Are you soft enough for the job? The future of soft skills in technology

by Kate Brunton

Think you can get away with merely having great ‘hard’ skills in a technical job? Think again. The evidence is adding up: soft skills are becoming increasingly important in the workplace. Thanks to accelerating technology, tasks that require hard skills are declining, making soft skills key differentiators for job candidates. Oxbridge Academy, a South African-based online college even goes so far as to claim that hard skills are useless without soft skills. “While [technical skills] are the skills you’ll list on your CV, today’s employers seek more than this,” they explain. Another article relates, “It won’t matter how well you understand CSS or can fix a pipe if no one can relate to you”.

In a 2017 report, Deloitte Access Economics predicted that “soft skill intensive occupations will account for two-thirds of all jobs by 2030, compared to half of all jobs in 2000. The number of jobs in soft-skill intensive occupations is expected to grow at 2.5 times the rate of jobs in other occupations.” They cited technology, globalization, and demographic shifts that will change how businesses compete as reasons for this increase.

Soft skills are especially crucial in customer service departments, which companies are beginning to focus on more as customers become increasingly demanding.

Service vs. support

‘Customer service’ at ASML is not what the term typically brings to mind: call centers, item return forms, and drop-down menus with frequently asked questions. It’s proactive support. Ever since ASML produced and sold its first computer chip-making machine (the PAS 2000 Stepper) in 1984, it’s never simply been about ‘making it work’; it’s been about making it work at the customer location. For this we need a proactive customer support department.

James Cowden, our Netherlands-based senior recruiter for Customer Support, explains why this department is so important at ASML. “If one of our machines stops working for a single minute, it costs our customers like Samsung, TSMC and Intel thousands of euros. It’s mind-boggling. Our customers have to spend potentially billions of euros to create a factory from scratch that houses lithography machines. So that’s why they want to keep the machines churning 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, otherwise they risk losing money on their investment. You can see why they get upset when a machine’s not working.”

Hard meets soft

“To deal with this kind of pressure, we need people with soft skills who are good at managing conflict and de-escalating the situation,” says James, “But they also need to be strong technically. We look for a hybrid profile. We need someone that has a technical education or work experience, but who isn’t what you might think of as a typical research and development scientist. They need to be able to interact well with the customer, and be good at coordinating and liaising.”

“Unlike many customer service departments at other companies, having a technical background is a necessity, because essentially no one else can do the job. ASML’s technology is so new that our employees are literally the only ones who understand it and know how to use it. We have to really coach the customer on how to use the machines.”

Depending on whether a customer support engineer is working directly in the field, they’ll also need to be willing to get hands-on, proudly wielding a wrench or a screwdriver.

How ASML customer support works

The ASML customer support department is organized into three main segments: Field Factory, High Volume Manufacturing, and New Product Introduction & Node Transition. Each segment corresponds to a stage in the process of introducing a new machine at a customer site, and the segments all work together in a kind of relay race. When a machine is first introduced into the customer’s factory, Field Factory is there to do the installation. Once the installation is complete, Field Factory hands the job over to New Product Introduction & Node Transition, which handles the machine until it reaches what’s called the ‘maturation phase’ of production capacity, at which point it’s handed over to High Volume Manufacturing to consistently maintain it over time.

With 60 offices in 16 countries worldwide, ASML is located on the doorstep of its customers

A fourth customer support segment called CS Applications gathers information from the customer and uses it to optimize the products according to the customer’s needs and wishes.

Customer Support is a global department, spread across Europe, Asia and North America. Nearly all of ASML’s 60 office and factory locations has its own customer support employees.

The department is also organized into four separate ‘lines of escalation’, in order to solve the customer’s problems as quickly and efficiently as possible. Within these lines of escalation, a series of increasingly knowledgeable and specialized engineers try to solve the customer’s problem (again in a kind of relay race). Patrick van de Vijver, Customer Support Manager for ASML’s global support center describes this process: “As soon as the customer calls, the clock starts ticking, and the first line of escalation is sent in. In the first line are the more ‘generalist’ engineers — they know a little bit about a lot. If they can’t solve the problem, the second line comes in. They have more specialist knowledge and experience than the first line. Most offices have first- and second-line engineers directly in the office, but third- and fourth-line escalation is different. Third line is a separate group of about 150 people called the ‘Global Support Center’, which is more like an emergency hotline. They operate on a ‘follow-the-sun’ model. There are about 50 of them in Chandler, Arizona, 50 in Taiwan, and 50 at our headquarters in Veldhoven, the Netherlands. They’ll work for eight hours on the problem, and then pass it on to the next “shift” on the next continent. The third-line engineers are experts in a single part of a machine, like light source or optics. If they can’t figure it out within a given timeframe, then it goes to the fourth line. Fourth line is the Development & Engineering department in Veldhoven — the people that actually designed the parts.”

“As soon as the customer calls, the clock starts ticking, and the first line of escalation is sent in.”

To summarize, Patrick says, “Working in Customer Support is challenging due to the changing dynamics and pressure to repair machines as quickly as possible. But the work is also very rewarding since you work directly with the customer and the impact of your solutions delivered is directly visible and the end result is always a happy customer.”

Jule Cunningham, DUV (deep ultraviolet) Site Manager for ASML Customer Support working in Hillsboro, Oregon describes the importance of the customer support teams for ASML. “Everything we do matters, from design, what goes into our design, the way it’s delivered from the factory,” she explains. “And this directly relates to the service that we can provide to our customers and our ability to meet our customers’ needs.”

In the end, it’s all about the customer. The goal is to work not just for also but with the customer to make them a partner in the machine’s success. Mexx Shih, EUV NPI Manager, can relate to this: “I feel good when we fulfill our commitment to the customer — when we ‘walk our talk’. And at the end of the day, the customer sees us as a partner, not just as a supplier.”

Exponential growth

“ASML Customer Support is going through very rapid growth”, says Marcel Los, Global HR Business Partner for Customer Support at ASML. “In early 2016, we had about 3,000 people, and now we’re targeting over 5,000 by the end of 2018.” Driven by exploding growth in the chip industry in places like China and South Korea, ASML sales for 2017 closed in at over €9 billion and €2 billion in net income, numbers which are only expected to increase.

ASML currently employs a total of just over 20,000 people from 115 different nationalities, and plans to accelerate the hiring process in the coming years.

An explorer’s dream job

“There aren’t many jobs where you get paid to travel the world,” says James. “With some of these positions, you’re traveling 60 to 80% of the year. And you’ll be travelling to locations that aren’t just down the road — you’ll be going to other continents, and you’ll be gone for 6 to 8 weeks at a time. So you’re not just there as a tourist — you’re actually living in that culture.”

The opportunity to travel isn’t the only benefit of working at ASML. Our profit margin is high, and we make sure that all our employees reap the benefits. “ASML typically pays around 5 to 15% above the market average,” explains James. “Plus depending on the region, you’ve got plenty of paid vacation, profit sharing, a 13th month [end-of-year bonus], and if you’re working abroad, then you’ll get a travel allowance.” [Take a look at our complete list of perks.]

Interested in working for ASML Customer Support? Check out our global CS vacancies.

Kate Brunton is a senior communications specialist at ASML.