly half the editing course was about negotiating the potential office politics minefield of editing people who take changes to their writing as personal attacks. Because you will run into one of those eventually, and they may have a higher position than you.

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    1. And ain’t that the truth. As a translator, I occasionally have to deal with people who constantly muck around with my translations, and change words to words that are either old-fashioned or plain wrong, because that’s the term that their old translator who’s been dead for ten years used and he was a real engineer and what are you again?

      You also get people with persistent spelling problems who refuse to use spellcheck, because it keeps flagging errors and doesn’t recognise some technical terms. Apparently, adding terms to the dictionary is beyond them.

      And finally my favourite, the engineer who think he can speak English and only needs someone to give his masterpiece a brief readthrough. Most of the time, whatever the engineer wrote is riddled with errors or complete nonsense and you somehow have to politely let them know.

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      1. Ack. In my temp job, I had to edit the annual reports of various techies. Luckily many of them didn’t much care, so I rewrote their flounderings into comprehensible text. They were all allegedly native English speakers, but you couldn’t prove it by me in a couple cases, even sans the jargon.

        A few of them simply couldn’t be bothered, no matter how much I emailed and phoned, which meant they got a blank page in the annual master report and therefore no funding the next year. One page would have gotten them more money, but nooooooo. It wasn’t The Work. Who in their right mind turns down cash money funding b/c they couldn’t scrawl a half-assed page about what they did for a year?

        They did serve as examples pour encourager les autres the next year. The boys were much more prompt.

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      2. Getting such people to write anything can be a real pain. These are also usually the sort of people who take weeks to write a specification or operation manual, but then expect you to translate it in two days – after all, they already did the hard work.

        By the way, I have translated at least technical text where i still have no idea what it actually was about. The text only talked about “the project” without specifying what that project was.

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      3. I went through the co-op program at the University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada). For the most part it was alternating four months of school and four months of work, with 8 school terms and 6 work terms. One of the requirements of graduation is that you had to get passing marks on a report written for at least 4 of those 6 work terms. Granted, I have no idea on just how strictly those were marked, but there was at least an show made to making sure that the people going through the program could write.

        That said, for one term I was the Engineering Society representative on the Academic Council (which was an observation-only position, of course), and one of the points of discussion was changing the requirement for passing the English Placement Test so that you had to pass it before you were allowed into third year, because apparently there were a number of students who had made it into third year without having passed it yet. The English Placement Test was your basic ‘here’s a one sentence statement, write a short essay on it’ test. If people who had been accepted at one of the more strict-entry post-secondary institutions in the country managed to take this at least four times without passing… that doesn’t speak well for them.

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  5. Righteous anointed nobility theory right there. The tech people are the nobles — supposedly highly skilled and super meritorious, essential for operations and so should be able to act how they want, without any concern for how to make products and software engaging and easy to use for the consumer apparently. The peasants — HR, administration, finance, marketing, PR, some design folk, etc. — can handle all the “easier” personal stuff, the girl stuff, etc. Cause how would the non-tech folk like it if they had to have tech skills too, which they clearly don’t have and are thus inferior non-anointed peasants who shouldn’t talk back to the tech edgelords?

    But of course, numerous people involved in non-tech aspects of tech companies do have tech skills and often come from an extensive tech background. They are required skills for many of them to do their non-tech jobs of selling tech products, software and services, and the lure of jobs in tech companies brings in enough applicants to allow tech companies to hire only those who have sufficient tech and educational skills to go along with the other skills to do their non-IT jobs. Many people working in tech companies in a non-tech capacity may later be moved to another position/division where they will be doing tech work, and certainly a lot of it is in partnership with tech staff — they cannot be ignorant.

    And of course, many women get shunted away from tech jobs for being women, forced to take on jobs in marketing and finance to get into the tech world, despite having tech skills and credentials. Their tech skills are an asset that allows them to get anywhere at all in the tech industry, even if it doesn’t often give them first crack at tech jobs and top positions. Same for black and Latino workers who are also routinely discriminated against in coding and other tech positions.

