Soft is the new Hard

I live in a world where engineering and technical talent is valued above all others, where the Holy Grail is a “coding ninja” who can crank out oodles of elegant code at a breakneck pace. These people speak a language that is distinct and only understood by those who also speak the language; to everyone else the language is akin to black magic. Myriad programs have sprung up to both preach and teach the gospel of coding, all with an eye towards empowerment. Because as we all know, knowledge is power. It has the ability to lift people up. And this is certainly true. However, I see a risk in all of this that is seldom discussed and will be upon us before we know it: knowledge without empathy.

The medical profession has finally come to this realization, but it continues to be a painful adjustment. Technical brilliance without “bedside manner” – or empathy – is a dangerous profile, as it can lead to both poor customer satisfaction and poor outcomes. Many ailments can be prevented, diagnosed and treated the old fashioned way, through conversation, listening and synthesis. Not everything requires a surgical procedure or a pill. But when it does, it is only after the other means have been exhausted. The “soft skills” of gently questioning, building trust and listening are now complementing the “hard skills” of cutting-edge medical knowledge and expertise in using the latest medications and devices. This will ultimately lead to a greater emphasis on prevention and pre-acute problem solving (once incentives become properly aligned), which is a win for all constituencies.

From an engineer’s standpoint, where technical problem-solving is the default mode, it is seductive to throw code at a “problem” without standing in a customer’s shoes and really understanding what is needed. These customers can be either internal or external: “Do we need to build this dashboard or is it better to rent someone else’s?” “Do customers really need this cool feature on the development road-map or are we doing it because it’s cool and because we can build it?” It’s great to have a vast array of tools at your disposal, but the real skill comes in determining when to use which tools or, perhaps, when one’s tools are not required in addressing a particular need. 

Whether founding a company, leading a team or simply being a team member, communication skills, managerial skills and negotiation skills are essential for long-run success. Simply looking at edge cases such as Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs and modeling oneself along these lines is neither a healthy nor a winning strategy on a risk-adjusted basis. Being a well-rounded person who can interact well with yet has the technical skills to execute complex plans is a much better success mode.

It actually reminds me of my time on Wall Street. Instead of Ruby, Python, R or Java (or any number of others), the mythical and little-understood languages were Derivatives and Quantitative Finance. Bankers quaked in their shoes at the mention of these, certain that the traders were going to rip off their clients (or at the very least recognize the lion’s share of a transaction’s gain in their book instead of banking’s book). It was a land of the knowing and the ignorant, and the we/they cultures of most institutions reflected this reality. But this knowledge gap and lack of a common language eventually helped precipitate a train wreck, one where risk managers and bank senior management were ill-equipped to deal with massive and byzantine risks that traders put on the books. In this case knowledge was indeed power – the power to bring the global financial sector to its knees. 

It is incumbent upon schools, start-ups and larger companies to train today’s technical talent for tomorrow’s world, one which will invariably require the melding of engineering/coding/data science expertise with communication skills, business sense and empathy. The soft skills complement the hard: creating a squadron of coders without context does a disservice to their development and their ability to create a better world.