STEM vs. “Soft Skills”

Modern education places a heavy emphasis on STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and math. However, a project at Google set out to determine the value of so-called “soft skills” in their workplace.

Google initially set out to hire computer science students with top grades from the best science colleges upon its conception in 1998. But in 2013, they tested hiring, firing, and promotion data and found that STEM qualities actually ended up last on the list of the eight most important attributes as an employee at Google. The top seven were soft skills: the ability to be empathetic, excellent communication skills, critical thinking and problem solving, to name a few. Their findings led the company to reconfigure their hiring process and expand their focus beyond technology-based fields of study to humanities majors and MBAs.

Even at a company as technical as Google, studies continue to show the value of soft skills.  The article states:

“the company’s most important and productive new ideas came from B-teams comprised of employees who don’t always have to be the smartest people in the room.”

And that begs the question, what is smart anyway? We tend to think of people who excel in technical subjects such as math and science as the smart ones, without the same regard for those who are excellent writers or can paint a masterpiece.

Furthermore, these “soft skills” cited in the article go beyond academic subjects we learned in school. Studies noted that emotional safety, generosity, and curiosity were qualities that aren’t taught to us by teachers, but rather by peers. This shows that our socialization plays an equally important role in our contributions at work, not just our academic excellence.

As a software company, we’re focused on our technology and using fantastic software engineers to build our products to the best of our ability. But we also work to recognize that being a great team member goes beyond coding. We strive for personal and professional betterment, which makes our office a prime space to excel. As important as technology is in our set of skills, it’s equally vital not to overlook the soft skills as well.

A 4-Day Work Week?

Happy Friday everyone! Today, we’re discussing human productivity and the efficiency of an experimental four-day work week.

Earlier this year, a firm in New Zealand ran an experiment where it let its employees work four days a week while being paid for five. Employees chose which day of the week to take off, and the experiment resulted in more well-rested employees, better work-life balance, and limited distractions, with no change in productivity despite the shorter work hours.

The article begs the question as to the efficiency of a 40-hour work week. Of course, everyone is different, but this experiment showed that people were able to recognize inefficiencies and correct them to work smarter, not necessarily harder.

It’s vital for us as employees to recognize times that we’re doing quality work and times when we’re not. It’s difficult (maybe even impossible) to be 100% productive, all day, every day; and it’s also essential for us to take breaks. So what’s the perfect balance?

Honestly, there isn’t one universal answer. Everyone works differently, and this experiment ran well because employees had the ability to choose which extra day they took off, allowing them to optimize their time in the office and take well-deserved breaks when they needed it. But besides being bored or feeling sluggish, how do we know when we’re not productive?

Some may be familiar with the term “flow”: in other words, it’s the state of being in the zone, when one is fully immersed in an activity and has full focus and enjoyment in the process. There are, of course, varying stages between boredom and flow, and we often don’t work at a flow state for eight hours a day. But achieving a flow rhythm might reduce the time it takes to complete a task; for example, a task that might take four hours in a non-flow state might take two in flow.

There’s no real answer to achieving flow since everyone works differently. But the experiment of a four-day work week and the results it produced imply that individuals are able to deduce their own inefficiencies and make themselves better. At Steelray, we continually strive for personal betterment, in and out of the workplace, because we believe that the drive to learn and excel is what makes us remarkable people with really cool software.

Do you think you’d excel with a four-day work week? What day would you take off? How can we measure our productivity to know if we’re getting better or worse?

How To Have Better Conversations

At Steelray, every employee attends a seminar called “Fierce Conversations,” taught by Larry Hart and based on the book by Susan Scott. We hold all these lessons to heart and firmly believe that effective communication is a pillar to great teamwork, which in turn creates excellent products, and is a baseline for our really cool software.

This TED Talk by Celeste Headlee, a radio show host, outlines the problems that prevent us from having meaningful conversations. She puts our conversational issues in a modern-day context where the polarization of our population means that every conversation can devolve into an argument, and avoiding conversations prevents essential discussions and interpersonal connections.

She points to our lack of listening, our inherent need to talk about ourselves, and our inability to ask the right type of questions, among other issues, and maps out a plan for us to overcome these obstacles. Given that we live in a highly technological society, Headlee recognizes that a significant portion of our interactions are online via a screen, not face-to-face, and this is a primary reason as to why our in-person conversation quality has degraded. However, the points she lists to make us better conversationalists apply not only to in-person conversations but online ones as well. We often subconsciously steer exchanges to our personal experiences, both on and offline, and Headlee combats this by forcing us to recognize that experiences are all individual; we very rarely know exactly how other people feel when they undergo something, and realizing this to be a better listener makes a world of difference.

Catch the video below, and maybe learn something new about conversations that can help both your personal and professional lives.

Women’s Empowerment & Bravery

We discovered another great TED Talk, this time by Reshma Saujani, the founder of the non-profit organization Girls Who Code which supports efforts to increase the number of women in computer science. Saujani draws attention to the tough issue of the gender imbalance in the technology industry. She recognizes aspects of our socialization that affect our inclination to take risks and further describes her efforts to encourage risk-taking and the acceptance of imperfection among young girls as a form of women’s empowerment.

Without sounding too much like a sociology lecture you slept through in college, it’s important to recognize that we don’t make our behavioral decisions (including those around our careers) in a vacuum. Some argue that “there are fewer women in STEM because they choose so,” which negates early experiences where we give young boys toy cars and young girls dolls and subsequently teach that technical skills are a boy’s trait. Girls Who Code combats these early lessons with their program and encourages young girls to embrace imperfections so that the future of the tech industry includes a more balanced gender parity. Here at Steelray, we’re all too aware of the gender imbalance and hope to continue to support women in tech.

Watch the TED Talk below.

The Four Stages of Team Competence

Recently a recruiter reached out to me about a three-month Scrum Master role. Was I interested? No, I love my job at Steelray. Did I know of anybody? Well, maybe, but…three months?

A Scrum Master’s core objective is to foster highly aligned, high-performing development teams, which takes time?certainly longer than a few months. Here’s why:

The Team Competency Model

I?d invite you to consider that the specific skill sets of teamwork are acquired through the ?Four Stages of Competence? ? a learning model that applies to teams just as much as individuals:

  1. Unconscious incompetence
    The team doesn?t understand team skills and doesn?t recognize the deficit.
  2. Conscious incompetence
    They don’t understand team skills, but know they need them and want to do something about it.
  3. Conscious competence
    The team is actively acquiring skills, but it takes a lot of attention and intention to apply them.
  4. Unconscious competence
    The team has had so much practice together that?being?a team has become “second nature.”

It?s been my experience that most teams are Stage Two, some are Stage Three, many (too many) are Stage One, and a rare few make it to Stage Four.

How About You?

Considering the huge benefits of great teamwork, it’s worth taking stock to and looking at your own competencies. Where are you on the model? Not just your developers, but sales, marketing and operations? Even senior management?

The litmus test is pretty simple:

  1. To what degree is everyone on the same page with the work?
  2. To what degree is everyone on the same page with how they work together?

You may find there?s room for improvement. Even if you?re at stage four, it?s worth being intentional and devoting ongoing time and energy.

Just give yourself longer than a few months. 🙂