One of the benefits of technical work--for example, programming or IT support--is that you often can do much of it with no one else around. That makes plenty of tech jobs perfect for people who lean toward the introverted side of the personality spectrum.

Wait. Whoops! Scratch that, apparently.

David Graham, founder and CEO of Code Ninjas, says that today's companies simply can't wait as long for tech work to be completed. If just one programmer works on a project, for example, the risk now is that the project could become old news before it even made it halfway through the development process. So while there still are plenty of lone wolf tasks for tech workers to grab, the trend is shifting to a much more collaborative approach where soft skills are the primary currency of success.

Graham compares the situation to the need for doctors to have great bedside manner with their patients.

"Being an effective communicator doesn't make you a better software developer. The computer doesn't care one way or another. Being able to communicate effectively and have a high EQ does allow a person to be better at creating software that people actually want to use. [...] If the developer can empathize with the user and create an experience that is easier to use and understand, the application will be more readily adopted and most likely more successful."

And while there are plenty of soft skills that come into play, Graham says the ability to listen with a purpose is the most valuable, since it's respectful and provides the opportunity to learn.

"Listening with a purpose means that you turn your phone off, your computer is closed, you look at the presenter and listen to the other people in the call/meeting, you engage when it's relevant and your turn to talk, and you add to the conversation and, hopefully, the ultimate solution. This might seem obvious, but developers have a nasty habit of saying what they think is important in order to get 'their part' over with as quickly as possible instead of listening to other people, consuming their point of view and then determining if what they had to say is relevant or contributing to the solution."

All this sounds good, but what about stress? Couldn't forcing more introverted people into more social ways of working create a lot of anxiety?

Graham says not to worry.

"What I've seen on teams of developers that listen with purpose is that everyone's opinion is respected equally. In a time when developers are in such high demand, keeping a great team together can be very difficult. If each member knows that the team respects their opinions, they are less stressed when presenting their point of view. This can have a huge impact on self-esteem and stress levels for people, especially those [who are] typically more introverted."

It all implies that, in the future, emotional intelligence will separate the tech haves from the have-nots. But here, too, Graham says it's not that straightforward. Technical work by its very nature is still very fact based and scientific. So empirical evidence still matters, and if feelings always are put ahead of what supports a claim, you can get the very social friction you're trying to avoid. It doesn't help teams to pacify employees that can't handle dissenting opinions. There's thus a balance between looking at emotional dynamics and just telling it like it is as kindly as you can.

To make sure you achieve this goal and navigate the shift to more collaborative tech work well, Graham recommends that you ask yourself these key questions before you speak up.

  • Have I really considered the other opinions and facts presented?
  • Am I stating an opinion or fact?
  • If it's an opinion, can I back it up with hard facts?
  • If it's a fact, does this get us closer to the objective at hand?

"Unless the team has actively engaged in a pre-mortem of sorts, 'playing devil's advocate' rarely moves the ball forward and usually just injects fear into a situation," Graham concludes. "Try to remain a positive source of knowledge, even when in disagreement with the consensus."