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Are Human Relations Skills Important in Tech?

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This is actually for a school assignment for a class called Human Relations in Organizations. I have to ask someone with a career in my technology these three questions:

1.) What skills do you use every day to deal with others at work (co-workers and clients)?

2.) How often do you use those skills (a specific number, like a percentage of a typical day, or week)

3.) Do you think a class about human relations should be required for an Associates degree in computer programming? Why or why not?

Normally, I don’t answer homework questions. You’d be surprised at how many I get that are obviously someone trying to get me to do their homework for them.

This one, besides appearing to be an honest question as part of an honest assignment, speaks to something I feel strongly about. It’s not something I would have guessed when I started my career in computer programming.

Dealing with people is much more difficult than dealing with computers …

… and yet way more important.

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What skills do you use every day…?

There are many specific skills I use every day, but they all have a common thread: communication.

Whether I’m writing or editing an article, as I am right now, or discussing a problem with a client, or going over some task with an assistant, or even discussing business with my wife, it all boils down to effective communication.

I could certainly go on about technical skills and knowledge. They’re important, and I do feel I’m fairly proficient technically.

But what most people fail to realize is that all those skills are virtually useless in isolation. What turns them into something meaningful is the ability to communicate ideas and concepts to others. Just as important is being able to understand and respond appropriately to the concerns, criticisms, and problems raised by others.

Communication is the skill I use every day. Every. Single. Day.

CommunicationHow often do you use those skills…?

I know it’s not a number, but my off-the-cuff answer is “all day long”.

I work at home, usually alone. And even then, I’m in constant contact with my assistants, clients, and others. I write articles. I respond to questions. I interpret needs and turn those into solutions when I’m programming or working some other kind of problem.

Seriously, the communication is nearly constant.

If you forced me to give you a number, I’d say it’s pretty close to 100%.

Should a class about human relations be required…?

ABSOLUTELY! And, no, I’m not trying to suck up to your instructor by saying that.

To get more specific, I’d probably insist that a class in communication skills be required for all technical professions. That would include not only human relations and person-to-person interaction, but things like writing, critical thinking, persuasion, and more.

In one of my more important articles – “If I Had to Do It Over…” – I talked about what I would do differently, if I knew then what I know now.

The answer?

“I would have paid more attention in English class. Heck, I would have taken more English, grammar, and writing classes.”

And really, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Writing English well is just one component of communicating effectively, which in turn is just a component of relating to others well.

Nothing in my education really prepared me for what it meant to work in my profession. Yes, I could deal with computers very well. But people? That was a completely different matter. I did okay, but it wasn’t due to any education or assistance I’d gotten in school. It was really trial by fire – learn as you go.

Looking back, something like a good Human Relations course could have helped tremendously. It certainly would have benefited many of the people I’ve worked with in the years since.

The importance of human interaction

As you can tell, and as I warned you, I’ve developed some passion around communicating and interacting with others effectively. That’s not to say I do it perfectly – far from it. But I do absolutely believe in its importance.

It’s very easy, particularly in technological fields such as computer programming, to focus on the “skills of the trade” without realizing you’ll never work in isolation. Your ability to program is important, but your ability to work with the people around you is as or more important. You’ll have to take direction, explain problems, pose solutions, listen to disagreements, argue, disagree, apologize, take criticism, and more. All of that will come from people you may or may not respect, but with whom you still have to work.

The better you can relate – in addition to your technical skills – the more successful you’ll be. If you’re like me, the more satisfied you’ll be, too.

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18 comments on “Are Human Relations Skills Important in Tech?”

  1. Thank you very much and…WOW!

    I asked this a couple of different times yesterday and didn’t get a response from anyone. I was starting to get a little worried. So maybe I went a little overboard and made several e-mails and posted it on a few forums, just hoping to get at least one solid response. That was a few hours ago and already the floodgates have opened. It seems a lot of people feel pretty strongly about this. Now I have something new to worry about. Which one will I turn in? I may just have to e-mail all of them to save a tree or two.

