Don't be fooled into thinking you're guaranteed a promotion or immune from layoffs, because you're a star with Linux or Oracle. Technical skills matter, as always, but so do communication skills. Business executives, organizational psychologists and recruiters all agree: To excel as a technical professional, you need to learn how to communicate your ideas and work effectively with others.
For many hard-core techies, this means making a concerted effort to improve their soft skills. Here are five suggestions:
Take a Seminar or Course
Bypass generic public-speaking courses and look for one designed for techies. Global Knowledge, for instance, offers a course called "Customer Communication Skills for IT Professionals." The two-day class focuses on topics relevant to technical pros, such as gathering software requirements and translating technical language for nontechnical listeners. Global Knowledge also offers a companion course, "Management Skills for IT Professionals."
The American Management Association offers a similar course. The three-day "Communication and Interpersonal Skills: A Seminar for Technical Professionals" covers topics such as being assertive without being intimidating and overcoming resistance to new ideas.
Hire a Coach
Coaches offer more individualized approaches, gearing information to a particular person's career or personality. Anne Warfield, a speaking professional, coaches techies in small groups or individually, often working with people who find themselves called upon to bring their expertise beyond the IT department. For techies, gaining a better understanding of their own communication style and those of others may help them deal with superiors and subordinates. Techies tend to immerse themselves in details, Warfield says, and they may expect others to want the same approach, whether in meetings or presentations.
"The individual may not understand how they're being perceived," she says. "We work with them to help them see how they're perceived." Coaching may be particularly well-suited to technology professionals already in management roles but unable to rise above their current level.
Seek a Mentor or Model
Think of this as Coach Light. It won't cost you anything, but if you work at it, this method will offer you just as much or more in terms of learning how to work with others. Start by looking around you at your colleagues and superiors. Is there anyone who stands out for his or her ability to work with others? Who is viewed as particularly adept at dealing with other departments and higher-ups? Next, consider what qualities allow that person to excel. If the individual is someone you respect, ask for advice about your own strengths and weaknesses as a communicator and how you can improve.
Read About Success in Business and the Communication Process
Mike Foster, who teaches a course called "People Skills for Techies," recommends Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People as a way for programmers, technical support workers and others to improve their dealings with colleagues and bosses. If you're looking for a coaching substitute, think about reading Secrets of a CEO Coach: Your Personal Training Guide to Thinking Like a Leader and Acting Like a CEO by D.A. Benton. Of course, reading about communication isn't enough. Whatever books you read, translate their lessons to your own workplace and career goals.
Learn to Listen
Here's one sure way to improve your communication skills: listen. Communication isn't a one-way process. If a manager or team member doesn't think you're listening, it's hard to win that person as an ally. To work effectively, whether it's with customers or bosses, you've got to start by being an attentive listener. The "Global Knowledge" communication course, for instance, covers topics such as skillful customer listening and understanding others' response styles. Likewise, the American Management Association course helps techies to develop listening skills to really tune in to others and create productive relationships. The message is clear: Even in the world of coding and cubicles, relationships matter.