The soft skills you need for an agile software career
Great coders might be known for their technical abilities, but don’t undervalue the soft skills required to excel on an agile team. Skills like communication and problem solving are more important than ever as the rate of technological change accelerates. For many hiring managers, there’s a fresh focus on intangibles like emotional intelligence and adaptability. In fact, a recent LinkedIn survey found executives and talent developers agree: Soft skills are the No. 1 priority in talent development. To learn more we sat down with Leidos Product Owner Ellen Korcovelos, who’s in charge of hiring at the company’s agile software factory in Charlottesville, Va.
Q: Everyone wants coders with strong technical skills. Why do you put such a strong emphasis on soft skills?
Ellen: It’s important to understand we’re hiring humans, not robots. We’re looking for a sophisticated combination of skills that are critical when building a highly functioning team. Our software factory model was established with the vision of rotating developers between projects, giving them a broader perspective in order to create the best possible products. As we rotated developers we began to notice that soft skills were a critical indicator of whether or not they would be successful in the long term. That’s when we opened up this whole conversation about looking for soft skills during the hiring process.
, Product Owner
It’s important to understand we’re hiring humans, not robots.
Q: What are the most important soft skills you look for?
Ellen: I look for intangibles like adaptability, problem solving, and communication skills. I believe diligence and compassion are also critical. I want candidates who embody the fundamentals of their trade, understand there is so much more to learn, and work hard to accomplish their goals. It’s also important to note that those qualities are fluid across the candidate pool. We don’t want a homogeneous group of coders because the specializations, interests, and quirks of our coworkers are what inspire new ideas.
Q: What would you like to teach the next generation of coders?
Ellen: I’d emphasize two exceedingly important values: respect for others’ time and polite resistance. Having seen time and time again the consequences of communication breakdowns, I preach that it’s extremely important to hire people who remain patient, aren’t afraid to ask questions, and aren’t afraid to be told “no.” I’d also teach the importance of accountability and the ability to push through difficult scenarios with an air of confidence and compassion. This sort of emotional intelligence is critical when building a collaborative, optimized team environment.
Q: How do you test for soft skills in the hiring process?
Ellen: One technique we use is posing a question that gives the candidate an opportunity to display soft skills like work ethic, patience, and problem solving. We present a block of code and ask them how they can optimize it. We've learned that the people who really drill in and spend a lot of time figuring out what more there is to optimize are the ones who will pay attention to the details and produce high quality results.
We observe responses throughout the entire interview. People with a mastery of technical skills may immediately identify the issues in a technical question and present a solution - and you could call that a job well done - but we’re looking for the candidate who’s willing to look a little further. We look for the person who, at the very end, still asks if they’re missing anything. Those are the types of responses we really appreciate because there's always a better way to do things.
Q: What the biggest mistake you see software developers make in their career journeys?
Ellen: They stop at “no.” While no one wants coworkers who pick fights or attack unfavorable input, a lot of coders give up too quickly. They hear that a technology already exists, or that their team doesn’t have the resources to build out a desired idea, or that a client is uninterested in a specific feature—and they say, “That’s OK, let’s move on.” I admire that they willingly and quickly resolve the issue, but I also want so badly for them to resolve the issue in their heart as well. Are you satisfied with that decision, or is there a lingering feeling that what you wanted warrants another try? Take that second or third or fifteenth try if you’re truly passionate about something. Revolutionary breakthroughs are often the result of perseverance and passion.