As digital becomes business critical we need to re-evaluate the skills of digital professionals. Currently we overvalue technical competency at the expense of other more important attributes.
If you are a front-end coder, server side developer or even designer, I want to let you in on a secret. Those technical skills you have worked so hard to learn will soon become obsolete.
In my 20 years of working on the web I’ve seen many technologies come and go. Flash developers who spent years honing their skills only to find them become obsolete within a couple of years. Cold Fusion developers who backed the wrong horse. The list could go on.
Add to that the fact that technology has a habit of replacing jobs. As software grows in intelligence, it becomes capable of undertaking ever more complex tasks. You have to wonder whether people will be hand coding websites in 10 or 15 years.
We are already seeing technologies emerge that are seeking to replace hand coding. The quality is not as good as hand coding, but before long it will be good enough. After all people used to make a lot of money from building bespoke content management systems. Tools like WordPress may not be as tailored to our clients need as a bespoke system but they are good enough.
We spend too much time focusing on technical competencies. This comes at the cost of other skills that in the long run are more important. We sneer at people who do not know how to code. But the truth is the skills they have will be more relevant to the future web than our skills.
A great example of this is one of my co-founders at Headscape. Marcus Lillington has never designed a website or written a line of code. But he is one of the most capable digital professionals I know.
You see at its heart the web is not about technology. The web is about connecting people, and Marcus understands people.
I believe that we should spend less time learning the latest language or playing with the newest jQuery plug-in. Instead we should be honing our interpersonal skills and taking a leaf out of Marcus’s book.
In particular I want to focus on four skills that Marcus has, which we should all be looking to develop.
The ability to understand how other people are feeling is crucial to any digital professional and it is a skill Marcus has. Not only does it enable us to better understand our users, it also helps us work with colleagues.
For example, if we understand our managers pain points it is much easier to present a compelling business case. If our manager worries about lead generation then we can focus on ways digital can improve that metric. But, if they worry about staff recruitment then that could be the focus of our presentation.
Empathy helps us to worry less about our own agenda and more about others. It makes is better designers and more pragmatic developers. It also makes us a hell of a lot easier to work with!
There was a time when one individual could fulfil most of the roles required to get an organisation online. Those days are gone. Today, digital success happens through a close working relationship between many specialists.
The trouble is that many of us think we understand other disciplines. We feel we can write a bit of copy, comment on design or copy and paste some code. This undervalues those around us and damages our relationship with them.
Marcus is not like that. He recognises his own limitations and the expertise on others. He is unafraid to say he doesn’t understand and listen to the opinions of others. He often becomes the lynchpin of a team. Not a specialist himself, he has a talent for encouraging people to work collaboratively.
Part of Marcus’s success is his ability to inspire people. He has a talent for inspiring the people he works alongside. When you work with Marcus he makes you feel like a superhero and that inspires you to try harder. You don’t want to let him down. You want to be the person he sees you as being.
But Marcus’s ability to inspire is not just useful when running teams. It also helps when working with clients. Marcus can get a client excited about an idea. He is a natural sales man both before and after project commencement. He can paint a picture of how things could be better and that inspires clients.
The biggest skill Marcus has that we can learn from is his ability to listen. I mean really listen. I am terrible at this. My mind always runs ahead and I don’t take in what people are saying to me.
Marcus’s ability to listen makes him an incredible facilitator in usability testing. He is even better in stakeholder interviews. It also helps prevent a lot of misunderstandings during projects. He picks up on nuances that I sometimes miss. He also makes the client and other team members feel appreciated, because he takes on board their opinions.
The importance of soft skills
Skills like the ones I have covered above are often called soft skills. I don’t like the term. It implies they are secondary. I don’t believe they are. They are essential skills that we all need to do our job.
More importantly they are skills that will not become obsolete overtime. A clever web app might replace your coding, but a computer will never have these kinds of human skills.
Many of the skills I learnt 20 years ago when I started in the web are now redundant. The ones that have survived the test of time are these ‘soft skills’. If you are looking to build a robust career then focus on these rather than the latest innovation.