Job experience may teach you how to set up a high-end UNIX environment, a certification may give you a basic grounding in subnetting, and your peers on the Web may teach you all kinds of scripting tricks. These hard skills are hard-won and invaluable. But at the end of the day, quite another set of skills will boost your career. Skills that, arguably, are even more important than technology knowledge. They’re called “soft skills.”

Soft skills are the ability to communicate with people. When it’s time for a performance evaluation, a job interview, or a promotion, these are the skills you may find yourself famous (or infamous) for.

Putting it succinctly, soft skills for IT administrators are “extremely important,” said Larry Romero, network services manager for Pomeroy Computers. To Ray Palkovic, senior vice president and CIO of ICG Communications, soft skills are not just something nice to have, they’re everything. “There are very few positions that I can think of that you can get very far in without soft skills,” Palkovic said. He defines them as the ability to “deal with people in a manner that makes them feel good about the interaction.”

Romero defines the scope of this skill set as “the ability to make the customer happy.” Building teamwork is also of top importance to Romero as well as the “ability not just to assume before you make a decision.”

In addition, hiding behind IT jargon is unacceptable. “I used to have a little lecture when I’d hire anyone into my department,” Palkovic explained. He warned his new employees not to use “what I call the DP shuffle, IT-b.s. That was the surest way to get yourself walked out the door,” he said.

These sentiments were echoed by Romero. When dealing with nontechnical people, whether the purchasing department, customers, or sales managers, “don’t show them your technology jargon,” Romero insisted. “They don’t want to hear that kind of stuff; they want to hear plain English.”

How do you acquire soft skills? You won’t find these abilities emphasized in certification courses, but there are courses that can help. You can get basic guidance by taking specialized courses and seminars; these also may show your boss your interest in advancing. Romero, whose job involves supervising and scheduling approximately 38 systems engineers, was grateful for a Peter Drucker seminar, while Palkovic mentioned Dale Carnegie courses as particularly helpful. They both recommended that staff should take any corporate training in interpersonal skills that is available.

Corporate culture can also be a people skills teacher, according to Romero. He was lucky enough to find himself in several companies that emphasized “employer-employee relationships, how to be a better manager, increase morale,” he said.

But the best teacher of all may be a mentor. Both Romero and Palkovic make it a priority to personally encourage honing soft skills among their employees. Either by giving guidance or by teaching them skills they might be lacking, mentorship can make a huge impact in someone’s career, as indicated by this story told by Palkovic:

“I’ve got a guy who worked with me in the past who had severe communication problems, and I was the first supervisor who ever sat down with him and told him about these problems. But he had the best reaction to it I’ve ever seen. He hired a psychologist and modified all his verbal communication skills. He wanted to be successful. He’s a vice president today,” Palkovic concluded.

Palkovic’s story illustrates two of the most important lessons to remember about acquiring soft skills.

  1.  Look for a mentor.
  2. Take responsibility. Ultimately, how far you go in developing these soft skills, or any others for that matter, is up to you.

Larry Romero’s tips:

  • To build teamwork, use “we” rather than “I.”
  • Don’t assume or jump to conclusions before coming to a decision.
  • Don’t speak in jargon.

Ray Palkovic’s tips:

  • Speak in plain English, don’t speak in “technocratese.”
  • Put yourself in their shoes.
  • Treat people the way you’d like to be treated.
  • Always be honest.