Settling the Soft Skills vs. Technical Skills Debate

For full-time employees, put more weight on the soft skills. For contractors who don’t make the technical cut, don’t put your money down on them.

Guest Commentary, Guest Commentary

October 16, 2019

7 Min Read

In the tech industry, there’s a lot of talk about hiring candidates who may have the soft skills but fall short on some of the technical skills. There are many opinions on the topic, but is there really a right or wrong on this issue?

With IT unemployment at its lowest on record, companies are desperate for tech talent. So, are you settling for talent if you hire someone without all the qualities and skills on your check list? Absolutely not. How do you know when it’s okay to hire a candidate when they don’t check every box?  The answer can depend on the type of talent you are hiring.

Hiring is very different for permanent and contract positions. You are on an entirely different timeline, with very different goals. For contract talent, the goal is a sprint to successfully deliver a project. For full time employees, it’s a marathon where winning means the growth, development and success of your team and company. These different goals mean you’re looking for different candidates and using a different interview process to identify and secure them.

Full-timers don’t need all A’s on technical report card

While the best-case scenario is to hire a candidate with both technical and soft skills, for permanent positions you can, and should, absolutely hire for soft skills, even when all the technical expertise isn’t there. However, a full-time employee who lacks some technical prowess must possess certain soft skills to get the green light. These candidates must listen, take direction, problem solve, and embrace constructive feedback. Following are four attributes for the full-time hire and how to spot them in the interview.

1. Listening. If a candidate can listen well, they are likely able to pick up instruction and learn from managers and teammates easily. Understanding when to be quiet is a powerful asset not everyone possesses.

During the interview, are they focusing on what you are saying? Or, are they interrupting you to get their point across? If they’re not listening in the interview, chances are they won’t listen once hired.  

2. Taking direction. Comprehending what is being taught and applying it are two very different things. Does the candidate understand what you want them to accomplish on the job, and are they able to take steps to make it happen?

Throughout the interview, do they share a mix of stories of working on a team and leading a team? Be sure they’re able to both heed direction and take charge, depending on the situation.  Ask them a question about a time they had to change course in response to a manager’s request. How did they adjust?

3. Problem solving. On-the-job thinking and processing are must-have soft skills. Are they diagnostic and interpretive? Do they try out different solutions until one works?

During the interview, give them a scenario where they need to come up with a solution, or ask them to share one from their own experience. What were some of the biggest problems they encountered, and how did they address them? Allow them to share their proudest problem-solving moment. It’s not as important that they reach the “right” answer. Instead, pay attention to the process they took to get there, and their comfort level with it. Not being afraid to try new options, fail and learn from those mistakes is a skill that will greatly benefit your team and deliverables.

4. Embracing constructive criticism. This goes above being able to just “take” constructive criticism. This is about a candidate accepting they made a mistake, wanting to learn from it and doing better on the next go-round.

During your meeting, does the candidate seem combative or defensive when discussing a tough topic, or are they processing your feedback and turning it into an action item for themselves? The latter shows they can take constructive criticism and turn it into something that makes them better.

Other factors can influence how willing you might be to hire someone for a full-time role without all the tech skills. If you work with a large company and there are training programs or a support structure in place, you and the candidate may be at an advantage. If you’re working at a startup, and sometimes even a mid-size firm, you may not have that luxury of access to training material, which can impact hiring decisions.

Contractors need the technical expertise

The opposite hiring strategy works best for consulting or project-based roles: You must hire for the technical skills without exception. With projects, there is always a deadline, and there typically isn’t time or budget to train talent. You must work with the skills your contractor has the day you make the offer. If you’re fortunate enough to find someone with both technical and the soft skills, that’s a win-win. But when interviewing, the primary goal is to discern their technical expertise. Look for the following during interviews to determine if they are the technical fit you need.

1. Resume back up. Candidates can stack their resumes with buzz words, but once you have them in the interview, make sure they can back up the claims on their resume. Are they confidently telling you what they did at that last job? Or does it seem like creative storytelling?

2. Past successes. Ask for references who can tout their previous accomplishments. If a staffing firm has referred them to you, ask if they’ve worked with the person before. In fact, your staffing partner should be proactively telling you how many times they’ve assigned them on a project, how it went, if they received contract extensions, etc.  

3. Ability to document. Be sure they can document their work. Ask for samples. If their assignment involves multiple applications at the same time, the ability to track all of them through documentation is essential. Development, maintenance and knowledge transfer all hinge on proper documentation.

4. Individual contributions. Are your contractor candidates highlighting their individual achievements in the project? Make sure they’re not hiding among the overall project successes. Ask them what they specifically contributed to past projects in addition to what the overall team accomplished, especially if they’re interviewing for a small team. There’s no room for bystanders here.

Once you determine the right fit, move quickly. In the current market where tech unemployment is even lower than the national level, you must move fast so you don’t compete and lose to other offers. Our clients with the best success rates are those making decisions and offers within hours.  

The value of contractors with exceptional technical skills cannot be underestimated. As an example, one of our clients in Redondo Beach hired 18 contractors for a one-year project. Because these hardware engineers had the technical expertise so widely sought after (PCB design, UVM and high-speed board), the company kept them on to work on new projects once the original was complete. Once companies get hold of strong tech talent to fuel their contracted projects, it’s hard to let them go. Companies must have a strategy to secure this technical expertise to successfully deliver on their assignments.

You can’t negotiate speed

In my experience, hiring full-time candidates who show strong promise in the four soft skills is still a solid investment even when there’s a technical skills gap. For your project-based work, you can’t afford to take that chance. Contract candidates who don’t make the technical cut should not make the hiring cut.

And always remember: Speed wins. There are more available jobs right now than candidates to fill them. The question is, how fast can you make those hiring decisions whether they are full time or contract? Knowing where you can compromise and where you can’t in advance of interviews will make you faster and enable you to secure the talent you need without hesitation.


Sabatino Guerriero is co-founder of Triple Crown Consulting. He has worked in the technology staffing industry for 25 years, advising clients and recruiting tech talent. Reach him at [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Guest Commentary

Guest Commentary

The InformationWeek community brings together IT practitioners and industry experts with IT advice, education, and opinions. We strive to highlight technology executives and subject matter experts and use their knowledge and experiences to help our audience of IT professionals in a meaningful way. We publish Guest Commentaries from IT practitioners, industry analysts, technology evangelists, and researchers in the field. We are focusing on four main topics: cloud computing; DevOps; data and analytics; and IT leadership and career development. We aim to offer objective, practical advice to our audience on those topics from people who have deep experience in these topics and know the ropes. Guest Commentaries must be vendor neutral. We don't publish articles that promote the writer's company or product.

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights