On the importance of soft skills for engineers …

In this post, I would like to emphasize the importance of soft skills especially for engineers. To be even more specific, I’m going to focus this on Software Engineers. If you think this is not the skill that’s needed or something that doesn’t interest you now, please read on and I hope I can make a convincing argument. Note that all of this applies to the majority of the population but not everyone.

Lets start with the accepted definition of Soft Skills. It is defined as “desirable qualities for certain forms of employment that do not depend on acquired knowledge: they include common sense, the ability to deal with people, and a positive flexible attitude” in dictionary.com.

First, lets try to determine why someone wants to hire you in the first place. Is it because you did some cool project? Is it because you are a coding legend? May be. But the true reason why you would ever be hired is because the company sees that you can be adding value to their business. Your only job is to provide value which can either be 1. Cutting down the cost of business or 2. Generating revenue. Everyone in the company falls in either 1 or 2.

The next item we need to understand is profit center vs cost center. A profit center is typically sales, marketing and cost center is everything else including engineering. If you are a Software Engineer you are a huge cost center to the company. You want to be attached to a profit center. I want to give you one example of where a company spends a lot of money during the post initial phases (Anything after series B or even a few years after IPO). Taking a quick look at MuleSoft’s S-1 filing (If you are trying to work for a public company, its essential to read their financial statements that are available in SEC’s website. You will find a lot of valuable information on where the company spends money and what is their short, medium and long term goal. This is more valuable than what your hiring manager can tell you about a company).

Mulesoft was founded in the year 2006. In 8 years they had an exponential growth and you can see the ratio of their expense for R&D vs Sales&Marketing.

Mulesoft Sales/Development expense ratio

Same for Box.

And Alteryx:

Alteryx’s Sales/Development expense ratio

You would think that for a software company, the biggest expense must be to pay for the engineers. But that’s not true. Its not just Mulesoft, but the majority of the Enterprise Software companies spend much higher on Sales and Marketing than engineering. Adding a new “cool” feature isn’t going to get you more customers, but aggressive marketing and sales can. As much as you don’t like to hear this (Neither do I), that’s how it is.

Coming back to our main topic of discussion, this is why soft skills matter more than you’d think. If you are a good communicator and if you clearly understand what a customer or a prospect is trying to do, you don’t really need to add feature after feature in your product. Which means, if you are in the profit center and if you are directly communicating with your customers or prospects, you can just reduce the work of 100 person hours of engineering to none and still make your customers and prospects happy. That’s what drives businesses forward. This is why its an important skill that you need to develop if you are ever planning to start your own company. Make no mistake, engineering skills are still a must. I’d still love coding even when I’m 60. But having both is a killer combination and it is essential to move your career forward.