    But mostly it’s just a matter of market factors. With tech the biggest, hottest sector after energy (and involved with energy,) companies even when small start-ups can pick and choose who they want. And while that means that white men with fewer skills and credentials often get an advantage over women and black and Latino people because they have the right “lineage”, it also means that white men who have a combination of tech skills and good interpersonal skills are going to have the advantage — an actual one of merit this time — over those white men who don’t and are problematic. Having a leader of a team, as noted, who can actually lead and help the team is way more important to most tech companies than having a hermetic prima donna who can’t work with others, at least in companies or divisions that aren’t completely dysfunctional. If you are really, really good at say marketing and tech and have poor interpersonal skills, that’s maybe okay depending on the particular position, but tech skills alone usually aren’t enough to save you. There are a lot of coders out there; they are easily replaceable and most of them work for cheap, so the most versatile are the most useful. What tech bosses tend to want is first someone who looks like themselves (and thus they think won’t be a problem,) and second, someone who won’t cause them problems they have to deal with.

    So if you are lucky enough to have gotten yourself in a top position in a start-up that then sells for high cash, then you might be able to swan around like Elon Musk. But everybody else who’s a tech employee, or an employee in tech? They don’t necessarily put up with the abrasive nerd boy routine anymore. They want even cooler toys and employees are toys, and they better have maximum skills or at least the appearance of it and a nice personality.

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    1. Even in Hollywood, many of the “difficult” ones don’t get jobs unless they’re somehow a mega-star. This is applied unfairly towards women and PoC, and of course it’s rife with nepotism and the old boys’ club, but still.

      Particularly in the on-the-set technical stuff. Nobody wants to spend 18 hours a day in a studio with a bunch of assholes. Someone who throws diva fits isn’t going to get as many jobs as someone who isn’t as demanding — I’ve seen it happen even to SWM actors. There were two of about equal stature about 1990 that I knew a little about. One stomped off to his dressing room in a huff and had to be cajoled out of it; the other hardly ever complained, was nice to the crew, amusing on talk shows. #1 hasn’t worked on anything other than weekly guest star in 10 years, nor at all in over 2 years. #2 has worked steadily on 6-8 different series, and is now on a long-running TV show that’s very popular and on this week (I just checked IMDB).

      Time is money there, even more than in most businesses — going into overtime is a cardinal sin and starts ringing up charges by the hour as soon as you’re one minute over. And you’ve got to be able to get the TV show on the air by Thursday, or the movie in theaters by the date that’s all over the publicity. Even if it’s not perfect, it gots to be in front of the public’s eyeballs THEN. Ain’t nobody going to wait extra days for their next Marvel movie or favorite weekly sitcom.

      Plus unless you’re already very, very established, nowadays if you’re a sexual harasser in almost any industry, even Hollywood, you’re liable to get passed over for someone who can keep their hands to him/herself. Even if only for lawsuit potential, not moral indignation.

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      1. Yeah, my kid is working with actors. She’s getting a front row seat to how the business works. Unless you are already high up, the tolerance level is low. And with industry discrimination being nibbled away at in terms of actors of color, on the lower ranks you are now competing with a lot more actors for parts. Actors of color have had to put up with a lot of crap sadly, and consequently, they are often way easier to work with for decent jobs. White actors will eventually benefit from the growth of not discriminating against actors of color, but it also means right now they don’t get to play abusive and feel secure they’re top dog.

        Which is also what the frothers are worried about in tech and games. Behavior they used to pull is less and less acceptable in a lot of places, even when discrimination is still high. “Social skills” is often just code for workers who will not act like bigoted assholes and harass their co-workers, creating problems. Beale and others’ arguments are that the snowflakes are so talented that the abusive behavior should be still accepted (because it used to be easier to just let them cause problems and look the other way.) But they aren’t that talented and there are a lot of other people who are equally tech skilled who can replace them, more and more as discrimination is eased and abuse isn’t acceptable in the workplace.

