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Intro: I'm originally a physicist, and I love programming since my childhood (primarily C++). After finishing my PhD in physics, I did a post-doctoral fellowship in a university for 2 years, where in that period I was deciding whether I want to continue in research or move to industry. Long story short, I searched for a job in industry, and within 2 months I was hired in a software company. During the first 3 months, I read 4 books on networking, multithreading, hacking and code-style. I work 8 hours at work every day, and I continue the rest programming in my own projects (including most of the weekends).

Why am I mentioning this? Because it may explain what happened later in my 3-months review meeting with my boss, which showed that I'm very good at what I do... but...

The 3 months review came up, and my boss put her right hand up and said "here's your technical skills", and the other hand down and said "here's your soft-skills". Honestly, at the time I didn't even know what "soft-skills" means, and given that I like resolving such issues directly, I asked "what are soft-skills?", and I got the answer "google it" (ouch!). They (boss + HR) also said that I shouldn't talk about work during brakes, and I should socialize more with other employees. That's all they said, and I failed at pulling any additional information from them.

Given that this is my first professional industry job, I am unable to assess the necessity of having soft-skills, and how much to care about this issue (is it just a formality and I shouldn't really care, or so important, even more than all my programming skills). I don't even know where to start, and that's why I'm asking this question. I'm a little scared! I don't want to fail in my career because of this... while I know that I've been kind of a loner my whole life (and I like it, and honestly some articles like this one give me some consolation, after having felt like a weirdo for a long part of my life).

There's a ritual in the company where I work, where they make a breakfast once a week, and people get together and talk and stuff (and I don't like being there, because I feel it's a waste of precious time). HR said that she'll take my hand to go in there from now on (she was half-joking, I assume, but I must go there)... and honestly speaking, I don't even know what to talk about there (other than work, which I can't talk about there, but all I do is work, and I'm happy and I love it!).

I like solving problems systematically... step by step... so what I'm doing now is that I got some books (e.g., this one) and I'm gonna start reading more about soft-skills... what else can I do? And how much should I care about this?

PS: I'm 31 now.

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    From your description, your HR people seem really great; I would take it as friendly advise and not worry too much. – pmf May 5 '17 at 7:36
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    "what are soft-skills?", and I got the answer "google it" (ouch!). -> sounds like you're not the only with poor "soft skills". – Erik May 5 '17 at 8:34
  • @Erik lol... you made my day! xD – The Quantum Physicist May 5 '17 at 8:36
  • if you like books, this one has been great to me(even if I applied only 2% of the book, sontained in the first two chapters) : amazon.fr/Convince-Them-Seconds-Less-Connections-ebook/dp/… – gazzz0x2z May 5 '17 at 8:53
  • It didn't make me a great communicator, but good enough to manipulate the administrative team into choosing my favourite blend of tea. Look workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/59460/… - tea might be not important for you, but there are probably plenty of other things you'll get only through soft skills. And I just applied the lessons learned in the book. – gazzz0x2z May 5 '17 at 9:00
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Welcome to the world of small talk and networking.

I have no idea what type of person you consider yourself to be, so I will not go into personality types, but there are some general remarks:

  • Everyone is different. A lot of people feel it is easier to do good work if you are working with people you have at least some basic, personal non-work connection with. They feel uneasy if they know really nothing about you, they do not like the awkward silence any more than you do.
  • Breaks are breaks. Some people might want to talk about work, but others need a mental break from it to be able to go on. If you want, talk about your personal projects, but maybe refrain from talking about current work.
  • Empathy is important. If you have problems with feeling empathy, try "going through the moves". It helps some people. Copy how others react, copy what they do. It might not give you any insight, but it can help.
  • Find people interested in the same things. Also outside of work. Go to a programmers meetup (they exist). This gives you the chance to talk to people about what you like, which gives you the chance to generally "practice" soft skills.
  • Read up on soft skills. Like me, you seem to be a "brain based" person.I am by no means unemotional or anti-social, but still, I like to actually understand behavior, read about it. Get the theoretical background. It is really interesting. (So yes, google it. As harsh as it sounds, it could have been a well-meaning advice.)
  • Thanks for the advice. I think I'm more of asocial than anti-social. I'm not hostile at all. It's just that I have no interest in that. I'll be looking for programmers meet-ups. :) – The Quantum Physicist May 5 '17 at 7:33
  • @Uh, sorry, asocial in my native language is much more demeaning than anti-social. I wasn't trying to be mean, but I honestly think there are people who are the opposite of social butterflies (and that has nothing to do with being hostile or not, which is a completely different thing). – skymningen May 5 '17 at 7:34
  • No no, I'm not offended. Thank you for the advice :) – The Quantum Physicist May 5 '17 at 7:37
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You should definitely go to this breakfasts and possibly other social events your company organizes. This was clearly outlined by your manager, so although it seems like a waste of time to you, obviously your management thinks otherwise. And I guess most people would.

First of, I must say that I am a little surprised that you have never heard the term "soft skills" before. It it thrown around so much in industry, university, newspapers and magazines that it seems hard to miss. And soft skills apply way before an industry job as well: During your studies with your peers, certainly in grad school and also as a post-doc.

And yes: It does matter. While I personally don't subscribe to the ideology that only soft skills matter (technical skill is important, but you seem to have this covered), it is an important tool to be efficient. When you get along great with your co-workers and your boss, it is obviously easier to convince them of your next great technical idea. If you are a good speaker, people will listen to you. If you are approachable, people will approach you.

The days of "hackers" sitting in a dark basement alone and coding away are long gone in the industry. You normally work in teams (and you seem to do, too), sometimes very large, and communicating with your team mates is important.

After (hopefully) establishing that having some soft skills is important, how can you achieve that? First, by attending such social events. And yes, in the beginning it might be a bit awkward for you, so ease into it and just attend, listen to the other people and just nod along. And then observe what other people are doing: Most likely they are talking about the weather, the latest football game or some major news. This is called smalltalk and in areas were you are interested in, just join in ("Yeah, Christiano Ronaldo really is the best footbal player!"). If you are not interested in any of the topics (but anyone can say something about the weather: "Man, it is freakishly hot today!") you might want to start talking about something that interest you. From your question it sounds like you think that you are only interested in working, but I find this hard to believe. First of, it seems like you enjoy reading books, so talk about books or authors. If you enjoy solving puzzles and IT, maybe you do something with this in your spare time. And even if you work in IT, it is perfectly good small talk when you talk about your non-work related side projects. Maybe you tweak around with a raspberry pi or arduino or you wrote an interesting library or application.

  • Actually my other interest was video-games, but not anymore. I find them boring at this age. The thing is that my home-projects are also considered as "work-talk". Anything related to technical skills is considered work by HR, because they don't know the difference. Once they hear me talking "iterators and algorithms", it means I'm talking about work. That whether thing and nodding is what I currently do (don't have another choice, lol), but I feel like it's getting out-dated xD... Thanks for the advice! :) – The Quantum Physicist May 5 '17 at 7:35
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    Well, don't talk about "iterators and algorithms". You use them to achieve something, right? Talk about what you build with these iterators and algorithms. – dirkk May 5 '17 at 8:08
  • excellent comment from @dirkk, and not only for the communication reason. Why your iterators are useful is something very important. Making hi-level technical things that are useful to noone is, ultimately, a failure. So get interested in the overall strategy of your company. That's a topic interesting to everyone, you won't look self-centered, and you'll learn a lot of important things. – gazzz0x2z May 5 '17 at 8:50
  • I see! That sounds like good strategy. Thanks to both of you :) @gazzz0x2z – The Quantum Physicist May 5 '17 at 8:53

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