Core Skills ≥ Technical Skills


Re-posting a popular article of mine from LinkedIn, I muse over the relative benefits of technical skills over core skills in hiring.

Reposted from LinkedIn

Empathy and Listening are greater than technical skill alone. Or put another way, Core Skills ≥ Technical Skill when it comes to high performance.

A Balanced View

I thought about this last week as I was writing a job description for a role I’m hiring for. In fact two roles, both with ‘Engineer’ in the job title: Customer Engineer and Site Reliability Engineer. And it really dawned on me that while I’m looking for someone who has technical skills, I place at least as much value–if not more–on core skills.

What are core skills? These are the ones that often get called ‘soft skills’ (example). I think that massively undersells the importance of those skills to even the most highly technical discipline. Indeed, in my experience the really great engineers and other technical practitioners are the ones who understand nuance, motivation (people, business); those who understand how to negotiate effectively. And I certainly value a great communicator over someone who can sling code because, frankly, what is code except the structured articulation of someone’s thought process and opinion? Even code is communication! And don’t even get me started on workaholics…

But how to balance these two skill sets?

While I was at Google, I sat on a hiring committee for Technical Program Managers. One of the things we looked for in a TPM was having equivalent technical judgement for an engineer at roughly the same experience level. Put another way: a TPM should be able to say something technically insightful to an engineer, such that the engineer would adjust their solution based on the TPM’s input. Technical judgement and skill are mandatory prerequisites; no arguments there. You literally cannot do the job if you don’t understand the technical domain. I’m not saying that Core Skills matter in the absence of technical skill. They both matter.

A bit more context: I also hired a bunch of people in technical roles. Between phone screens, writing packets of support for the best candidates, and then sitting in a hiring committee reviewing many, many such packets, I learned something. The Core Skills are the ones that shine through in good ways and…not so good ways: “They really know their stuff, but there’s a concerning comment from Interviewer A about their communication style…” is a representative example. For more senior candidates I would say or hear this: “They clearly understand the problem, but didn’t seem to know how to change the organization to tackle that problem. The leadership muscle is missing or underdeveloped.” These aren’t minor criticisms of a technical expert: they’re a fatal flaw in an otherwise perfect ‘hiring packet’.

Core Skills: My View

If it’s not clear by now, I value the ‘soft’ skills; the Core Skills.

But I had to write a job posting. How I should incorporate them into a job description so that candidates could tell how much emphasis I put on them, while also making it clear that it’s necessarily a balancing act between Core and Technical skill?

Something else was also on my mind: diversity. Another thing I learned at Google is that many of the best candidates for a role are put off by crazy lists of technical skills. They literally will not even apply for a role if they see a long list of technical requirements that they don’t feel qualified for. Even worse, women and minority (‘diverse’) candidates are quantifiably much more likely to be put off by that list of technical skills even though they may be stellar practitioners of Core Skills.

I ended up writing this (it’s a tiny bit SRE-specific):

About You

SREs fill a critical role at Woolpert. They are both technical subject matter experts, and creative advocates for operational solutions.

Core Skills

  • Clarity in verbal and written communications. You use a communications style that is appropriate to the context. You respect the time of recipients of your communications, whatever the form.
  • Empathy for the customer and for the team. You ask lots of questions to understand how to make an amazing end-user experience. You dig for deeper meaning behind motivations, and act in the best interests of the customer and the user.
  • Active listener. You listen more that you talk, and ask a lot of questions. You know when NOT to share your thoughts.
  • Embrace diversity. New and different perspectives strengthen just about any relationship, solution, or engagement.
  • Have a life. Life is not solely defined by work, and you recharge your batteries by stepping back from work. You know that creativity and inspiration often comes when you’re not thinking about your day job.

Technical Skill

  • Effective learner. You don’t know everything and that’s OK. But you do approach new technical subject matter systematically, with an open mind. Figuring out infrastructure automation tool, learning a new CLI, or jumping into a codebase in a new language are just things you do.
  • Solution oriented. You focus intently on the problem at hand, and deliver the simplest possible solution (but not too simple!). You think like system architect, and understand the customers have to be able to maintain what you deliver.
  • DevOps mindset. You know that shipping anything once is easy. Shipping it repeatedly in production is requires discipline. You think about service level objectives and the impact on site reliability at during deployment, not after go-live. Infrastructure is code!

I actually had one in there about “No Jerks” as well, but that was just a little too confrontational! But can you see that even the Technical Skills are about flexibility, focusing on solutions not problems, and being in it for a long game: no drama!

Ultimately the job postings couldn’t include all of that because of space restrictions. But you have to believe that every single candidate I talk to will be asked about those skills, and should be asking me about how we live those on the team. They’re critical.

So yes, I need people who can code; I need people who have shipped something in production and keep it running. But even more I need people who are empathetic, good listeners, and understand that diversity of opinion is the secret sauce that makes a team excel.

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