        I mean, it’s what they wanted in the libertarian paradise — disposable workers who do what the uppers want or get bounced — or killed. But there’s only a handful of true upper lords. Everybody else are peasants to be used. And as SWM are losing the cultural illusions that they aren’t peasants in the system just by virtue of being SWM as they were promised, they’re freaking out. They still have plenty of status and financial advantages, even when actually poor, but they’ve always been being exploited same as anybody else, with bigotry used to keep them satisfied because at least they had it better than the white women/POC, etc. They keep going, you’ll be sorry when all the meritorious superior SWM are gone! And then they’re bewildered when others just laugh because they aren’t superior and are not naturally meritorious.

        They really bought the myth and they keep clinging to it desperately, thinking they’re in a war to defend it, instead of still getting some but less benefits from the social hierarchy. They annoy an actress enough to stop bothering with her social media accounts as unproductive and they think that shores up the hierarchy when actually it just makes bits of it crumble further in the culture. The Sad Puppies salted the earth when it comes to conservative arguments against POC, liberal white women and LGBTQA authors in SFFH as acceptable discourse in the culture, and the whole thing totally confused them. They all can still do a lot damage though, greedily horde resources and use violent power that some of them have. But large segments of the society refuse to declare it natural or meritorious and it does change the culture on them.

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      2. And my Hollywood experience on a sorta-hands-on level dates from, as I said, 25-30 years ago. (EEP!) When things were even much more SWM dudebro than now. And even back then, assholes got cut less slack, be it actors, writers, crew people. There are always WAY more people looking for jobs there than they have openings, and have been since silent movie days.

        There was a white chick who couldn’t be bothered to reprise the TV show guest role that had gotten her a high-profile movie, because now she was a Movie Star and didn’t do TV any more. And of course the movie tanked very badly and she didn’t work much for a couple years and was delighted when she got… a TV show. A starring role, but Little Miss Perfect had grandly told her people to say she was never ever going back to TV, even in her own show, nope. Her career’s gone on… on network TV… and she’s still a bitch. Meanwhile, same time, a woman who had decades of credits on Broadway, movies, and TV, and a mofo OSCAR was tough but fair on her show.

        I have known people in the upper echelons of showbiz, SF writing, and a sport, and it’s almost inevitably true that the good/talented ones are nice. They behave professionally, they have manners towards everyone, they help noobs, don’t throw diva fits, and they don’t toot their own horns. They have careers that go on for 30-50 years.

        It’s the mediocre-to-bad ones who engage in self-aggrandizement, declaring feuds, having hissy fits, seeing other people as resources, and putting down others who won’t go along with their agenda.

        Sound like any all canines we know?

        RWNJ and SWM are getting a dead cat bounce right now by yanking on all the illegitimate levers of power they’ve managed to keep hold of in their tiny hands, and they can and will do a lot of damage, but their day is passing — and they’re scared shitless about it. Sad! (for them, not for the majority of people)

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  6. I work with customer support for a fairly complex computer system. Many end users, and in particular administrator users, have low technical skills. Many customers’ IT department have low investment in this system. The combination leads to an endless supply of “fun” problems.

    So I think Teddy’s idea that it’s somehow preposterous and amusing to wish for more technical knowledge for people in non-technical is very, very weird. And using that to “prove” that it’s silly to ask for non-technical skills for IT people is even weirder.

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    1. When dealing with Beale the safest bet is always, always that he doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about, but thinks he does.

      ALWAYS.

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  7. In the 90s, I was hired to work on an IT helpdesk at a major Australian university on the basis of minimal IT skills but substantial experience in a cafe. My boss straight-out said that he found it more efficient to hire people with customer service experience and bring them up to standard in IT, than to take IT people and teach them the basics of customer service. It was a good experience, because over the years most of the jobs I’ve had have involved a mixture of technical understanding and people skills. Though I suppose if I ran a vanity business on inherited money I might not have had the need to worry about personal skills either.

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  8. Being insulated from the actual economy, job market, capitalism, professionalism, and anything resembling the real world, of COURSE Teddy has no idea that megacorps have been emphasizing well-roundedness in ALL areas, for ALL jobs, for many years.

    Even the lowliest service folks have to deal with digital cash registers (erm, “point of sale terminals”), order forms, databases, email, and the like. From wait staff to boiler room phone answering, there’s nothing people can have a job in that doesn’t involve something computerized (Even if the mid-level people are still clueless). And literally everyone and their grandma is on Facebook and buys from Amazon.

