28/05/2024

The hard facts about soft skills in software development

When Prime Minister Rishi Sunak unveiled his proposal for all young people to study math until the age of 18, it caused quite a stir, with many high-profile journalists and A-list personalities challenging the view that better math equals better prospects.

Of course, for roles in custom software development, strong mathematical skills are critical, however, soft skills should also never be underestimated. ‘Reading the room’, the ability to listen, communicate well, and empathise, along with great time management skills, are all essential when working as part of a team and in a client-facing role. 

Our web team leader, Glen Lockhart, senior project manager, Danielle Mistry, and senior software developer, Diego Aires, are all well-established in their tech careers, with decades of experience under their collective belts. Here they tell us how strong math and exceptional soft skills are the perfect recipe for harmonious outcomes…

In many people’s minds, tech and math go hand-in-hand - would you agree strong math skills are important for a job in IT?

Diego: In software development, mathematical and statistical concepts underpin the logic and algorithms that drive software systems. A deep understanding of these concepts enables developers to write efficient code, optimise performance, and troubleshoot complex issues. But what’s also important is a willingness to learn and adapt. 

Glen: The core of programming is pattern matching and this requires a mathematical brain. Interestingly, musicians are quite often good coders as they also identify patterns in sound.

Danielle: Math is central to software development. If you’re a project manager, like me, reasonable math abilities and an understanding of structures and patterns can be useful in supporting development, but not nearly as critical.

Were you a high achiever in math at school?

Danielle: I found math at school quite unengaging. My engagement with it was more through physics and at university. 

Diego: mathematics has always been a prominent presence in my life. Growing up in a family of developers, I was exposed to mathematical concepts from an early age. One of our family pastimes was testing algorithms, challenging each other to solve problems using nothing but pencil and paper, and then writing a code in BASIC language.

Glen: I always found math just made sense, where language always seemed confusing and frustrating. For every rule in the English language there seemed to be an exception - which didn’t work well for me. I like my ducks in a row.

When did the soft skills penny drop for you?

Glen: Early in my career, I was in a meeting where it became clear the development team was going to miss a deadline. The spec was huge and challenging. The project manager said, “has anyone called the client to see how they feel about this? Perhaps we can prioritise what’s actually important to them on launch day.” The answer was no. So the project manager arranged a meeting (with donuts), re-scheduled the project, and involved the client in the process. It wasn’t a technical solution, but a softer, real-world fix that saved the day.

What soft skills do you need to work effectively in a client-facing role?

Danielle: Working with clients needs very specific soft skills. You need to be diplomatic, empathetic to a client’s needs, and a good relationship builder.

Glen: I agree. Empathy with the client is the first rule of good service, along with a cool head, patience and a willingness to get things done - sometimes not in the way you might prefer.

Diego: In client-facing roles, effective communication takes centre stage. Being able to articulate technical concepts in layman's terms, actively listen to clients' needs and negotiate expectations are essential for building trust and fostering long-term relationships.

What about teamwork?

Diego: In a team environment, empathy and collaboration is key. The ability to communicate ideas clearly, listen actively to teammates' perspectives, and resolve conflicts diplomatically fosters a positive and productive working atmosphere. Plus good time management skills ensure tasks are completed efficiently.

Do you possess naturally strong soft skills or is this an area you've had to learn?

Diego: Coming from a background where logic and reason prevailed, I used to struggle to empathise with differing perspectives and personalities. However, through introspection and mentorship, I learned to appreciate the value of empathy and active listening in resolving conflicts constructively.

Danielle: I am a diplomatic person and naturally empathetic. I do have to try and make sure this comes through on Teams chats and email though, instead of too quickly cutting to the chase. So we all have things we need to improve on.

Glen: I think I have always been good at talking and listening generally, and I like to think of myself as empathetic. However, like Danielle, emails and written documents are areas I have had to work on professionally.

What are the best ways to nurture soft skills in others?

Danielle: Feedback. Explaining how something might seem to others that the person may not have thought about. Some people are very direct and factual, and that can be a positive thing, but sometimes may not go down well with clients. 

Diego: Encouraging open communication, providing constructive feedback, and fostering a culture of collaboration and respect can cultivate a supportive environment where soft skills naturally flourish. Additionally, offering mentorship and training programmes focused on interpersonal development can empower individuals to hone their soft skills and excel in their professional endeavors.

Diego concludes:

“In today's fast-paced and data-driven world, the importance of technical skills in mathematics and statistics cannot be overstated. From deciphering complex algorithms to analysing vast datasets, proficiency in these areas is a cornerstone of success in numerous fields. However, amidst the emphasis on technical prowess, soft skills are equally crucial, yet often overlooked.

“Soft skills encompass a range of interpersonal and intrapersonal abilities, including patience, active listening, negotiation, time management, collaboration, and emotional intelligence. While these skills may not have the same quantifiable metrics as mathematical theorems or statistical models, their impact on professional success is undeniable.”

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