There are many talented people in the technology industry, but few outright geniuses. Most of us, however gifted, need to work hard on developing and maintaining our skills if we want to reach the summit of our chosen field.
However, it’s not always easy to determine what skills have the most value in today’s market. And then there’s the million-dollar question: Should you focus more intensely on developing your hard skills or your soft skills?
To some extent, this depends on your career path. “In today’s industry, you need to be constantly sharpening your hard skills if you want to work in a technical role such as software engineering,” says Sacha Kalusevic, a Senior Director of Technology. “However, for positions like IT project manager or helpdesk consultant, recruiters value candidates with highly developed soft skills — communication, time management, calmness under pressure and so on.”
That’s not to say that engineers won’t benefit from improving their listening skills, or that project managers will be wasting their time learning the finer points of cloud architecture. If you want to catch the eye of a recruiter or negotiate a salary bump with your current employer, it helps enormously if you can demonstrate that you’ve acquired skills outside your comfort zone.
To that end, here are five simple steps you can take to build new skills and advance your tech career.
1. Define What Success Looks Like For You and Set Goals
Before you start signing up for tech meetups and coding bootcamps, take some time to consider where you want to be — and how much you want to be earning — in three years. Without clear goals, you’ll find it difficult to draw up a career roadmap and may end up wasting time acquiring skills and qualifications that don’t add value to your resume.
Ask your manager, colleagues, and any other contacts for advice on the kind of IT roles that would suit your skill set. Then, research the experience and educational requirements for those roles. If you’re going in a position like data scientist, for example, you may need to spend several years obtaining a graduate degree.
When defining goals, focus on things you can measure (salary, for example, or the number of open positions in any given field) and don’t plan too far ahead. Break down your long-term goal into realistic, short-term milestones. This will keep you motivated and make it easier to pivot to a different set of goals if things don’t go according to plan.
2. Ask for Feedback, Then Act on It
One of the hallmarks of successful people is that they learn from their mistakes. They also learn from their successes, analysing their performance so that they can do even better in future. This kind of mindset is particularly important in tech — a fast-paced, competitive industry where simple errors can have business-critical consequences.
Even the best software engineers benefit from peer code review, in which one or more teammates check your work. Not only does this make your code better and more stable, but also it helps you with collaboration and relationship building — vital soft skills for advancing your tech career. If you work in a non-technical role, any feedback you receive will be more subjective — there’s no right or wrong way to deal with a user enquiry, for example, or lead a team meeting. But by asking managers and peers to assess your communication, leadership, and other soft skills, you will gain valuable insights into the areas you need to improve upon.
3. Never Stop Developing Your Professional Skills
To succeed in tech, you need to be prepared to learn something new every day. The moment you stop learning is the moment you start to lose your value.
Michael Andris, a senior director at Page Personnel Germany, offers a recruiter’s perspective on the kind of skills employers are looking for in 2022. “The most sought-after software development skills include Java (popular with companies that outsource projects) and C# (particularly popular with large companies),” he says. “Windows administrators are in demand, while Linux knowledge seems to be declining as a must-have skill. It’s also worth noting that, in my sectors, fluency in English is just as important as fluency in programming languages. If your English is below par, you risk being rejected for a position that is otherwise perfect for you.”
That’s a snapshot — things are bound to look different in 2022. Here are three ways you can update your technical skills and stay on top of emerging trends.
- Attend a tech bootcamp — Lasting three to six months and offered both in-person and online, these intensive courses aren’t just for beginners. A focused bootcamp can provide you with job-ready skills to help you transition to a new role. Most camps specialise in popular coding languages such as Python and Java, but if you’re looking to enter a highly specialized field, you’ll also find ones devoted to more niche technologies. Some bootcamps even offer career advice services and coaching.
- Take an advanced degree — Math and statistics-heavy fields like data science have high barriers to entry, usually in the form of a postgraduate degree (either a master’s or a PhD.) It typically takes two years to complete a master’s, though some programs offer a one-year fast track for the most talented applicants. If you’re not sure how your career will develop, consider a degree like MBA in IT, which will enable you to strengthen both your IT skills and business knowledge.
- Learn by doing — Not everyone has the time and resources to pursue an advanced degree or even attend bootcamp. A good alternative is to ask your manager to assign you challenging or even experimental assignments in your current role. If your career plan involves moving from a technical to a leadership role, reach out to a project manager and ask if you can shadow them for a couple of hours each week.
4. Sharpen Your Soft Skills
It’s a myth that people are “born communicators” or “born leaders.” Those described in such terms have usually spent years honing their skills, learning from their mistakes and listening carefully to feedback from their managers and peers.
One tried-and-trusted way to improve soft skills is to ask your manager for stretch assignments that take you outside your regular routine and job description. If you’re a software engineer, you might ask for assignments that place a premium on communication skills and empathy, such as delivering a presentation to a client or joining a cross-functional team created to solve a difficult problem.
Build Up Your Brand
Networking is another must-have skill for tech professionals, but it’s not simply about making contacts or increasing your follower count. You can have thousands of connections on LinkedIn, but if you never update your resume or engage in discussions, you’re unlikely to catch the eye of a recruiter or potential employer.
Here’s how you can leverage your digital channels to advance your career:
- Refresh your social media profiles as often as possible, adding skills and qualifications that add value to your brand and removing ones that don’t.
- Seek out and follow industry influencers and experts in the areas that interest you. Share or re-post their content and ask for tips on how to emulate their success.
- Engage in discussions on niche forums. There’s no programming language so obscure that it doesn’t have its own subreddit or Facebook group. These forums attract passionate, highly engaged experts who can pass on valuable insights and insider tips.
Finally, don’t be afraid to take a risk. Tech talent is scarce right now, which means employers may take a chance on candidates who lack certain skills and qualifications but have determination and passion to spare.
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