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Hard skills vs. soft skills
Hard skills are essential, but neglecting your soft skills can stunt your growth
In my last post, I mentioned my interview with Packard Bell, the first stepping stone toward my software engineering career. Unfortunately, the wet pebble was slick with moss.
I spent my first two weeks working at Packard Bell in their mandatory training program. During the class, we spent eight hours a day sandblasting our eyeballs with the technical tome Upgrading and Repairing PCs by Scott Mueller and Mark Edward Soper.
Packard Bell required all new employees to attend this training, whether they were working in technical support or not. So, for example, my group included a seventeen-year-old high-school brunette that Packard Bell had hired to play Solitare as a receptionist.
The only difference between the technical support people and other employees in the training program was that the support team had to pass CompTIA's A+ Certification within their first ninety days. Packard Bell would pay for the first test, but if you failed, you had to pay the $80 fee for subsequent attempts. In addition, Packard Bell would terminate your employment if you didn't pass the A+ exam within your first three months or failed it three times. No pressure!
One day, during class, the middle-aged instructor was hitting on High-school Girl like he always did, even though she was married and had a kid. After emitting one of his perpetual face farts, which I could tell impressed her, he said, "Ya know, you should switch to technical support. It pays three dollars more an hour and'll give you opportunities to advance." High-school Girl said she'd think about it. Finally, after a few more days of gas and goading from the instructor, she agreed to the switch.
Determined to pass the A+ Certification test on Packard Bell's cash, I rolled each page of Upgrading and Repairing PCs to a point, dipped them in Tabasco sauce, and stabbed them into my brain. After a month of cramming, I found my mind filled with weird facts on IRQs, BIOSs, registers, and baud rates. Of course, I still didn't own a computer, but I could now visualize their complex internals.
My first week on the customer hotline was a disaster. I expected to use all my newly acquired knowledge, but Upgrading and Repairing PCs hadn't covered any of the questions our customers lobbed at me. So, I had to put each customer on hold, call the Technical-Support Support line, and ask for assistance. For example, during my first week, a customer called because their computer was burning.
"Hello. Thank you for calling Packard Bell support. How may I help you?" I said.
"I just picked up one of your systems at Computer City and plugged it in," the customer replied. "It seems to be working, but smoke is spewing out of the little slots in front."
"Uh... OK. May I place you on hold for a moment? I'll be right back."
After complaining that he had been on hold for two hours, the customer acquiesced and patiently waited while I called the Technical-Support Support team. I had to wait on hold myself for a few minutes. Finally, a guy named Larry answered.
"What's up?" Larry asked.
"I have a customer who purchased one of our computers today, and now smoke is coming out the front."
"Did you ask them to see if there's a cord touching the CPU?" Larry asked.
"Uh, no. One second."
I put Larry on hold and asked the customer to turn off the computer, get a screwdriver, undo a dozen screws, graduate with a degree in engineering, pop off the case, and see if one of the wires inside was touching the CPU. Then, I patiently waited for him to check.
"OK. I unplugged all the wires, so none of them are touching the CPU," the customer said helpfully.
No! I thought. Why would you do that?
"Uh... One moment, please."
I put the customer back on hold and got Technical-Support Support Larry back on the line.
"Dude! The guy unplugged all the wires inside his computer," I said. "What do I do?"
"Why would he do that?" Larry asked.
"How would I know? I asked him to look at it, not yank everything apart."
"OK. Calm down. I'll be right back."
Larry put me on hold and called Technical-Support-Support Support. A few minutes later, Larry came over to my desk with a schematic for the customer's computer, and I had to spend the next hour blindly working with the customer over the phone to get all the wires plugged back into the right spots in his computer.
We finally got everything stuffed back in and turned the computer on. Surprisingly, it worked. As an added frill, it wasn't smoking anymore. Before anything else could go wrong, I hurried, hung up, and jumped into the next inferno.
Not only did I have to solve my customers' issues, but whenever my boss would seat me next to High-school Girl, I'd also have to solve her customers' issues. She was friendly, but helping her rubbed me the wrong way for two reasons. One, while I toiled at my desk eight hours a day solving problems, she wandered around chatting with people. Second, I also knew she hadn't put in the effort the rest of us had to acquire our skills and only had the position because the instructor during our training class took a liking to her.
On the plus side, I gained gobs of experience helping my customers and hers. On the minus side, I was a petty jerk, even if only on the inside.
After a month or two, I became familiar with the myriad ways a Packard Bell computer could explode. Furthermore, the company began trusting me enough to authorize customer repairs and replacements without going through Technical-Support Support.
I replaced modems, hard drives, and even full computers daily. Then, I'd guide customers through computer surgery, which usually involved unscrewing the case and pressing on one or more internal components with a live trout. I soon went from solving thirty-five to forty issues per week to consistently being the top performer on my shift, solving around a hundred customer issues each day.
I still needed to pass the A+ Certification exam, though.
I dread bubble tests. I always misread the question, pounce on the first wrong answer that seems close, or circle in the correct answer on the wrong line of the answer sheet. Still, my ninetieth day was only three weeks away, and I had to pass the test or lose my job.
While I was procrastinating, High-school Girl took the A+ Certification exam and failed. She then retook it and failed again, setting herself back eighty bucks.
Finally, with two weeks left before my looming termination, I drove to the testing center, waited for the body cavity search, and sat down in front of the secure terminal to take my test.
Bubble, bubble, bubble, there were more bubbles in this test than in a Mr. Bubbles bubble-bath commercial.
After I finished the mind-numbing scrub, I waited around nervously for my results.
"You got 99%," said the motherly woman behind the counter, handing me a copy of my certification to give to Packard Bell.
I stoically thanked the woman and walked out to my car. Inside, I was all giggly and thrilled. I had passed the test and tied one of the other guys in my group for the highest score. Fortunately, the day before the deadline, High-school Girl also passed with a little above 80%.
I continued working the night shift at Packard Bell for nine months. When I started working there, the shift manager assigned me a random seat when I arrived each day. Toward the end, my boss moved me next to his desk and gave me all the complicated issues to solve. I consistently remained the top performer during my shift, solving more problems and getting higher approval ratings than anyone on the team.
One evening, my boss told me they were opening up a position on the Technical-Support Support team and asked me to apply. I did. I was sure I would get it, considering all my impressive work.
A day or two after my interview, my boss approached me and informed me that they had given the job to High-school Girl. The news dumbfounded me. High-school Girl? The one who still required assistance to solve even easy customer issues? Was the company really going to move her into a position to support me?
I expressed my disbelief to my boss, who agreed with my arguments. Still, the decision was final.
I gave my two-week notice later that night. I told my boss that if the company didn't respect my skills, I'd find someplace that did. He tried to convince me to stay but said he didn't blame me for leaving.
I didn't realize it then, but a big part of the Technical-Support Support job was interacting with people within the company. What I had considered wasting time when High-school Girl socialized with others, the company had seen as collaboration. What I viewed as incompetence when she would ask those around her for help, the company considered teamwork.
I focused on the hard skill of technical knowledge to the exclusion of the soft skill of interpersonal relationships. I didn't have friends at the company. I showed up, did my job, and did it better than anyone else. While my hard skills were undeniable, my soft skills were non-existent.
I met people I knew from Packard Bell a few times as the years went by and heard that the company had promoted High-school Girl up the corporate ladder and into a senior management role. I wish I had understood why the company promoted her back then, but I didn't, so the news served no purpose but to irritate me.
It would be many years before I discovered the necessity of soft skills in my career. I hope my experience here will help drive that point home for readers in their early careers, so they can advance more quickly than I did.
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