    So they’re already a bit tech-savvy.

    Getting the real world across to the techies is still often a process, and I say this as a Silicon Valley resident and techie wife/friend of over 30 years. Enough with the redoing look and feel of interfaces, geeks. We don’t need perfect elegance, we need people to be able to use the system who don’t think in code.

    Capitalism needs regular people to interact with computers as seamlessly as possible, and that only happens when geeks bother to listen and to be minimally functional with others. There are SO many people applying for every tech job that many companies like to hire those with a bit of people savvy. No longer can a guy who doesn’t bathe and can’t carry on a conversation about anything other than coding or trainspotting have a long and fruitful career. Not when there are other applicants who practice politeness and have a theory of mind that recognizes that other people are different (and that’s OK/good) are also applying. Or they could bring in H1B’s and/or offshore and save enough money to make that worth no personal connections.

    It’s easier to teach a bright people-person tech skills than the opposite, particularly if they’ve studied something that requires a lot of synthesis and logic.

    Teddy’s just mad b/c he can’t do both. Or any. And SCALZI!!!1! is successful, personable, and has more computers, etc. than anybody else, all thanks to his philosophy degree. And NOT his daddy.

    And an amazingly lovely and capable wife, plus awesome daughter. Krissy is even more people-oriented, but not at all dorky. We had a nice chat at Worldcon. She liked my hairdo and outfit at GRRMs party!! High praise from someone as pretty and well-kempt as her, and she’d no need to fake politeness to a random fan like me.

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    1. Has he ever actually had a job aside from columnist at his father’s rightwing site and disrupting/revolutionising music/videogames/science fiction/the Hugos/comics/whatever he’s doing this week?

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      1. Nope. Never had to worry about working for a living, working for a stranger, gaining qualifications, applying, etc. No real job either.

        Your average kid who asks “you want fries with that?” or the teenage girl who keeps an eye on your kids for the evening while you’re on a date has a better work ethic with more real experience.

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    2. There’s also an element of Beale’s love for caste systems and everyone knowing their appointed place in these statements. Which also circles back to being a sheltered rich boy who can indulge in this sort of thought without it kicking him in the can.

      He really is remarkably easy to understand as a person when you get down to it.

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  9. I was amused to see that Vox has a post called “The downside of meritocracy” from November 2011. I suppose it’s nice that he can look at this issue from both sides…

    Right. This topic reminds me of how often I’ve seen MRAs deride the idea of “soft skills” because they seem them as feminine. For example, it’s commonly asserted that HR personnel are always rejecting qualified people (men) for jobs on the basis of trivial things like having poor social skills.

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    1. Perhaps deep down in his tiny shriveled soul he realizes that he’s only a member of the Lucky Sperm Club, and that in an ACTUAL meritocracy, he’d be wearing everything he owns and panhandling for spare change.

      (After a youth of being stuffed in trashcans and getting swirlies in a bad public school with no rich daddy to save him.)

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  10. I confess that when I hear “interpersonal skills” I usually think of a type of team-building exercise that I don’t enjoy. Still, in my experience, the people who strenuously object to such things, allegedly because their job is supposed to only involve one specific skill, are really doing so for exactly the reason you’d imagine—i.e. they are assholes and they’d like to continue being assholes.

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      1. Everyone I know does. Regardless of race, religion, gender, orientation, age, physical condition or neurotype. I think only people who invent them and make money running like it.

        They aren’t going to make assholes be more considerate, and they’re only going to annoy the nice people and waste everyone’s time. I have *excellent* interpersonal skills when needed, and those damn things make me much less nice.

        Now, free food and gift cards, those improve morale. I’ve done some swell team bonding over cake.

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      2. In my experience the more explicit “this activity is meaningless but it’s great for team building”-exercises are pointless at best. But I think there’s a benefit to “simpler” social activities with colleagues, more in the vein of hanging out with friends who happen to also be people you work with. It’s not so much about “team spirit”, but simply about getting to know each other and lowering the treshold to walk over to a coworker, to ask for help or to say “hey, the customer is nagging me on this issue that I see has been assigned to you, how are you coming along on it?”

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