INSIGHTS

Data Science Success Requires the Dreaded ‘Soft Skills’

7 min read ·

Feb 6

Carmen Lewis

Sand Academy

In an age where AI helps us solve complex problems, such as allocating resources to maximise Return on Investment (ROI) or settling debates over the differences between snails and slugs, there seems to be little we can do to prove that we’re that good at our tech jobs.

What no one says – or is ignored if they do – is that we need various other non-technical skills to succeed in a technical career like data science or software engineering. If you cringe at the word soft skills, I’m here to tell you: get comfortable. Those people were right.

Soft skills are the things the secret sauce is made of. They may not seem like a requirement, but things are really bland without it. These are the intangible attributes that set you apart as a great communicator, team player, manager and innovator.

In this rapidly changing world of technology, particularly in fields like data science and software engineering, the ability to communicate complex ideas, adapt to rapid changes, solve intricate problems and think critically is key. Soft skills are the glue that binds technical expertise with real-world application, enabling technical professionals to navigate complex projects, collaborate seamlessly and drive meaningful outcomes.

With a decade of experience training technical tracks, we have witnessed firsthand the transformative impact of integrating soft skills into the repertoire of technical professionals, empowering individuals to stand out in competitive landscapes and deliver exceptional results.

Critical soft skills include everything from collaboration and critical thinking to empathy and time management. The top three underrated critical soft skills that an IT manager, data scientist or technical leader should have are storytelling, agility and metacognition.

Storytelling

How many presentations and meetings have left you stifling a yawn or two? Certainly more than you can take. There’s more to effective communication than simply being able to articulate clearly. It’s about moving people to action. It’s about creating impact. That’s the power of storytelling.

Storytelling allows us to draw in technical and non-technical people alike. It allows others to not only listen to our ideas and solutions but also become absorbed by them. By using stories, we create a connection to a personal experience so an idea that seemed far removed becomes relevant and a part of the audience’s reality.

Storytellers are influential people. They have the ability to communicate complex ideas with clarity, brevity and impact. They innovate and problem-solve. As leaders, they inspire, motivate and drive change.

Storytelling is not only a soft skill; it’s a strategic asset.

 

The ability to read the room and clearly articulate what the data is saying sets individuals apart in a world commoditized by technology.

Agility

We can all appreciate how majestically things can go wrong really quickly. In these scenarios, you get at least three types of people: those who throw up their unsettled hands saying, “It’s impossible, what will we do?”, those who simply ride the wave, and those rubbing their hands with a breathy “challenge accepted.”

Change (and chaos) in technical work environments are mostly unavoidable. How you respond to these conditions says a lot about your resilience, ability to adapt and growth mindset. The next time you find yourself in one of these situations, see how you respond. How did your reaction affect those around you?

Being agile means that you embrace change as the natural order of the world rather than becoming resistant or overwhelmed. It means staying focused, calm and determined. It means having the ability to adapt quickly, changing your strategy, approach and priorities as required. It means you’re good at leveraging unlikely situations to create and solve. Most importantly, it means that you are the poster child of positivity, confidence, proactivity and strategy.

Agile people are valued in organisations because they support a culture of innovation.

Metacognition

Thinking about thinking is one of my favourite pastimes. It’s a powerful ability that even transcends self-awareness; it’s the ability to know when you know, when you don’t, and what to do when you don’t.

Metacognition is often used in education to describe how we monitor and adapt our own learning behaviours. However, metacognition can be applied to thinking in all contexts. It’s an essential skill that enables lifelong learning, because it’s an awareness of one’s thought processes and any patterns within them. It enables us to ask: “Where did I go wrong in solving that problem, and how will I avoid making the same mistake in the future?” and “Considering what I know, what do I need to do next?”

Metacognitive people are excellent strategists, decision makers, problem solvers and leaders. They are good at analysing problems from multiple perspectives, generating creative solutions and adapting based on feedback and insight. They intuitively assess risk and opportunity, and they plan, align and evaluate the effectiveness of their strategies.

Metacognition enables us to navigate complex challenges, drive innovation and excel overall.

If most of this sounds completely foreign, there’s some good news and some bad news (depending on who you are).

Some of us got lucky, born into this world with a charming personality behind which we can hide. Others have near-psychic instincts, allowing them to seamlessly weave through interactions with an intuitive understanding of soft skills.

The rest of us need to approach soft skills with greater intention. Most soft skills can be developed through practice. However, natural perfection will require a lot of practice, time and patience.

If you fall into this last category, buy that pop-psych book and listen to all the TED talks. More importantly – and this counts for all of us – self-reflect, be willing to step outside your comfort zone, embrace challenge, commit to continuous learning, and seek feedback.

In the tech industry, especially in the fields that rely on data science for answers, you run into this stuff all the time. The ability to read the room and clearly articulate what the data is saying – in terms and in a manner that the audience will internalise and understand – sets individuals apart in a world commoditized by technology.

So, being good at tech is just not enough.

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