The following post was originally published in Human Infrastructure, a free newsletter from the Packet Pushers. You can subscribe and read all the back issues here.
In the tech world, a person’s skills tend to be labeled ‘hard’ or ‘soft.’
Hard skills involve coding, engineering, and infrastructure. Soft skills include writing, speaking, collaboration, management, and pretty much anything to do with human communication and interaction.
In workplace parlance, ‘hard’ evokes strength, difficulty, and rigidity. “Soft’ implies gentleness, delicacy, and pliability.
You don’t have to be Freud to recognize the subtext. You also don’t have to think too long about which skills are afforded a higher status.
There’s a perception in the tech industry (and probably other verticals) that hard skills are more valuable because they’re more difficult. Therefore, as Alice Goldfuss pointed out in a Tweet, an engineer who excels at ‘soft’ skills must not be good at the hard stuff.
Think about the last really good talk you saw at a conference or a user group—the kind of talk that engaged your attention, set your mind racing, and left you more energized than when you came in.
The speaker’s comfortable, confident delivery and the clarity of the information imparted seemed effortless. They made it look easy.
But it wasn’t easy. What you saw was the result of immense labor and effort.
What you didn’t see were the awful first five drafts, the text-wall decks, the rushed and breathless practice runs, or the restless thrashing at 2:00 am the night before. You didn’t see the deliberate practice or the honing of ability—only the result.
You might say “OK, sure, but I’ve also sat through bad talks. In fact, I’ve sat through a lot more bad talks than good ones.”
I’m sure you have. The world is full of mediocre presenters.
But you also interact with bad software, poorly configured networks, and horribly designed infrastructure—a lot more than good ones. That’s because the world is also full of mediocre programmers and engineers.
And yet somehow, mediocre programming is supposed to be more valuable than excellent communication (or management or whatever) just because one skillset is ‘hard’ and one skillset is ‘soft.’
We need new terminology to describe people’s capabilities. The hard/soft dichotomy, with its cultural biases baked in, should be replaced.