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Learn the secrets of developing soft skills in coders

Developers who can be customer-facing are in high demand today. Expert Bruce Tulgan explains developing soft skills for professionals in technical roles.

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At a time when there is a worldwide shortage of software developers, it's perhaps surprising to hear that employers are starting to want more from their coders -- and in many cases that "more" is related to developing soft skills.

SearchSoftwareQuality spoke about this topic with Bruce Tulgan, a management expert, founder of consulting firm Rainmaker Thinking Inc. in New Haven, Conn., and author of several best-selling books. Tulgan's latest book is Bridging the Soft Skills Gap.

In this podcast, Tulgan, who has been tracking generational issues in the workforce since the early 1990s, said this newest generation of employees -- the so-called Millennials -- brings a lot to the table, but in unique ways that work for them but might clash with a corporate culture.

Today employers want coders who can be customer-facing and actually communicate and work with users while remaining very technical. In Tulgan's research, he found that what works for the youngest generation of developers and other technical people might not be understood or appreciated in a big business. The trick, he said, is to bridge the gap between the two cultures and help everyone understand each other.

As an example, he pointed out that Millennials might be most comfortable communicating over a screen, having flexible work hours and wearing clothing that's in style at the moment. In many businesses, though, communication might be at a face-to-face meeting, business hours are, well, regular business hours, and the attire is likely to be business casual.

Despite this group being fresh out of college, these skills aren't taught there, Tulgan said, because universities are focused on the technology education and not necessarily developing soft skills. And part of the problem is that these newer workers don't actually think they need to know more, which is one reason why employers have to tackle the soft skills gap carefully, he warned. Leading by example, or by lecture, simply doesn't work.

Instead Tulgan suggested managers and employees practice small, repeatable behaviors to slowly fill in that skill gap one step at a time. "It's going to take practice and patience," he said.

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This was last published in December 2015

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How did you overcome obstacles to developing soft skills?
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It's always a work in progress. For someone who doesn't have great soft skills naturally, it's pretty draining to focus on them constantly. So my focus comes and goes. I like to think I'm continuously improving over time!
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My observation is that the new grads have better soft skills in areas like communications and multitasking than previous generation of grads who may have had a more technical focus in their education.

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Good tips. Soft skills are absolutely important in most any professional position, and if a developer can learn effective soft skills, that will really set them apart from the crowd. Because frankly, good soft skills are difficult to find among IT employees.
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