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Nontechnical skills (or soft skills) are cognitive, social, and personal abilities that contribute to an effective work environment but are not always easy to measure. They include communication, situational awareness, emotional intelligence and self-awareness, creativity, persistence, adaptability, teamwork, leadership, and time management.
caution It’s easy to focus primarily on technical skills, especially when engineers are hiring other engineers. In reality, it takes a lot more than technical skills alone to succeed in the modern workplace.
Here are some examples of nontechnical skills to consider when defining roles:
Internal communication skills, in meetings or calls, in written form, or as technical documentation. This can include both clarity and timeliness of communication.
External communication skills, such as for sales or support, including the ability to be professional with external parties and balance internal and customer needs. This is often essential for sales positions or solutions engineers.
Emotional intelligence (also known as EQ), which is largely a person’s ability to identify and manage their own emotions and empathize with others.
Teamwork and collaborative skills.
Creativity and product skills, such as the ability to reason about product priorities or make specific product choices.
Management of multiple responsibilities. Includes managing time well, project management, and structuring of tasks.
Persistence, including the discipline to tackle and solve large or complex problems over weeks or months.
Ability to learn quickly in an unstructured environment.
Ability and interest in mentoring others.
Well-defined nontechnical skills for a role will be:
Relevant to the role. To achieve the outcomes you listed for the role, would a new hire need to collaborate a lot with colleagues? Will they be expected to give presentations to the team or to other departments?
Compatible with your company’s stage and work style. Is this a high-growth startup that requires employees to be self-motivated? Do people need to learn new things quickly, and hopefully enjoy doing so?
Compatible with your company’s values. Do you expect this person to be empathetic to those around them? What does effective communication mean at your company—are directness and decisive action valued? Transparency and consensus?
Desired Traits and Values
In addition to skills, it helps to consider what traits and values could help a candidate succeed in their role. In a startup, you might need people who are highly adaptable to changing circumstances and are able to weather the volatility and ambiguity that come with building an early-stage company; or you might be looking for highly mission-aligned candidates who share your company’s vision.
I always made it a habit of talking to people that I knew de facto were world class, and then asking them specifically: ‘What are the key traits or characteristics that you look for? What are the questions that you ask, and how do you find them? And if you’re looking for the next person that’s as good as you, where is that person working right now?’Ben Silbermann, co-founder and CEO, Pinterest*
Traits are characteristics of a person that describe how they tend to feel, think, and behave, such as patience, adaptability, and being detail-oriented.
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