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Soft skills in IT

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One really goes to conferences like Microsoft TechEd to meet people you didn’t know you were going to find interesting… One such serendipitous conversation I had at TechEd this Autumn was with Iain Kelwick of the University of Hull, about SEED Software.

This is an EU- and Microsoft-sponsored initiative for unemployed Comp Sci graduates. Thought there weren’t any? Well, don’t most job opportunities ask for experience, and even business domain experience, these days? Some inexperienced graduates have trouble getting that all-important first job.

SEED delivers high-quality software solutions, professionally project-managed and backed up with the expertise and experience available in Hull’s Computer Science Department. Those inexperienced graduates are managed by SEED, and their experience or lack of it, is irrelevant to the end customer (and SEED gets repeat business, so presumably this model works)

However, what interested me was the nature of the extra level of training the scheme offers to graduates – not in the technical IT skills people usually think are important but largely, it seems to me, in the soft people skills that make technically competent people actually useful to the business. These range from estimating skills and the ability to negotiate a compromise between the delivery of business functionality on a specified date and the resources available; to the simple ability to talk to business people without using IT jargon...

But SEED is only one initiative, and quite a small one in the context of the IT industry as a whole. There are other approaches to ensuring that you get the “soft skills” needed to complement the technical knowledge of your IT staff. Some computer science courses have an “on the job” training component and industry sponsored competitions, such as Microsoft’s Imagine Cup, give favoured students a chance to escape from the academic ivory tower.

More enlightened employers actually assess communications and other people skills during selection. One good way of assessing employees for more than just their claimed qualifications is to put the “short list” to work for a day, in a pair-programming team. This is expensive in the short term, possibly – but in the long term, how much will technical gurus that can’t work effectively as part of the team cost you?

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