Renaming 'soft' and 'hard' skills

October 1, 2013 | skills

People in the development community tend to throw around the phrase “soft skills” to describe things that are not directly related to writing code. This isn’t exclusive to the development world; lots of people use the term “soft skills” to describe traits that can’t be directly attributed to certifiable/measurable skills and specialities.

A non-exhaustive list of what “soft skills” typically encompasses would be:

I, like many others, am pretty damn tired of referring to these as “soft skills.” Many employers actively seek out these attributes in prospective employees, making them near requirements for success in the workforce. If something is a near requirement, why is it “soft”? I’m not a stuffed animal, and neither are these highly relevant job skills.

“Soft” implies that it’s less important than it is by using a word to describe the skill set that also means things like “pleasing”, “enjoyable”, and “subtle effect.” To further illustrate my point, here are some words that are synonyms for the many meanings of “soft”:

With the exception of “compassionate” and “easy going”, this is not how I want myself described to a prospective employer ever. These sound more like personality traits you’d find in a dating ad than on someone’s resume or in a job description.

Yes, it’s nice to be able to have “soft” because its immediately obvious opposite is “hard.” But, just like “soft,” “hard” has some unintended meanings in its synonyms as well:

Again, with the exception of one or two terms (“reliable” and perhaps “solid”), none of those adjectives are terms I want applied to me and my “hard” skills. I’m sure no one wants to have their technical skills described as “violent” or “unyielding” (especially with regards to change).

The point here, really, is that both “soft” and “hard” have many different definitions. How do you know which one someone is actually referring to? Do you infer? Or do you just hope it’s not “silky” or “violent”?

When we say “soft skills”, people typically mean interpersonal relationships and personality traits (team building, communication), task- and management- related abilities (project and team management), and customer-facing skills (conflict resolution). When we say “hard skills”, people typically mean certifiable, testable, or measurable knowledge (programming languages, aptitude in math) and skills (selling prowess, abilities related to manual labor). It’s usually very easy to determine if you (and employers) consider something a soft or hard skill, but what warrants a stamp of approval in terms of ability with both soft and hard skills remains subjective even when certifications come into play. Hard skills can be tested - or at least employers like to think they can be - and your performance measured on some secret scale.

So can we please stop calling them “soft skills” and “hard skills”? Can we call them something more specific and descriptive of what we actually mean? I think we should introduce some transparency in the way we as humans describe our abilities and the way employers describe jobs.

Here are some ideas for alternatives to “soft skills” and “hard skills.”

For “soft”:

For “hard”:

Some potential pairings could be:

While some of these have stronger, more positive connotations than others, I leave it up for you to decide what works when you describe yourself and your abilities. If you think that “soft” and “hard” are the best way to describe your abilities, well- I would encourage you to look up the multitude of definitions for those words. While they may not be the first thing someone thinks of, those alternate definitions are still floating in the back of people’s minds.