What soft skills are most needed in IT? Toronto Women in IT winners share

Given the competitiveness of today’s IT talent market, you may think a job candidate who checks all the technical boxes would be a shoo in for any openings. But HR leaders and hiring managers are placing increasing importance on soft skills such as communication, collaboration, adaptability and more.

More than two-thirds (67%) of HR leaders say they’ve passed over a candidate who met a job’s technical qualifications but lacked necessary soft skills, according to a survey conducted by technology consultancy West Monroe Partners.

“When I look to find employees in the vast land of IT, I focus on the intangibles before digging through the technical aspects,” said Claire Lam, CIO, Hubio Technology, who is among the women who were recently recognised for their achievements in technology at the Women in IT Awards Toronto. The awards program, now held in eight cities, has been shining a light on female tech leaders since it was founded in 2015 by Information Age.

I recently asked Lam and other winners to share one or two soft skills they believe are especially important for today’s IT talent and why those skills are so critical in their organisations. They also shared advice on how to cultivate those skills.

Read on to learn which soft skills these leaders say are most needed in IT today and how to cultivate them.

1. Curiosity and discipline

Transformation Leader of the Year

Helen Wetherley Knight, CIO, Calgary Drop-In Centre: The soft skills I believe are essential to IT are curiosity and discipline. IT is a science first, but it becomes an art in the application, making it essential that anyone pursuing a career in IT has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, process improvement, and learning about the business or nonprofit they serve. This needs to be balanced with discipline; discipline to accept when the time isn’t right, when the tool still needs refinement, and when the non-technical teams you support need your business acumen, not just your analytic strengths.

Technology is getting to be the easy part, with so many off-the-shelf systems that can be sold to any business leader. The talent that the IT leader brings to the table is ensuring they use discipline to not jump to a solution until the problem is fully understood, articulated, and agreed upon. It is only when everyone collaborates and then agrees on exactly what problem they are trying to solve, that a technical solution can truly be sought.

I’ve found significant value in taking organisational change management training, in tandem with project management training. Learning the levers to use to help non-technical teammates gain buy-in is critical to any IT project’s success.

2. Teamwork and collaboration

Advocate of the Year

Alice Thomas, Chief Digital Technology Officer, Sun Life Financial: Teamwork and collaboration are two of the most important soft skills for IT professionals today. Since we’re building technology solutions for everyone, we need a diverse group of people at the table to make sure we’re getting it right. We need people who can respect and appreciate each other’s differences and who can draw from everyone’s unique perspectives in order to solve today’s business problems.

Humility and adaptability are also important soft skills for anyone working in IT. You must be willing to admit mistakes and learn from what went wrong in order to drive the best product forward. Being too focused on perfection prevents you from doing that. You also need to be adaptable to be able to respond to changes quickly and implement feedback at all stages in the development process.

You can cultivate new soft skills over the course of your career if you commit to being a life-long learner and exploring new ways of getting things done. Move beyond what is known and familiar to you in order to stretch your thinking and add to your repertoire of soft skills. Deliberately surround yourself with people from different walks of life and learn from their respective backgrounds. This new information will feed into the solutions you build and will help to nurture a collaborative mindset. You can also make it a regular practice to learn new skills and go beyond your current training. If you continue to seek out new information, you will inevitably become more adaptable as you adjust your style of working to account for the new learnings. This will help to build your flexibility, capacity to adapt and ability to view mistakes as opportunities and not challenges.

3. Self-awareness and humility

CIO of the Year

Claire Lam, CIO, Hubio Technology: I believe soft skills are the driver of life and the most important part of leadership (which encompasses work and everyday relationships). When I look to find employees in the vast land of IT, I focus on the intangibles before digging through the technical aspects. While I believe overall character is the most important, two other key soft-skills are self-awareness and humility (and I’d add empathy too).

Self-awareness: We can only learn when we realise there’s a gap in our knowledge. We can only grow when we understand the experiences that make us who we are and where we can excel. Self-aware individuals thrive on learning and growth as keys to building valuable feedback loops.

Humility: The most exceptional people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and knowing have an innate, grounded humility. These people promote teams and people, and they value hard work as well as talent. They are also mindful of inclusivity and eliminating prejudice. They’re the people who demonstrate they’re grateful and don’t allow egos to drive their decisions.

To develop these skills, listen more than you speak and continuously show curious about the world without prejudice. Help the people around you drive to their best potential through collaboration and communication. And if you’re an organisational leader, be sure to encourage idea and knowledge sharing without negativity.

4. The ability to influence, communicate ideas, and more

Future CIO of the Year

Catherine Sim, Associate Director, Engagement & Portfolio Management, Data & Analytics, RBC: In order for analytics and technology initiatives to achieve real impact, technical and business expertise must merge together. However, one critical theme in the industry is that there are many people who are technical experts, and many people who are business experts, but very few people who have a good understanding of both. This gap exists now, and we expect it to continue and only grow in the future.

We’ve found great success in bridging this gap through interpersonal skills, specifically the ability to influence others, communicate ideas, build consensus, and establish rapport. These are the skills that can really differentiate a candidate from others – and it is those “soft” skills (which are hard to automate) that will become increasingly important as technology disrupts the work that we do and the roles required.

5. It’s all about communication skills

Data Leader of the Year

Jill Andrews, Director of Analytics, Fullscript: Communication skills top my list of qualifications for new recruits. In a data role, it’s essential to translate statistically and technically complex ideas to a non-technical audience. Successful members of my team build trust with stakeholders and demonstrate the value of the work we do by connecting their findings back to concrete business objectives.

The best way to develop this skill is through practice! Try to look at every project through the lens of the business problem at hand. Consider the most effective way to communicate your results to the primary owner of that problem. What are the actionable insights? Are you giving them any unnecessary information? Keep it clear and concise. Brevity is key.

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