The Problem with Hard and Soft Skills

Imagine you are giving awards for individuals that best demonstrate hard and soft technical skills.

Who would get the hard skill award?

Who would get the soft skill award?

Why aren't they same person?

Why aren't the genders the same?

If this makes you uncomfortable, it's one of the many problems with using 'hard' and 'soft' to describe skills. I don't have time to go through all the societal reasons why we associate things that are difficult or hard as 'masculine' or 'manly', but it immediately moves us to why I should value these skills more than others-similar to the trope 'Boys don't wear pink'.

Some other problems:

  • Hard implies difficulty in learning or mastering, and therefore, more valuable. Conversely soft is seen as easier to learn, and consequently less valuable (Not true)

  • Hard implies easiert to see, interact with and measure which correleates with more impact. Soft is 'fuzzy', harder to read and understand. (Again, false)

  • Categories ultimately create barriers-you can't been be a good people person AND a good developer (Again, false)

  • Implies a superiority, that one set of skills is better/worse than the other (...you see where I'm going)

If we want people to develop and be their best selves, it's important to recognize it's a both-and, not either-or. I want someone that can master languages, and has the patience to mentor others. Why not have a great communicator within DevOps? A highly empathatic C# developer? Not only do they exist, but when they do, and are allowed to thrive they make all our lives better.

Great-but what do I say now?

Well, what I'm going with at the moment is qualitative/quantitative. Sometimes I want more food, but I definitely don't want it rotten. I'm happier with fewer dates if they're better ones. There's no hierarchy between qualitative and quantitative-both are equally valuable, and I can shift priorities depending on the context. It also removes the border between the skills, and allows me to optimize my development, rather than being forced down a path.

So next time in your appraisal or 1-to-1, try using qualitative/quantitative (or whatever you come up with), and save hard/soft for types of cheese. What opportunities open for you that didn't before?