Editor's note: This article originally published in July 2012.
Depending on which company you talk to, there are varying demands for IT technical skills. But there is one common need that most IT organizations have: soft skills. This need is nothing new. As early as three decades ago corporate IT sought out liberal arts graduates to become business and systems analysts so they could "bridge the communications gap" between programmers and end users. And if you look at the ranks of CIOs, almost half have backgrounds in liberal arts.
So what are the soft skills areas that companies want to see in IT professionals today?
1: Deal making and meeting skills
IT is a matchup of technology and people to produce products that run the company's business. When people get involved, there are bound to be disagreements and a need to arrive at group consensus. IT'ers who can work with people, find a common ground so projects and goals can be agreed to, and swallow their own egos in the process if need be are in high demand.
2: Great communication skills
The ability to read, write, and speak clearly and effectively will never go out of style — especially in IT. IT project annals are filled with failed projects that were good ideas but poorly communicated.
3: A sixth sense about projects
There are formal project management programs that teach people PM methodology. But for most people, it takes several years of project management experience to develop an instinct for how a project is really going. Natural project managers have this sixth sense. In many cases, it is simply a talent that can't be taught. But when an IT executive discovers a natural project manager who can "read" the project in the people and the tasks, this person is worth his/her weight in gold.
4: Ergonomic sensitivity
Because its expertise is technical, it is difficult for IT to understand the point of view of a nontechnical user or the conditions in the field that end users face. A business analyst who can empathize with end users, understand the business conditions they work in, and design graphical user interfaces that are easy to learn and use is an asset in application development.
5: Great team player
It's easy for enclaves of IT professionals to remain isolated in their areas of expertise. Individuals who can transcend these technical silos and work for the good of the team or the project are valued for their ability to see the big picture. They are also viewed as candidates for promotions.
6: Political smarts
Not known as a particularly politically astute group, IT benefits when it hires individuals who can forge strong relationships with different constituencies throughout the company. This relationship building facilitates project cooperation and success.
7: Teaching, mentoring, and knowledge sharing
IT'ers able to teach new applications to users are invaluable in project rollouts. They are also an asset as teaching resources for internal IT. If they can work side by side with others and provide mentoring and support, they become even more valuable — because the "real" IT learning occurs on the job and in the trenches. Central to these processes is the willingness to share and the ability to listen and be patient with others as they learn.
8: Resolving "gray" issues
IT likes to work in binary (black and white). Unfortunately, many of the people issues that plague projects are "gray." There is no right or wrong answer, but there is a need to find a place that everyone is comfortable with. Those who can identify and articulate the problem, bring it out in the open, and get it solved are instrumental in shortening project snags and timelines.
9: Vendor management
Few IT or MA programs teach vendor management — and even fewer IT'ers want to do this. But with outsourcing and vendor management on the rise, IT pros with administrative and management skills who can work with vendors and ensure that SLAs (service level agreements) and KPIs (key performance indicators) are met bring value to performance areas where IT is accountable. They also have great promotion potential.
10: Contract negotiation
The growth of cloud-based solutions has increased the need for contract negotiation skills and legal knowledge. Individuals who bring this skills package to IT are both recognized and rewarded, often with highly paid executive positions.
Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.