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Are Human Relations Skills Important in Tech?

Only if you plan on working with people. (And even if you don’t.)

Technical aptitude and skills are important, of course. But the ability to relate to and work with the people around you is just as crucial.
Question: This is for a school assignment for a class called Human Relations in Organizations. I have to ask someone with a career in  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 questions 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 way more important.

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Interpersonal skills — communications skills specifically — are critical to a successful career in any field. Sadly, nowhere are they more lacking than in technology, it seems. Being able to communicate well and understand others clearly, responding appropriately to the concerns, criticisms, and problems raised is critical. All schools should include human relations and person-to-person interaction, as well as things like practical writing, critical thinking, persuasion, and more. All of these skills can make the difference in your future success.

What skills do you use every day…?

There are many skills I use every day, but most 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 a 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.

What most people fail to realize is tech skills are virtually useless in isolation. What turns them into something meaningful is the ability to communicate ideas and concepts to others. Being able to understand and respond appropriately to the concerns, criticisms, and problems raised by others is just as important as technical skills.

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

How 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. Even then, I’m in constant contact with my assistants, clients, and others. I write articles. I respond to questions. When I’m programming or working on some other kind of problem, I interpret needs and turn them into solutions.

Seriously, communication is nearly constant.

If you forced me to give you a number, I’d say it’s 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, persuasion1, and more.

In one of my more important articles, “If I Had to Do It Over…“, I wrote 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 that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Writing and speaking 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 prepared me for what it really meant to work in my profession. I could deal with computers, 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, learning as I went.

Looking back, something like a good Human Relations course could have helped tremendously.  At the very least, it would have made me aware that I’d be working with people as much as computers. It certainly would have benefited many of the people I’ve worked with over the years.

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 capacity 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, 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.

And if you’re like me, the more satisfied you’ll be, too.

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Footnotes & References

1: Which I’ve recently learned is also referred to as “rhetoric”.

23 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,

  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 ! !


  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.

    Hash: SHA1

    Bill: Sure! But to be clear, depending on how much you plan or want to quote,
    here are the terms for republishing:

    Version: GnuPG v1.4.6 (MingW32)


  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.

    • Hallelujah! Someone who gets it. The famous KISS principle. The number of people who are NOT techie geeks is so close to 100% it isn’t funny. We want, need even, applications that are easy to navigate, logical in how they work, and when necessary have easy to understand help files, whether text only or interactive links in a help application. And video’s are well worth pursuing, because some people learn better by watching and doing.

      Well said John Ellerington

  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.

  18. At one university where I used to teach technical English, they changed the name of the English language courses from “English” to “Soft Skills” and the focus was on teaching communication skills in addition to teaching a language.

  19. Some of the best (and most valuable to my career) sessions I’ve attended at techñical conferences (SHARE Conferences in my case) were the soft skills sessions. I have no doubt that they were a critical component in my eventually becoming a CIO.

  20. I want to get on the bus to say how great this article is. I am a retired Civil Engineer and for many years I also taught technical and computer classes at the adult level. In addition, I have mentored several foreign-born students at the high school level. In every case, it became obvious to me that to be able to both speak and write clearly and succinctly is one of the keys to success.

    With my Mentees I stressed that the first impression many people will get from them is when they open their mouths to speak. It is not important that they may have an accent; what is important is that it becomes immediately apparent that while they may SPEAK with an accent, they do not THINK with one. That is, they are able to communicate clearly.

    With my adult learners, I found that speaking clearly and jargon-free was critical. For example, several of my classes were for continuing education for other Engineers. You would think that jargon and three-word sentences would be OK with that group. No, I found that if I did not speak clearly and without any “in-joke” jargon or argot, the point would be missed.

    Engineers have a well-deserved reputation for being gearheads, but I found that as I climbed the career ladder, I got further faster as my communication and human relations skills improved. That is something they do not teach you in college or university – unfortunately.

    Keep up the good work Leo. I look forward to your Newsletter each week.


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