    Thanks again,
    Joe

  2. Leo and I have worked together previously, and I can confirm that communications is key! This becomes even more critical for people who are not writing the code (program/project managers, functional analysts, software testers, product support) when they are trying to work with developers. Developers pour their heart and soul into their product and it becomes a part of them; other players should be considering this when forming questions, concerns, or suggestions. Good, considerate communications totally changes the team’s ability to provide sustainable productivity.

  3. Leo,

    May I quote you!?!?!?

    I teach computer science at a local community college. The thoughts and ideas you present here are exactly what I’ve been trying to convey to my students. You have said things in a few sentences that I have been trying to get across during an entire semester.

    Great article ! !

    Bill

  4. I agree with Leo one hundred percent. Once someone has programmed a while in a couple different languages, they likely can pick up whatever new technology comes along next. But communicating well is a whole nother thing. And while not easy or perfect, it is possible to test proficiency at computer programming. Testing for good communication is much harder. Anyone who has read computer books, knows that good communication is brutally rare. It hardly ever exists in combination with technical skills (you never see the manager of a baseball team playing center field). I’ve read more than my share of computer books and found only two good authors.

  5. Not just one class, perhaps three or four. Could go a long way toward explaining why humor is often mistaken for viciousness and nastiness on the part of the writer. I receive email from a few web sites where the sender is unaware that what he/she considers humor is viewed by many people as unnecessary rudeness. I believe one might consider this sort of thing as a sure way to lose readership. Even though I understand (usually) what the writer is trying to say, when I have reached saturation point I simply cancel my subscription to the newsletter. I have found I am not unique, either. In correspondence with others on the web, I find they do much the same thing (some with less kindness than I use.)

    • Communication skills are critical. If you don’t communicate carefully you can provide a very good answer to the wrong question. On the other hand, I have not seen many “classes about human relations” that actually helped a person accomplish better communication.

  6. —–BEGIN PGP SIGNED MESSAGE—–
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    here are the terms for republishing: http://ask-leo.com/terms.html#copyright

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  7. Communicating is essential in programming.

    A programming instructor I once had expressed it with “the user doesn’t know what they want until you give them what they asked for”.

    Being able to communicate well can save a lot of problems, and a lot of work down the line.

  8. Computers are merely a form of communicating. I am an over the road semi-truck driver. I have seen drivers in a bad mood set at a produce packing shed for 2 days before getting loaded. Drivers are not paid for setting around. I have used some sweet talk ie. please & thank you, and salesmanship to get loaded around other trucks. Normal time to get a door is 5 hours, even the loaders could not believe that I got in that fast. The ability to communicate and instantly build a friendly relationship with others always means more money in your wallet. Give a law officer a hard time and they will get in your wallet and take your money or worse, take you to jail!

  9. Great post and great comments. If you love programming then there is a good chance that you are an introvert…a person who looks inside themselves for gratification. The sooner you grow out of that and relize that programming starts outside of yourself…with the user…then that’s when you will truly be of value to yourself and others. It ain’t always easy to do; but any other way is just playing with yourself. Good Luck.

  10. If there is one other human relationship skill that’s important in programming, it’s ‘don’t be a smartass’. What I mean by that is that when a user interacts with your program, they’re not interested in seeing how clever you are – what they want is simplicity, ease of use, an intuitive interface.
    So the skill is to exercise humility, bury your ego and put yourself in the place of the user who is meeting your creation for the first time. Where judgement and experience are called for is knowing how to design your interface at a sufficiently high level that the user doesn’t feel as though you are treating them like an idiot, whilst not making it so complicated that only a rocket scientist can figure it out. Interface design is one of the keys to good programming, and this can only stem from a good understanding of how to relate to other people.

  11. The ability to communicate effectively is a vital part of programming: in particular, in creating an effective and useable user interface. Many applications, though undoubtedly technically brilliant, suffer from being difficult to use, because the programmer did not consider it necessary (vital) to make it easy to use.

