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Soft Skills Just as Important as Core, Computational Skills When Looking for a Job

1 September 2010 5,001 views No Comment
Sastry Pantula

Sastry Pantula

Since this issue of Amstat News deals with careers in statistics, it is worthwhile to emphasize the three Cs—core, computational, and communication skills, especially the softer communication skills. I include here some points I made at a workshop for young industrial and business statisticians.

A quick look at JobWeb, the ASA’s online job-posting site, confirms there are excellent opportunities for statisticians, biostatisticians, survey statisticians, bioinformaticians, quality engineers, predictive modelers, business analytics specialists, climate analysts, and computational scientists, among others. They include both technical/research-type jobs requiring focused problemsolving skills and managerial-type jobs requiring project and resource management skills.

To succeed in our careers, we need both hard skills and soft skills. There is no doubt that all our jobs require us to have a strong foundation in statistical theory and methodology and excellent computational skills to manage massive data. Soft skills are not a cover-up for the lack of hard skills; we must have and show our expertise in our field. However, hard skills by themselves are not enough. Soft skills help us work in teams, communicate with other scientists, aid management, and move up the ladder through leadership.

Other characteristics sought in the JobWeb ads include a strong work ethic, positive attitude, communication skills, problemsolving skills, ability to work with a team, confidence, ability to work under pressure, flexibility, and good time management.

So, what are soft skills? If you google “soft skills,” you will receive a number of definitions and a good number of advice columns about how to develop them. I will attempt to summarize them here.
Soft skills are the qualities or social skills we all possess. They are the interpersonal skills we have and use when working with others—how we interact with our peers; how we network and communicate; how we empathize with others; our integrity, optimism, and enthusiasm; how we formulate important problems and find solutions for them.

When consulting, we have to help our clients formulate the problem, create an appropriate hypothesis, and possibly offer advice about the type of data to collect. To accomplish this, we must listen.

Listen Proactively

Give full attention to the person talking and understand what he or she is saying before offering advice. As Stephen Covey, who wrote the popular book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, put it, “Seek first to understand and then to be understood” and “diagnose before you prescribe.”

Congratulations Are in Order
I would like to congratulate and thank the ASA staff and JSM 2010 Program Committee for putting on a wonderful meeting in beautiful Vancouver. I appreciate all the members who participated and made the Joint Statistical Meetings a success. We received excellent press coverage, thanks to the Canadian census issue (which I sincerely hope reaches a positive resolution) and the hard work of our public relations specialist, Rosanne Desmone. If you need help working with reporters, Desmone has good advice and contacts. Email her at rosanne@amstat.org

Covey gave an example of a guy visiting an eye doctor. The doctor gave the guy his own glasses and said, “These are very good. They have been helping me a lot. You can keep these since I have another pair of glasses at home.” The patient tried them on and told the doctor he couldn’t see very well and that things were still fuzzy. The doctor told him how well they worked for him and mentioned his disappointment with the patient, saying he was ungrateful.

Do not prescribe before you diagnose.

How many times while we are listening to someone do we run through our autobiography to relate a similar situation and begin offering advice before the other person is finished speaking? As Covey put it, we want others to see through our glasses, whether they fit the other person’s needs or not. Resist the temptation to formulate a response or go through your autobiography to share your stories while someone else is speaking. Learn to listen and empathize. Listen to understand, because all of us like to be understood, affirmed, validated, and appreciated.

Be Aware of Your Body Language

Our body language is a good indication of whether we are empathizing with someone. Keep eye contact while listening. Blank stares are dead giveaways that we are not empathizing.

It is also a good idea to rephrase in your own words what you understand someone’s thoughts and feelings to be. When you repeat, it also gives you time to formulate a response.

It is also important that we use simple language in our conversations. It is distracting to use TLAs (three-letter acronyms) of which only a few people know the meaning. Jargon can become a barrier and is unimpressive. Some folks may be too shy to stop us or embarrassed to ask what those acronyms or complicated words mean. Look for common ground, rather than differences.

In a conversation, we should not speak for a long time without giving others the opportunity to speak. Pause and ask probing questions: What do you think? Do you agree? It’s a two-way street. We learn much more from listening to others than listening to ourselves.

In addition to listening and speaking, we need to develop good writing skills. Most correspondence is done via email these days. However, email does not have eyes to see body language. It is easy to trade bullets over email. A small comment (pebble) may feel like an admonishment (boulder) to the person reading it at the other end. Also, be concise in your writing. No one has the time or patience to read long emails or memos. If it must be long, include a summary at the beginning of it.

Learn to Work in Teams

Know the rules and expectations at work. Different companies probably have different expectations. Share and learn the rules early so everyone has the chance to succeed. Make sure to greet people you run into: staff, peers, the boss, security personnel, the janitor. Share a smile; it is contagious. By all means, avoid political and religious comments or jokes. Always tell the truth so you don’t have to remember what lie you said to whom. Don’t gossip. It is important to have values and not be tempted to give up your ethics for short-term gain. Trust takes a long time to build, and we can lose it with one mistake. Our profession depends on having the public’s trust. We should not give into pressure for sensational news or results someone else desires.

When we are working in teams, we need to get to know how our part may affect or benefit our team members (or the folks who have requested it). Every team member brings a different strength. As on a football team, not everyone is a quarterback; other offense and defense positions are needed. Everyone is important in his or her own way and contributes to the team’s success. Working well in teams also means dressing appropriately and maintaining good hygiene.

As we move up, we need to bring others up with us, not step on and push them down. Just as a saw needs regular sharpening, we—young or seasoned—need to work regularly on improving our soft skills. Maintaining soft skills is a hard skill!

Enjoy reading the rest of this issue about all the wonderful opportunities out there for statisticians. All the best!

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