Softs kills part 7

Liu Wenji was one my students who graduated five years ago and currently working at Google. Last week he came back to visit me, and I asked him to share his working experience with my current students. Following was what he said:

“When I was a student here, I focused mostly on the technical. As a Chinese student, I made friends with other Chinese as we can speak with others easily until I took Professor Vu's class. His class was different as he required everyone to participate in class discussions and we had to give a presentation based on class subjects. I did not like it and often avoided the discussion, in a class of over 60 students, it is not difficult to hide behind someone, so I did not got called. Professor Vu's class was not just about technical, but he often talked about some historical events and industry trends. I remembered he often said that if we were to remember only one thing about his class, it should be about soft skills. I did not pay attention at the time because I believe in the importance of having technical skills.”

“That year, I applied for an internship in the summer. Although I was a good student, I did not get any offer when others who were not as good got hired. One day, he called me to his office and asked: “Are you actively seeking internship? It is important to have an internship to gain experience. Next year after graduate, you will be looking for a full-time job, and without experience, it will be difficult to get a job in a good company.” I told him about my situation that I had several interviews but no offer. He thought for a moment and said: “You are good in technical, but your weakness is in communication. You did not participate much in class discussion; you often avoid debate and presentation, and that is your problem. You think technical skills and soft skills are two separate things. Do you think that you can work alone by writing codes without interact with others.? You are wrong! No one work alone in the industry, you must improve your soft skills, especially teamwork, and communication skills.”

I argued: “Why do I need communication skills? Although I am a Chinese, my English is good.”

He explained: “Of course, you can speak English but speaking is not enough. If you cannot explain to others about the technical things that you do, or what they are, and what they can do, you will not do well in your career. Most students believe that technical skill is good enough. The problem is when you go to work; you do not work alone but with others. You must interact with team members, exchange ideas, share data, and support others. If you cannot express your ideas clearly to others, they will not understand you, and you will have difficulty. We are in the information age, and students like you are pioneers at the frontline, and you must develop your soft skills.”

“Since the meeting, I was called to give a presentation in his class all the time. He always called me to answer questions during class discussion. Some of my friends thought that he did not like me, but I know he forced me to improve myself. Soon after that, I had five more job interviews. I failed the first three, but as my communication skill improved, I did better on the last two and got a good offer that summer. The following year, I took two classes from Professor Vu. He continued to force me to improve my soft-skills and six months before graduation; I got three job interviews, and I did well in all of them. Now, five years later, I understand that the ability to communicate effectively is very important. Having technical skill is not enough! You also need to communicate clearly and effectively. Your ability to take a complex technical problem and explain it in terms that anyone could understand is the most important skill. If you can do this, you will be able to talk to many levels of managers, and as they listen to you, and you will be recognized as the expert in the company, and it helps you to get ahead in your career.”

“Today most problems are complex, if you work alone, you may not have the skill to solve the problem. But when you work on a team, there are many people with a variety of skills, some that you may not have. By a combination of these skills, it is possible to solve the problem. Of course, in teamwork, there are issues with different opinions, big egos, and other personal problems. However, if you have teamwork skill, you know how to avoid these issues and get your work done on time. You also support other team members getting their work done as well. In Asia, students often work alone and compete with others in the class. When they go to work, many did not get along with others for they are afraid someone may be better than them. This is a mistake! When working, it is important that you work well with others, else the team may not like you, and the company may fire you for lack of cooperation. I want to emphasize that no matter how good you are with technology or how excellent your programming skills are, there is always something that you do not know how to do, but someone on your team may know how to do. The ability to ask for help is important, and as they help you, you will learn about friendship and teamwork.”

“I would like to advise all of you to improve your presentation skill because, at work, you will have to do a lot of presentations. You never know when you must present your project's status to your manager, your customers, or even the president of your company. Your ability to stand up in front of a large group of people and speak clearly will help to establish your credibility as a professional and help advance your career. Of course, making a presentation in front of a lot of people is difficult and stressful, but present complex subjects using simple terms so people can understand much harder. I would like to thank Professor Vu, who helped me to be very good with communication and presentation skills. I have learned how to plan my material properly and what to say, clearly and effectively. Because of what I have learned here, I have enough confidence to do what I need to move up in my career at Google. To many of you who are in his class, you are lucky to learn from someone who had a lot of working experience in the industry. Take his advice carefully and improve your soft-skills. As he often said: “Technical skills change with time, but soft skills will stay with you forever, so you must improve your soft-skills when you are still here because you will need them when you go to work.”


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University
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