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How Interpersonal Skills Help You Be a Stronger Tech Player

In today’s tech industry, interpersonal skills are just as important as knowing your way around Python.

Published April 12, 2021 / Updated April 14, 2021 by Sunny Betz

All programmers aren’t antisocial hermits, that stereotype is just like the floppy disk: obsolete. Tech teams are all about communication. So, people in highly technical roles can benefit from fine-tuning interpersonal skills, like active listening, assertiveness and patience. These skills allow teams to develop effective relationships, which can result in productivity, creativity and collaboration.

Interpersonal skills are so important to technical teams that Sarah Argue, as the head of people at logistics technology company Forager, only hires engineers and developers who can communicate as well as they can code. Her company’s engineering team epitomizes what a modern day tech team should look like. Rarely is anyone working solo with their heads down, Forager’s engineering team is “very open, collaborative and welcoming,” Argue said.

The first step to improving your interpersonal skills? Awareness. Rebecca Jasch, a marketing manager at software development company LaunchPad Lab, is an excellent listener. It’s a vital skill in her day-to-day and when she collaborates with tech teams. Though that wasn’t always true. “In the beginning of my career, I had the tendency to talk over other people,” she said. It took the intervention of a manager for her to notice how this was impacting her work, and then she course-corrected.

If you’re looking to improve your work relationships or have more successful 1:1s — here’s where you can start when it comes to building up your interpersonal skills.

FEEDBACK IS ESSENTIAL

The software engineering world once was a hotbed for “brilliant jerks” — engineers who had strong technical skills, but whose people skills left a lot to be desired. However, the developer community has largely left that reputation behind, and now tech roles require more interpersonal collaboration. For example, pair programming, a model that partners two peer developers on the same project, is one way companies encourage teamwork and effective communication among their tech teams.

“You’re rarely working alone nowadays,” said Rebecca Young, a freelance full-stack web developer. In her previous experience as a front-end developer at Braintree, she never worked in a vacuum, even in the middle of time-intensive, highly focused projects. “I’d often be paired with coworkers for projects, or would be attending meetings with managers and other people,” she said. Throughout every step, Young participated in feedback during monthly check-ins to keep others apprised on her progress.

Maintaining a consistent feedback loop helps teams stay on top of their work and reduce friction along the entire development cycle. By scheduling monthly retrospectives or daily standups, developers encourage each other to share their progress and talk through issues.

Sharing your work during the development process and final stages is crucial to ensuring your projects succeed. “Things change really fast in the tech world,” Jasch said. “If you can’t figure out how to explain your idea, you’re gonna get left behind really quickly.”

Regular check-ins give you space to talk about your work — how you worked through it and what you can do next time. “You should be given the space to ask, ‘Are we putting the right people together for these tasks?’ or ‘Do we feel like we’re being heard by our managers?’” Young said. Be transparent and honest in feedback, it’ll keep things running smoothly.

ASSESS SKILLS AND CONNECT TO COWORKERS

Unlike hard skills such as coding and data analysis, there aren’t any one-and-done boot camps for developing interpersonal skills on a technical team. Honing these skills takes a combination of research and practice.

“I wouldn’t be at the place I am without that real world experience,” Young said. “But I’ve also read books about communication and different personality types. It really depends on your learning style.”

Try assessing the communication skills of a coworker you admire against your own — are there any noticeable gaps? If they speak up more often in brainstorming sessions, push yourself to comment at least once in every meeting you attend. Maybe they seem to have stronger friendships with your other teammates — if that’s the case, challenge yourself to find common ground with a new coworker or grab a coffee with a teammate.

“I find value in going to lunch with my peers, or spending time with them not talking about work.” Young said. “Someone might be a senior dev, but they also have cool hobbies, and we can dive into a conversation about music or something. If I know them better as people, it’s less intimidating.”

LEADERS CAN SUPPORT THEIR TEAMS

It’s important for leadership and managers to make sure their teams are operating optimally. That includes productivity, but also more qualitative aspects. “Most companies should offer educational opportunities, whether that’s a stipend or lunch-and-learn opportunities,” Jasch said. By taking a top-down approach, leaders can model positive examples for their employees to follow and provide them with the resources to do so.

“I really hope that leaders understand the role they play in fostering that and helping people grow,” said Len Covello, CTO at the loyalty and rewards technology company Engage People. The benefit goes both ways: When leaders make the effort to coach their employees, they strengthen their interpersonal skills in the process. “Throughout your career, regardless of your age, or where you are, you should be willing to learn and be teaching as well.”

During the hiring process at Forager, a commitment to growth is a key quality Argue seeks out for candidates in leadership positions. “As we’re assessing new managers to come into the organization, we want to know: ‘How do you lift others up? How do you make time for growth and developmental conversations?’” she said.

REMOTE WORK INSPIRES NEW WAYS TO COMMUNICATE

The pandemic ushered in a wave of companies going fully remote — and that changed how many teams communicated. While there’s a lot that can’t be replicated on-screen, workflows and meetings have adapted.

“It does seem like people are making more of an effort nowadays, which was something I took for granted before COVID,” Young said. “We might miss the casual side conversations while getting breakfast or around the office, but there’s still space for the meaty conversations about how we’re working together or how we’re feeling.”

It’s crucial to have conversations with your manager so they know what’s working and what’s not — and so you can avoid burnout. Many companies are examining new creative ways to bring their employees together, like virtual happy hours and lunches. Hopefully the best ideas will stay in place, Argue said. “I’m excited, because I think it’s actually going to make us stronger when we do go back.”

IN YOUR NEXT INTERVIEW, HIGHLIGHT SOFT SKILLS

Employers look for people who can relate well to their coworkers — it’s why you’ll see terms like “responsible,” “flexible” and “positive attitude” in job postings. But unlike technical skills, which are represented by results, soft skills are more difficult to prove.

Demonstrate your interpersonal skills, Covello said. “You don’t want to list off keywords. It’s better if you can give an example of a time where you exemplified those skills.”

Instead of saying you’re a good listener, share an anecdote about how you internalized feedback from someone else and put it into your work with tangible results. Such examples give employers a window into how you approach your professional life and help them more clearly understand what contribution you’d make to their organization.

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