Stop Calling Them Soft Skills: It’s Crude and Confusing

I consider soft skills crucial to success in an IT career, but I find the term crude and confusing for two reasons. It suggests a tidy separation into non-overlapping categories which doesn’t exist, and it carries a hidden, more pernicious value judgment by hinting they are less important than hard skills.

I hope professional coaches have a clearer understanding of the scope of these skills than a layperson like myself, who is regularly encouraged to keep up his soft skills, with little idea where to start. I duckducked into the definition and present you with this unscientific motley array:

Photo by Meruyert Gonullu through
  • Communication skills
  • Adaptability
  • Motivation
  • Critical thought
  • Time management
  • Leadership
  • Creativity
  • Decisiveness
  • Conflict management

I could go on, but these will do for now. Each bullet point already has entire shelves, if not libraries, devoted to it. There are some immediate similarities to notice.

  • They are all generic skills, useful for both work and leisure and not tied to any professional arena.
  • They are more about what you can do than what you know: abilities versus knowledge.
  • They are acquired rather than learned, which takes time and practice. There is no fast track, but once mastered they can last you a lifetime.
  • You acquire them early in life and through contact with others. They are vital to your upbringing.
  • They are hard to measure and test for, and quite impossible to express in a subjective score.

If we conveniently call the other skills hard skills, then what would be a good definition? Let’s turn the above definitions on their head:

  • Specific skills that are useful in one arena and potentially useless elsewhere.
  • Skills that are based on knowledge of facts, which may become obsolete quickly.
  • You often gain this knowledge to support another aim, like when you take a certification required by a new employer. This is not to say it has to be a chore. Learning a new programming language is fun, but you do it so you can write a working program with it.
  • This kind of hard knowledge can be measured, tested, and scored.

Knowledge does not equate insight

Some developers like to boast certifications that are textbook examples of the above. Take the Oracle Certified Professional Exam for Java.

  • Narrowly applicable? Sure, if you don’t program in Java, it’s not much use.
  • Based on factual knowledge? Yes, almost entirely, I would say.
  • You must cram for it. Few developers carry in their working memory the level of detail that the exam tests for. Take the same test unprepared a year after passing it and you discover how efficiently the brain deals with trivia it is not required to recall regularly.
  • It’s a multiple-choice exam, so eminently testable knowledge.

I am not saying that tests and certifications like these have no merit, but any knowledge of dry facts does not equal or even lead to insight. You can score a hundred percent on the test and still write terrible software.

The clear difference between knowledge of discrete facts and comprehension of the whole doesn’t cover the soft/hard skills separation either. Traditional school subjects require both. Hard skills don’t come down to mere rote learning. Math is more about insight than facts, and so are foreign languages. You can be very creative and original with a small vocabulary. 

Somehow it remains attractive to separate soft skills from the rest. But it is still a contrast you cannot credibly defend by applying a single criterion. Don’t even try to equate it to essential versus optional either: the must haves versus the nice to haves. How vital is stress resilience and assertiveness in the workplace? It’s always important, even when it is less crucial for a junior in a cushy government position than for the CTO of an aggressive cryptocurrency startup.

Any work, no matter the formal qualifications, requires workers to have a minimum of interpersonal skills to function well. The more you deal with people, the more important it gets. Nobody can abide rude and arrogant jerks with no listening skills as a coworker. If you, regrettably, find them in senior positions and the atmosphere is nevertheless breathable, it’s despite them, never because of them.

We are not getting smarter

Measurability seems to define the hard/soft dichotomy better than any other criterion, but it’s nothing to be happy about. We are drawn towards hard skills largely because we can measure them better. This way our politicians can devise new policies to bump our lagging PISA scores and catch up with China and India. You probably knew humankind keeps getting better at traditional IQ-tests. This has been a steady trend over decades and it is not through cheating or test inflation. It’s because schools impart to our children the kind of knowledge this society likes to test for. Maybe we are getting smarter as a species, but that all depends on what yardstick you choose to use for intelligence.

Where does that leave Frank Zappa?

Allow me a musical intermezzo. At music schools you can study what we Dutch call light music (lichte muziek): pop, rock, rap, cabaret, musical. It’s a term that makes my blood boil. What do we call the rest? Heavy music? Where does that leave the late Frank Zappa, an artist more resistant to being labelled than any? Classic/contemporary, composed/improvised, religious/entertainment, electronic/acoustic, instrumental/vocal: these are at least workable categories, although still scales (pun intended), not labels. All this convenient cordoning off by genre only prevents people from peeping over the fence of their favorite walled garden. Apple Music has dozens of categories, but only one paltry (yet huge) container for 500 years of classical tradition. They practice the mirror opposite of the classic afficionados who lump all ‘light’ music together. If you find that a workable division, then you probably have only two kinds: ‘music I know’ and ‘music I don’t want to know’.

Blue and yellow skills

If only we called them blue and yellow skills, or round and square, I would already mind much less. But soft and hard are not neutral terms. Granted, hard is not universally viewed more favorably than soft. There’s hard drugs and hard-core pornography, for a start. But there’s also the dedicated, tenacious minority called the hard core that it is cool to be a part of. And hard means difficult as well as tough and impenetrable, implying that hard skills are always tougher to crack and therefore more valuable.

Associations matter. Soft skills conjure up fuzziness, lack of clarity and purpose. They’re nice for kindergarten teachers, but they won’t help Elon send a manned rocket to Mars, as some misguided hardcore physics major may think. Well, how do you expect the non-Vulcan crew to survive their trek without driving each other crazy? Thanks to their soft skills, and nothing else.