    What should have been made by genuiuses so that it can be used even by idiots, is all too often made by idiots so that it can be used only by geniuses.

  12. I started in the computer industry back in the 1960s, and spent most of my career in the human resources field. I agree that effective communications is vital to most (all?) jobs, but it’s more than effective speaking and writing. Very critical is the ability to listen and reflect back what you hear. That’s not advice limited to just management/supervisory positions either.

  13. I majored in Chemical Engineering in college, but minored in Communication Sciences. Best classes I ever took and have read about it very since, helping me to success in my career. Later got a PhD in Biomedical Engineering, but still feel those Communication classes and books I read afterward were the best.

  14. Boy, this topic hits a nerve!! I am a mathematician. Actually, I teach mathematics (University Professor). At NYU, I majored in Mathematics, but I also had an English minor. At that time, it was because I loved reading and I also loved to write (albeit it secondary to doing mathematics). I never thought I would actually USE my minor. I wish I had a dollar for each time someone implied that us math types didn’t need to write. Well…

    My first job was as a mathematician at NASA. One of my chores was writing computer programs. Well, my boss was neither a programmer nor a mathematician. He was a “manager.” This meant that I could not just give him my Fortran IV computer program (on keypunched cards — remember those). Flowcharts helped, but I had to write a fairly lengthy synopsis regarding the mechanics/features of the program. In short, I HAD to write.

    Another job was as Mathematics Department Head at a high school. I got to teach all kinds of great mathematics courses, but I also had to supervise my Department. That meant writing evaluations and dealing with these individuals. Writing skills and people skills were essential. Once again, this math guy had to use many non-math skills.

    Another time, I met with a very large local company (a widely known major chemical company). Our purpose was to make sure our curriculum aligned with their needs. Well, it turned out we did a fabulous job of preparing our students to work for this company, in terms of chemistry and mathematics. BUT, they emphasized that our students needed to write better and, in general, communicate better. Almost every employee “let go” was in fact dismissed due to deficiencies in those areas. These employees were great in their majors, but excelling as a chemistry or math major was not enough.. and enough said!

  15. 1.) What skills do you use every day to deal with others at work (co-workers and clients)?
    In our organisation these 9 qualities are vitally important: Love Joy Peace Patience Kindness Goodness Mildness Faith Self-Control.

    2.) How often do you use those skills (a specific number, like a percentage of a typical day, or week)
    We try to use them all the time but because no-ones perfect you just gotta hope the other person is trying!

    3.) Do you think a class about human relations should be required for an Associates degree in computer programming? Why or why not?
    Computer programming? yes especially Patience! If everyone practice the above 9 then the world would be a different place.

  16. If you don’t think that human relations skills are important – watch “nick-burns-your-company’s-computer-guy” from Saturday Night Live. One great way to learn what to do in these types of situations, is to also see what NOT to do. This is a great example why those skills are very important. Just think about it – would you rather work with someone like Leo on a problem, or someone like Nick Burns? At our company, when we get done with a Help Desk Ticket, our customers get to grade us. I doubt very much that Nick Burns would last long in any IT department that cared about their customers. If Nick Burns had good human relations skills, with his knowledge, he would go a long way.

  17. Hi Leo!
    Right on target. I used to speak to Juniors and Sophomores at my high school on career day (as an Engineer). I had a student that asked me how much math he needed. My reply was, “all of it”. He beamed. Until I explained that it was so that he had a fundamental understanding of what is and is not possible (or likely) and be able to raise the BS flag as needed. Deflated, but not deterred, he then asked how much English (I figured it was not his strong suit). I told him every single day. I also explained that clear and understandable communication is a fundamental key to success in *any* field because no matter how good someone’s ideas may be, if those ideas cannot be communicated then they will likely be overlooked or underappreciated.

    It’s not just in programming or technical fields where communication skills are absolutely imperative; every aspect of one’s life is improved by better communication.

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