- Emily McCowan
Soft Skills - Actually Kinda Hard
Soft skills are not called soft because they're easy. Where a hard skill is about structure, facts, true or false statements - soft skills melt in around the edges, providing cushion to those cold hard facts.
Soft skills are vital for your success as an architect. Your ability to build trust, communicate, influence, and negotiate is what's going to ensure that people understand, buy into, and engage with your solution design.
Over a few separate posts, I'm going to share my thoughts about key soft skills for architects, why they're so important and how you can improve on your own mastery of these skills.
I’m not totally sure where/when inspiration will strike so I'm not going to lock myself into a definitive list just yet, but let’s start with this list below. If you want to see all of my soft skills articles in one place just click on the soft skills tag.
Let’s start today with communicating :)
Although communication is a two way street, for simplicity, I'm breaking it up into two parts - communicating (out) and understanding (in). So for communicating, what I mean is your skill in expressing information, concepts or ideas out to other people. This includes all types of communication - whether it's in writing, a drawing, speaking (including tone), and body language.
There is just so much information available about Salesforce products and the solution you might be recommending, that it can be paralysing for a non-technical person to try to understand what the key points are, and how they relate back to the business, team, or individual goals that each person you communicate with might have.
Communicating well requires thinking about and planning for:
- Who is your audience?
- Why are you communicating with them?
- What do you want to tell them?
- How are you going to communicate with them?
The first, most important part of communicating is understanding who you are planning to communicate with. What are they going to want to know about what you are about to tell them? You can prepare your communication for your audience by brainstorming what sort of questions you think they might ask you, and what objections they might raise to what you tell them.
For example, say you need to present a solution design back to a client. First, you might present to a team of C-suite executives. The CIO will be interested in understanding how your solution aligns with the existing enterprise solution landscape, and architectural design principles (if they have them). Then consider the CFO. They’re going to be interested in the bottom line. How does your solution compare to alternatives when considering the total cost of ownership?
Then, you might also need to present to some regular folk in the business - the ones who will make or break the successful implementation of your solution, because they’ll be the ones that decide to adopt it, or not. They’re going to want to know how the solution will impact their day to day lives, how are they going to need to change their ways of working to adopt this solution?
Why are you communicating with someone? Consider your objective - do you want to build a relationship? Find out more information? Get agreement on a key decision or approval of your solution design? Do you want someone to take some sort of action after you communicate with them? The answer to these questions (and more) is going to guide what and how you communicate with someone.
Be as succinct as possible, and relate what you’re communicating back to business goals and values. It’s easy to communicate too much, especially when you find the solution you’ve designed to be really interesting or exciting.
When I write something, I go back over it with a scathing eye and cut out as much as I possibly can while still retaining the core message and any calls to action.
Finally, consider your method of communication. Sometimes, literally drawing a picture will be more efficient than writing down words. It’s often a good idea to present an idea in person or at least on a video call, if you can, so you can see how someone is responding to what you’re saying, and change tack if it’s not landing well. You might need something in writing so you can refer back to it later, especially for really fundamental assumptions or decisions that you can foresee having a big impact on the implementation of your solution.
It’s possible to pick a couple of methods of communication to reinforce and round out your message:
- Present a slide deck with clear, succinct drawings / architectural artefacts, supported by speaking about it - in person or virtually with webcams on.
- Speak to someone about something important over the phone, supported by following up with a summary of what you discussed and the decision that was reached to ensure you have a written record of a key decision.
You get the idea.
Once you’ve picked your method(s), go one step deeper - for instance, say you’ve decided to present options for a decision to be made by the business via email. Think about how you can craft your email succinctly present the options, pros and cons, and your recommendation / call to action - like within a simple table, so someone reading your email doesn’t need to scan through multiple paragraphs to pick up the same information.
Make sure you highlight exactly what it is you want / need from the person or people you’re communicating with - and keep that as short and snappy as possible. If you give someone a list of dozens of things to do, it’s likely that some of those will drop off. Try to keep it to one or two, or a handful of small actions - small chunks that someone can bite off easily.
And finally, always be polite and respectful! It's a bit crazy to have to say this, but sometimes techy people can get a bit arrogant and patronising. The people you're communicating with aren't stupid, they just don't know as much as you do about the technical topic you're explaining to them. Speak to people with kindness and respect always - not only is it just the right thing to do, people will remember it about you. Your relationships and career will benefit hugely.
Communicating well takes forethought and planning. As you get more experienced at considering all of these aspects of communication, though, it will start to become second nature. You’ll instinctively be able to recognise when you need to adjust your message if it’s not landing well with your audience, and stop writing large essays when a few simple sentences will do.
If you have any thoughts or questions or just want to say hi, you can find me on Twitter @heyemilyhay.