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Communication skills -- don't overlook them

Success in the computer field is not just a matter of having solid programming or analysis skills.

Communication skills -- don't overlook them

Success in the Computer field is not just a matter of having solid programming or analysis skills, but also requires good communication skills. Many hopeful programmers downplay the importance of communication skills, but I can assure you that even if you are not the world's greatest programmer, if you foster and hone your communication skills, both verbal and written, there's a good job waiting for you somewhere.

As an example, let me talk about 'Bob'. I was working for an organization that was just beginning to realize the importance of the end user in the Systems Development process. Unfortunately, we had just developed several far-from-stellar applications where we had neglected that important piece of the puzzle and we badly needed to turn our department's reputation around. What we really needed was someone who could sit down with a user, determine and gather his or her requirements, and do so in a non-threatening manner.

At the time, we had an opening for a programmer, and we had a large number of applicants. A group of us eventually interviewed Bob, and although his resume included work with C and Unix, it was obvious during the interview that Bob's strengths were not in those areas. However, something that came through very clearly in the interview was that Bob had strong communications skills. Whenever Bob was asked a question, his eyes were attentive and focused on the questioner and he answered each and every question thoughtfully and completely. At times, Bob would repeat the question before answering, just to clarify that he was answering the question he had been asked. And he frequently sought the opportunity to pose questions of us. We had allocated about a half- hour for Bob's interview and we wound up talking to him for over an hour.

A couple of days after the interview, we received a letter from Bob thanking us for the opportunity to interview with the company. Despite the fact that Bob had not taken any written notes during the interview, he amazed us by remembering minute details of the hour-long interview (including everyone's name).

Our decision to hire Bob was not a unanimous one. Other candidates possessed stronger programming skills, but in the end what got Bob the job was his ability to communicate better than the other candidates.
Bob's strengths and weaknesses became very obvious in the first few weeks of his employment. His C and Unix skills were weak but he did become better in those areas. But something he never needed help with was evident from the first time he sat down with an end user. Bob was able to speak with every member of our end user community as if the two of them had been great friends their entire lives.

Bob wound up doing very little programming, he spent most of his time performing analysis, determining user requirements, and in end user training and presentations to management.

Shortly after we hired Bob, I asked him what was his secret. Were those great communication skills something he had been born with?

Bob's answer didn't surprise me. He told me that he realized very quickly in his career that if he were going to make it in IT, he would need to concentrate on his communication skills. He told me he worked each and every day on this by making eye contact, listening, really listening, to people, concentrating on what others said, clarifying their statements or questions, and in thoughtful answers and replies. And he told me he practiced writing each day as well.

Four years later, those great communication skills were rewarded when Bob was promoted to Vice President of IT for our company. You need look no further than Bob for proof of the importance of good communication skills in your IT career.

Written by John Smiley, MCP, MCSD and MCT, author, and adjunct professor of Computer Science at Penn State University in Abington, Philadelphia University, and Holy Family College. John has been teaching computer programming for nearly 20 years.

John Smiley is president of Smiley and Associates, a computer consulting firm located in New Jersey.

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