Most useful skills in technology

Over time, I’ve developed some pretty strong views on what skills are most useful in technology. I’ve developed these from 20 years of experience in different roles from hands on development, staff management and strategic leadership positions.

Without a doubt, the two most important skills are:

  • The ability to learn
  • Communication

These two skills are far more important than skills in a particular technology, language or certifications and it’s well worth concentrating on developing these skills above others.

Why are these skills so important? Let me explain.

The ability to learn

The one certainty in technology is change. As Stewart Brand says:

Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road

The rate of change in technology is relentless. For example, in my career I’ve seen us move from:

  • physical machines to
  • virtual machines to
  • containers and now to
  • serverless.

In any other industry you would see just one of those changes every 20 years, in technology, it’s more like every 5 years. While this example is more infrastructure focussed, the rate of change is just as high across the whole industry. Changes aren’t limited to new technologies, processes change too. How we build software and communicate about it, have changed completely

In order to thrive in constant change, you need to be able to learn, and learn fast.

What does this mean for you? If you are in technology, you need to build this skill by exercising it. The best way to do this is to learn new things. Take the time to learn a new language or platform. Even better, teach someone else a new technology. Teaching someone else forces you to learn this better than you otherwise would.

If you are managing a team, you need to think about what people you bring into the team. You should hire for the ability to learn over current hard technical skills. Look for how people demonstrated the ability to learn in their career. The skills you are looking for now are less valuable than the skills they will learn.

Communication

Communication is a much underrated skill. People tend to focus hard technical skills over softer skills. This isn’t helped by the image many have of people technology: the brilliant lone coder, hunched over a keyboard, building the next facebook.

The reality is that software development is collaborative. The broader technology space is just a collaborative, as no single person has all the skills to build the kind of complex products that are used today. That takes a team.

For a team to collaborate effectively, communication is key. Communication skills help other team members to understand what the work is and how each person is contributing to that. Without communication work is duplicated and people head off in different directions rather than working towards the same goal.

Communication is equally important outside the team. This can help bridge the gap in understanding with less technical people, so that they can better understand how to work together. For example, if there is good communication between a sales team and a development team, then the sales team isn’t going to over promise beyond what can be delivered. Well, at least they’re less likely to.

At some point, you will need to convince someone of an idea or proposal. Often you will need to sell the idea to people who might not truly understand the technical details or agree with you. Communication skills will help you pitch the idea and translate your proposal into the language your audience understands.

So, how do you build those skills? Look at other people who communicate well and see what you can learn from them. Ask for feedback on how you can improve. Follow up with people later to see whether they understood the idea you were trying to communicate.

Consider how you best communicate (face to face, written text, diagrams?) and look at how you can improve areas where you are weaker. If you have something particularly important to communicate, consider leaning on areas where you are strongest.

Above all, practice, practice, practice.

Summary

If you are looking to be more effective in technology, you should look at building your ability to learn and communicate. These skills transcend almost all other skills and will serve you throughout your career, far beyond any hard technical skills you might learn.

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