Beyond Code: Why Today's Engineers Need Strong Soft Skills

Software engineers are a hot commodity today, and nearly every company needs them. In fact, software engineering is one of the top 10 most in-demand jobs in 2017, according to a report from CareerCast.

Along with this current demand for engineers, there is also a growing demand for engineers to have new skill sets, particularly when it comes to soft skills. Gone are the days when engineers could lock themselves in their offices and crank out massive amounts of code. As former coders like Mark Zuckerberg become powerhouse leaders in tech companies around the world, increasingly more organizations are asking engineers to develop intangible skills like leadership and collaboration chops.

In some settings, these soft skills may be even more important than technical prowess. Research from Harvard, the Carnegie Foundation, and Stanford Research Center found that 85 percent of job success comes from strong soft skills, and only 15 percent stems from hard skills like engineering knowledge.

Engineers Need to Collaborate and Solve Problems

Today's engineers operate in much more collaborative work environments. In the past, engineers were the executors of ideas devised by the product marketing team. In today's agile engineering environments, engineers, product managers, user experience designers, marketers, and many others typically work together in small pods on projects, meeting nearly every day to brainstorm ideas and manage workflows. In this setting, the engineer is expected to solve problems that are not always technical in nature while clearly communicating their points of view and collaborating with teammates.

As companies become increasingly global, engineers may even be working with teams thousands of miles away, heightening the need for them to be exceptionally flexible and adept at resolving conflicts. In software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies, product review cycles are often three weeks or less. More frequent releases means engineers need greater personal accountability, and they need to be able to communicate their progress toward deadlines, often as they manage the entire release process.

At Instructure, we assess an engineer's communications skills along with their technical capabilities. As we've focused on engineers who bring strong collaboration and communication skills, we've found that our projects run smoother and we're able to iterate faster and with limited hiccups.

Not Enough Engineers Have the Right Soft Skills

That being said, as our company grows and we need to hire more engineering talent, we find there aren't enough engineers in the talent pool who have mastered both the technical skills and the dynamic soft skills. While universities and crash engineering courses do a fine job at helping new engineers develop the technical skills of the trade, many people still lack basic communication and problem-solving skills when they graduate these programs. Some colleges have identified this problem, and they've consequently started to emphasize soft skills more within their STEM departments, but it is still difficult to find a high-quality engineer who is also a great leader.

In many instances, this skills gap within engineering has been left to companies to fix. With in-office education, companies can indeed offer engineers the soft skills training they need. As more and more engineers are asked to lead, it's important that employers help these future managers build the communication skills they need at the outsets of their careers.

Companies Need to Take the Lead on Training Engineers

At Instructure, we train our engineers with much of the same materials we use to train our managers. We're focused on building engineers who can set expectations with teams and communicate well with others. We also mix soft skills courses into engieneers' continued coding education, and we give new engineers mentors to help them become productive team players more quickly. Once an engineer has shown leadership promise, we give them opportunities to mentor others or become a team lead, expanding their leadership responsibilities from there.

Companies need to take on the task of nurturing the next generation of engineers. Building their soft skills will make them not only better engineers, but also all-around better employees, leading to greater innovation and productivity for the company.

Jeff Weber is senior vice president of people and places at Instructure.