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Prepare For a Career, Not a Job

A stop sign depicting a job and a forward sign depicting an arrow. Adapted from an image by Merio from Pixabay

Technical skills are an excellent platform for a job, but your longer-term career aspirations are best fulfilled by non-technical skills – soft skills. You will probably disagree, but I request that you read patiently what I explain in this post.

I have experience in IT. There was a time when I used to write code – in HTML, JavaScript, PHP, and MySQL. I used to develop entire websites using these technologies. In the beginning, it was a very lucrative and enjoyable experience – I was making good money, my coding skills were appreciated as one of the best, if not the best. That was 2002. Then I decided to take a break from programming and decided to concentrate more on training and development. In 2010, I got a chance to get back into programming – but I could not. Not because I did not know how to, but because the scenario had changed. All the four technologies I mentioned before underwent an overhaul. HTML no longer used tables to place elements; CSS was more the flavor. JavaScript had undergone a transformation from being a client-side scripting language to becoming more assertive in designing interfaces. PHP had become object-oriented to the point that it was no longer the language I knew and loved. As for MySQL, it was available for free when I used to code, now it was a paid product.

Mine is not an isolated case. A friend of mine, a Perl programmer when he started out, went into his father’s business, grew tired of it after 14 years, and decided to come back to programming in Perl. Guess what? Perl was no longer favored as a programming language. It was replaced by the more elegant PHP, or nowadays Python. My friend was not a bad programmer; he just became obsolete.

THAT is the problem with technical skills. You must stay abreast, at the cutting edge of the skills to be competitive and proficient. It requires practice, which comes from projects, which ultimately are few and far between. What do you do then? One answer would be to learn a new technical skill and become proficient at it. Of course, that skill would soon outlive its use, and then you would have to look for another technical skill. Is it any surprise that you see so many talented young IT engineers out of a job these days? The answer is simple. They did not upskill themselves. As I just explained, upskilling can be challenging in technical skills.

In my case, however, all was not lost. Though I did realize that I would have a very steep learning curve when it came to technical skills, I realized that there were certain skills I would always need, be it as a programmer or training and development professional.

For example, I would always need negotiation skills. When I was a programmer, I would negotiate for timelines, for scope changes, for better hardware, for better programming environments. While managing training projects, I would negotiate for budgets, for effort estimates, for manpower, for resources. While the commodities I was negotiating for were different, the skills remained the same. The best part was that those skills got better, the more I practiced them.

Another example is presenting skills. I am not referring to presentation skills only but presenting skills. As a programmer, I was always presenting my code, my design, my logic to my stakeholders. As an eLearning developer, I was presenting learning designs, template designs, learning assessment strategies, etc. The difference between presenting and presentation is that very often, presentations are assumed to have slides and PowerPoint and what not. What if you were to present using a projector, but the projector would not work at the last moment? What if you went to a client location to present, only to realize that they did not allow external laptops? What if your laptop supported an HDMI port, but the project did not have an HDMI port? These are only a few of the problems I encounter when I am about to present something, but now they don’t make me nervous. The reason is that all these years I honed my presenting skills, and they have prepared me for any eventuality.

Lastly, consider listening skills. There is a very famous quote that God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason – He wanted us to listen more and speak less. As a programmer, I learned to listen to the coding requirements. I did my best to empathize with the client on their specific needs so that my code would reflect their expectations. It was the same case when I gathering requirements for a training project. For example, establishing the project scope was critical – one misheard requirement could mean hours upon hour of wasted effort. Sharpening my listening skills was of critical importance.

The problem is that subjects like negotiation skills, presenting skills, and listening skills are not taught in a traditional sense. There is no school or certification for them, unfortunately. I say unfortunately because these are skills people need to learn, but they don’t. Ask anyone what they are skilled at, and you get answers like AI, ML, Finance, HR, Operations, etc. But ask someone, are they good in negotiations? Are they good at presenting? Do they consider themselves to be good listeners? The answer will most often be a stoic silence. I ask why? Are these skills not important? Are they not required? We live in a world that is connected but does not communicate. Are communication skills not a necessity? We are becoming an increasingly intolerant world. Should empathy not be taught as a value? Speaking of values, why do schools, colleges, and universities have courses on ethics and values? Should these not have been learned at home, at the knees of our parents, grandparents, and uncles and aunts?

The answer is that these skills are more important than technical skills. What use being a brilliant programmer if you cannot articulate your thoughts in a coherent manner? While technical skills prepare you for your job, soft skills such as active listening, negotiation, presentation, networking, communication, public speaking help you prepare for a career. The best part is you get to practice them every day – you don’t need a specific project for them. As you traverse your professional life, remember to give as much importance to these soft skills as you will give to your technical skills.

If you have read this far, then I know that I have in some small way, caused you to consider taking my words seriously. Best of luck with your career!

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