Why Soft Skills Matter in Engineering Leadership – 2

October 13, 2022

In a live Q&A session, the team at Plato spoke on the subject of engineering leadership and the role soft skills play in ensuring effective leadership in the sector. The session titled, “Why Engineering Leadership is Less About Complex Technical Challenges and More About Soft Skills”, explored topics such as the importance of soft skills in a technical environment, and how to lead an online team when working remotely.

Here, we break down how soft skills translate in a software engineering environment, and how important it is for those seeking to grow in this dynamic sector, to approach soft skills in ways that will drive positivity, impact, and efficiency.

What are soft skills in software engineering?

Shane as the host defines “soft skills” as the capabilities you rely on when working with people, not machines. In software engineering, as it is in life, much of what we do involves human interaction, even when working in an area that is very technically driven.

Soft skills in engineering leadership allow for competency, collaboration, and increased productivity. This helps engineers and engineering leaders achieve things in ways that are smoother and more efficient, which in turn can lead to better quality work and deliverables.  Engineering soft skills contribute to a more positive environment for the workforce.

However, this can be a challenge when taking into consideration the traditional ways in which engineering is approached at an academic level. Professors don’t necessarily teach engineering soft skills and leadership at school. As a result, software engineers need to learn to develop and harness soft skills for engineering on the job. Soft skills in engineering come down to things like communications skills, emotional intelligence, the ability to listen, and an aptitude for empathy. This sentiment is further cemented by David at Plato using a powerful analogy. He says that kids are taught physical hygiene, but not emotional hygiene. According to David, “When we get angry, all of our blood tends to flow into our lizard brain and our emotional brain loses it.”

Engineering soft skills

In his many years leading engineering teams and honing in on his engineering soft skills, Shane says that very few software engineering projects fail because of the technology. Instead, many projects fail because people communicate poorly; in other words, they fail in the proper use of their soft skills and soft leadership approach.

To give you an example, Shane spoke of a certain one-on-one meeting he had with another individual to discuss a technical engineering problem. At first, Shane failed to pick up on some physical cues. As a result, the conversation became a bit stressful. Once Shane noticed the cues, he realized that the technical engineering problem they were discussing wasn’t the true problem. It was something else entirely. When Shane steered the conversation to cover the real issue, things worked out much better.

This example truly illustrates that we are humans and not robots or a software programme designed to solve a complex solution. We are complex beings who, while operating in a technical space, are not void of emotion and expression. Communication is not mechanical, it is interpersonal, and it is especially vital in steering a team that manages a technical project, in the right direction.

Why do soft skills matter?

Soft skills, particularly in engineering, are an important and often overlooked form of leadership. More often than not, it comes down to deliverables and deadlines, without taking into consideration the people and teams behind the project. Soft skills in engineering ensure both a team and the individuals within the team, work collectively and cohesively to deliver exceptional work. These skills matter because, by incorporating them into your leadership style, you can help foster an environment that helps your team grow and succeed.

Engineering leadership skills

When it comes to engineering leadership skills, leaders need to survey the environment and determine whether or not they are too focused on the delivery of projects and not enough on the well-being of their teams. Shane says to look back at the end of a week and count how many meetings you canceled or postponed. In particular, pay attention to one-on-one check-in meetings that you re-frame to ask about project status.

If you spend too much time focused on technical problems, there may be larger issues at play. You might need to re-scope some deliverables to meet a date or push the date out to meet the deliverables.

For one-on-one meetings with your team, Shane’s rule is that he can’t cancel a one-on-one unless he asks for permission. Team members, on the other hand, can cancel a one-on-one with Shane if they have project deliverables to attend to.

Soft skills for engineering

When thinking about ways in which you can incorporate soft skills in a technical space such as engineering, take into consideration the following:

  • Have you engaged with every member of the project?

  • Do you know what role each team member is responsible for within the ecosystem?

  • Have you offered individuals to support and advice when a problem arises?

  • Have you incorporated one-on-one meetings with individuals to find out how they are doing?

  • Have you asked yourself how you can serve your team in a way that helps them succeed?

How to manage soft skills in engineering leadership when the team is remote

Due to the pandemic, engineers have worked in remote teams for well over two years. As Shane wrote in a post on our blog, leading a large engineering team during the pandemic has been a challenge.

Shane says that leading remote teams is a lot more work than leading in-person teams. Why? Because you need to pay extra attention to signs and signals online. When you’re in person, a leader can look at a team member’s body language and understand what kind of day they’re having. In online meetings, this is far more challenging.

In a remote setting, you might have a team member who always has their camera on. In the last few meetings, however, the camera has been off and the audio muted. It might be time to check in and see how they’re doing.

Things can also happen that leaders are unaware of. For example, two people argued during a meeting. The argument upset them so much that negative feelings lingered. Weeks later, the same two people couldn’t get on the same page to meet a project deliverable. Without talking to each person, engineering leaders may never get to the bottom of fundamental issues within the team, since they were not a witness to that prior argument.

Shane says it’s also important to keep tabs on what’s going on in people’s lives. Are they going through any health issues? Is everything okay in their household? The passing of a family member or a family pet can be difficult and cause team members to act differently in meetings. Shane encourages leaders to ask team members how everything is outside of work.

Leading large engineering teams

Shane leads a team of 120 engineers but doesn’t directly manage a lot of people. There are 14 development teams and seven engineering managers. Each of the engineering managers’ report to Shane and lead their own set of teams. Shane meets with his direct reports weekly and the broader team engages in 10-minute daily stand-ups.

Shane meets with individual contributors every two weeks and has ad-hoc meetings with people as needed. “The larger your team, the more you need to know a little about everyone. Show them you’re aware of the work they’re doing and give them kudos on things they did well.” David said that in a past job, the fact that a senior leader knew his name — and knew what he was working on — was a thrill, as well as a significant morale booster.

Soft leadership

Shane practices servant leadership, which is often considered a type of soft leadership. This is a philosophy in which leaders exist to serve their teams. It’s unlike traditional leadership, in which the leader is more focused on the success of their teams but less focused on being a servant to those teams.

According to Shane, “My job is to make sure that every engineer is unblocked and has the tools and training needed to make their day complete and move forward.” Shane tells members of his team, “I’m here to make sure you can do the best job you can. The price I charge for doing that is I get to bask in the glory of your success.”

Plato live Q&A featuring Shane O’Flynn 

The Soft Skills in Engineering Live Q&A was moderated by David Murray, Co-Founder at Confirm. David’s guest was our friend (and Lohika’s client) Shane O’Flynn, Head of Engineering at TradeIX.

Watch the recording

Here’s the recording of the Live Q&A with Plato: