Soft skills can be hard
We do a crossover episode with DevDiscuss and CodeNewbie talking about, and role playing different soft skills, because this topic of soft skills is so important that we thought both of our audiences could benefit from it. To talk about these skills and to help us show what they can look like, we are joined by artist and educator, Kristen Palana, and Liana Felt, senior people operations manager at Forem.
Ben Halpern is co-founder and webmaster of DEV/Forem.
Saron Yitbarek is the founder of Disco, host of the CodeNewbie podcast, and co-host of the base.cs podcast.
Kristen Palana is an award-winning American/Portuguese multimedia artist and international educator based in Lilongwe, Malawi. More: https://kpalana.com/about_new/
Liana Felt is the Senior People Operations Manager at Forem.
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[00:02:17] KP: So I think it’s also about educating the boss in an empathetic and nice way and also showing what’s in it for them. If you do less or you focus on these two things instead of these five things, then the outcomes are going to be so much better.
[00:02:44] BH: Welcome to DevDiscuss, the show where we cover the burning topics that impact all of our lives as developers. I’m Ben Halpern, a co-founder of Forem.
[00:02:52] SY: And I’m Saron Yitbarek, Founder of Disco, and the host of the CodeNewbie Podcast. Today, we’re doing a crossover episode here with DevDiscuss and CodeNewbie because this topic of soft skills is so important that we thought both of our audiences could benefit from it. So to talk about these skills and to help us show what they can look like, we have with us artist and educator, Kristen Palana, and Liana Felt, Senior People Operations Manager at Forem. Thank you so much for joining us.
[00:03:19] KP: Thanks for having us.
[00:03:20] LF: Hi! Thanks for having us.
[00:03:22] BH: For some added context, Liana is also my wife and has been with our company almost since the beginning. So Kristen, you have a long and impressive resume of all the things you do. Tell us a little bit about your background.
[00:03:34] KP: Sure. I’m actually coming to you from Malawi in Southern Africa, where I’ve been living since 2019. I’m actually doing art and communication for two UN organizations, UNFPA and UNICEF. But my background is a university professor and I’m scared to say that it’s been since 2000, but I was in my 20s when I started. So I’m not that old. I’ve been working with people on four continents, students and other artists and workers and what have you. And soft skills, actually a huge difference between someone doing really well and sort of fizzling out, even if they’re “really talented”. So I’m looking forward to talking about it more.
[00:04:13] SY: We actually found you through a highly rated Udemy course titled “Soft Skills & Career Success: How to Be Excellent at Work”. How did you start teaching these skills?
[00:04:23] KP: It’s funny because your professors, when you’re in university, probably one of their least favorite things they have to do but will do is be an academic advisor. They tell you what classes you’re supposed to take. And if you get a good one, they’ll also kind of help you get into the career that you want and give you advice. And I actually, even though I wasn’t looking forward to doing these meetings all day long, I found that I was actually quite good at it. And so alongside teaching our digital media, illustration and animation, I found that my students were coming to me quite a lot for advising. And I was teaching in New York City, in New Jersey, and then for 10 years in Rome, Italy, and then three years ago, we moved to Myanmar. And there actually wasn’t my field in the universities there. So I started teaching for organizations and ad agencies, their junior staff, helping them be more confident at work, be able to ask questions, able to give presentations, basically not be so timid. So that’s sort of how I started with the soft skills class. It was an online resource to a live training I did in Myanmar. And then once that was over, I put it online and I’ve opened it up to a more international audience. Now I’m helping also students here in Malawi with that as well.
[00:05:43] BH: And Liana, you work closely with our chief operating officer, Jess Lee, and have been our point person for people relations across the company. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you grew into the role?
[00:05:54] LF: So I’ve been with DEV/Forem for just over three years. When I started, I actually came in as like a part-time, just kind of doing this in between jobs, helping get our DEV shop up and running, working on like graphic design and marketing. But throughout my 20s, I had a variety of different jobs, worked at a lot of places that I really felt like were not great places to work, went through a lot of interview processes, kind of saw how a lot of different companies were getting things wrong, I think, when it comes to people operations. So when we were starting to build out DEV and Forem, this was sort of like the passion area for me. We were a small company at the time, so I was already doing a lot of like people ops kind of work, but decided I wanted to sort of transition into doing that full time.
[00:06:40] SY: Soft skills is such a broad and nebulous topic. So I would love it if you could both define what soft skills mean to you so we can set the stage for the rest of this round table.
[00:06:49] KP: Well, for me, these are basically skills that are not career specific. It’s more of the transferable skills, things like communication, being self-motivated, sort of being responsible when things go right and being accountable when things go wrong, being able to work with other people, being able to talk to people, whether it’s clients or team members or your boss, problem solving, basically just taking the initiative. These are the important skills that I think anyone can develop. It’s not like if you’re teaching art students and one is really talented, but it turns out they never turned in their work on time or they’re really unreliable or they let their team down, they’re not going to do so well after school, even if they’re really talented. So I think these are things that can be developed and improved and anybody can develop soft skills and really shine wherever they are at work or their own business.
[00:07:43] BH: There seems to be a real craving for education in soft skills right now, especially in tech. Why do you think that is, Kristen?
[00:07:49] KP: Well, these are skills that you don’t necessarily get a university degree in or specialized training in, but they’re so useful. And sometimes you could go through school and not have ever been exposed to them. It is important to kind of understand how to interact with other people, how to talk to people, just how to be self-motivated, have a good attitude, be dependable. So all things that we should have developed by the time you get to a certain stage in life, but maybe there’s always room for improvement. So I think anywhere that we can get practice and have training or maybe even learn some secret handshakes and things that nobody tells you, I think that’s why there’s such a demand for this kind of education right now.
[00:08:33] SY: What do you think are the biggest soft skills that people tend to lack, Liana?
[00:08:37] LF: I think communication is really hard. It’s something that we as humans do every day, but everyone communicates in different ways and especially in work environments, especially now that like so many workplaces have transitioned to remote, like how things are communicated on Slack is really different than how you communicate talking face-to-face and a lot of times like tone and things can be kind of like misinterpreted and written communication, which can cause a lot of conflict. Another thing that people lack is being able to give feedback and take feedback. Everyone does that in different ways. So understanding how the people around you like receiving feedback and how you also like receiving feedback.
[00:09:18] BH: Since soft skills, historically, aren’t really a subject in school per se, what ways did you two grow into these roles and begin teaching yourself the soft skills, such that you can have a professional capacity to help navigate this stuff for other people?
[00:09:35] KP: I think teaching yourself soft skills, it can be a bit tricky. I know I had a hard time with being out of my comfort zone. When you’re going from high school to your first jobs, there’s a lot of awkwardness in just showing up the first day and not knowing anyone and not really knowing what to do and not knowing what to say. And sometimes this discomfort can cause you to not want to go back or not show up or these kinds of things. That was actually a big problem in Myanmar. I had a friend. She was a job recruiter from Thailand and she had all these young Myanmar people. She was matching them up with jobs and they would get so nervous about going to their job interview that they just wouldn’t show up and then they would never return anyone’s call ever again. It was like they were scared and sort of ashamed and it was kind of common that people would then drop off the radar completely. I think learning soft skills is about overcoming your fears, doing things even though they don’t feel comfortable and growing from that experience, and then weeks go by, months go by, and the things that used to terrify you are no longer scary anymore, and then you’re able to kind of go in a better direction.
[00:10:51] LF: I think also just having the awareness of like where, and I think this goes for everything, not just soft skills, but technical skills as well, but like where you need to be improving and not shying away from that, but really leaning into it and kind of doing the work around whether it’s communication or problem solving or learning Ruby or anything like that. For me, I am someone I’m pretty comfortable talking, interviewing, but when I was first starting to interview places, I would record myself. I would ask, like answer common interview questions and record myself, and then listen to my answers to kind of hear what it sounded like, which I think really helped my interviewing skills.
[00:11:34] BH: And on the job, I think it’s important to note that these are the skills that help you accomplish things like getting software developed properly. Being able to navigate a discussion when people are disagreeing over something about API design, a database query, anything like that, you can only take a system so far by understanding how the APIs work. You will consistently be faced with opportunities to get your point across or fail to get your point across or fail to hear someone else’s point, which is actually possibly more correct than how you’d been thinking about it and taking all that into account. I know from experience that this is a never ending critical skill and it shouldn’t be thought of as something just to learn so you can pass an interview or be better for the boss. It’s really how you develop better software, if that’s your ultimate goal.
[00:12:39] SY: Absolutely. So we were actually inspired to do this episode, role playing different soft skills, from seeing a tweet by someone named Shawn Wang, AKA Swyx. And so I want to start by giving them a shout out for the awesome idea. So thank you so much. So let’s start with talking about communication and feedback in the context of something like a code review. In this scenario, you both have just received something to review that completely missed the mark on the project. Kristen, let’s start off with you. In your experience, what have been some terrible showings of soft skills? And then what are soft skills and communication and feedback that you would use?
[00:13:14] KP: Okay. So this is actually pretty common. What I normally like to do is something called the feedback sandwich, where I find anything positive that I can start my communications with. So, “Wow! This must have taken a long time. It looks like you spent a few hours on this and I really appreciate the effort and it looks like technically you got everything to work and that’s wonderful.” And then in the middle is, I don’t want to say negative feedback, but the constructive feedback. So that’s where you put the actionable feedback. “You did a good job technically with this, but I think that it’s not exactly what the client had in mind. They said they wanted X, Y, Z and you did A, B, C. Do you think there’s a way that you could take it in a different direction without you having to redo the whole thing? Like maybe this part here, you can tweak, et cetera, et cetera?” And then you finally end the sandwich with one more positive. “So again, this was a lot of work and I think you’re almost there, but I think we have to really think about what the client wanted and try to move it more in that direction.” That’s basically my suggestion is the feedback sandwich start with a positive, insert your actionable, some people might say negative feedback, and then end with a positive.
[00:14:34] SY: So I have a follow-up on that. I’ve heard that piece of advice before of kind of sandwiching the negative thing and kind of surrounding it with some positive things. But I’ve also heard some pushback against that of people saying when people kind of overuse that, people kind of ignore the positive thing and it feels like the positive thing isn’t really genuine and you’re kind of using it to gently tell the person that they did a bad job. You know what I mean? Like it’s like anticipating it and really you’re just saying it so that you have a nice way of giving the thing you don’t like. So I’m wondering, have you heard that pushback before? And if so, is there a way to address that?
[00:15:16] KP: Yeah. It’s kind of funny. My husband is German and he sometimes says that starting out with the positive is a very American thing to do because we kind of dance around. We want to be nice. We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, and it’s just funny with our German friends and family. They’ll just be like, “This is terrible. What are you thinking?” There’s no positive at the beginning necessarily. And that is a huge stereotype. Of course, all Germans are not like that. But the thing with me is I am a very nice person and my students could always count on me to be polite and respectful and I’m always going to be respectful. But I mean, if they mess up or if I’m working with someone and they’ve done a terrible job, I’m also going to be honest. So I think there’s a bit of a balance and maybe that’s a soft skill is balancing your tone, the way you approach something, maybe putting a little humor in there to kind of lighten the mood. You don’t want to send the person running from the room in tears, looking for the nearest tissue. You want them to sort of feel like they got some of it right, but they know exactly what they need to do. I usually say, “Well, this could be even better if blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” Right? So it’s sort of like a motivation, like, “Well, this is pretty good, but I think this could be even better and this is what I think you should do.” Boom, boom, boom. And then you kind of get them excited to try those things. And one thing we do in art is instead of tearing someone’s masterpiece that they’ve been working on for two years apart, I usually just say, “Well, this is great, but what if you made another version of this? Especially on the computer, it’s so easy to add something and save it under a different name and boom. You have a second one, but this one’s green. Or boom, you have another one and this one uses a different font where you’ve moved the layout around.”
[00:17:05] LF: I think also with the feedback sandwich, compliment sandwich, it’s something that I also really like to do too in general, but whatever positive feedback you’re giving has to be true and genuine. If you’re reaching to try and find something, it’s not going to come through as genuine and then I think it’s going to be more likely to feel like a kind of a fake way of giving feedback. I think the other thing that’s really important is I always like to show gratitude and appreciation for people like for the work that they’ve done, even if it’s something that is like not right. So I think that’s another thing I like to work into that kind of response.
[00:17:40] KP: Yeah, Liana is totally right. You don’t want to give fake positive feedback. So just being genuine. If you’re really struggling to come up with even anything positive, you should probably just launch into the constructive feedback.
[00:17:53] LF: Yeah.
[00:17:54] BH: In anticipation of needing to deliver tough feedback, maybe stuff you don’t even know you need to deliver yet, but understanding that you might at some point, there’s also a component of the feedback sandwich, which I think can be primed by making sure that you have been delivering that positive feedback along the way. So that when it comes to delivering either the constructive feedback on its own or the feedback sandwich and whatever is appropriate that it’s coming from a place of maybe an overall feedback sandwich, so people know to expect that you’re delivering both positive response feedback and possibly negative constructive feedback. Psychologically, if the feedback sandwich happens either all at once or spread out, but as long as like that is achieved, that seems like possibly a component of this, like don’t just be radio silence and then only bring up positive feedback when you’re also delivering that negative feedback.
[00:18:52] SY: I like that. Yeah.
[00:18:53] LF: Totally. And I think it also really depends on the relationship you have. If you don’t have such a deep relationship, so many touch points with someone, just delivering some negative feedback is going to be like the focus of the whole relationship. So I think that’s also really important to keep in mind.
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[00:20:47] SY: Okay. The next scenario I want to dig into is an interview setting. And Liana, you interview a lot of people for Forem. Can you set the stage for us on what kinds of things you ask using Kristen as your interviewee and we can both work through what good and bad responses look like?
[00:21:03] LF: So one of my favorite questions or actually one of I think our whole team’s favorite questions is asking people what their strengths and weaknesses are. So Kristen, if we were to ask one of your colleagues, what would they say your greatest strengths and biggest weaknesses are?
[00:21:19] KP: So probably my greatest strength is I am very self-motivated, much committed to excellence. So I’m going to always do a good job because if it has my name on it, then it’s got to be good. Right? And I think that’s a good rule of thumb for anyone. If your name is going on it, you want to be proud that your name is on it, right? I think the lame answer that you’re not supposed to use for the weakness one is something like, “Oh, I’m such a perfectionist. I’m too excellent.” But in my own defense, I am a bit of a perfectionist and it can lead to over fussiness. So I would say a typical weakness that a lot of people like to bring up in a job interview and it’s completely cliché is the whole perfectionism thing. So I don’t know if you would actually use that in an interview or not. Do you have any opinions on that?
[00:22:09] KP: I am also a perfectionist, so I do relate to that being a weakness. I think anytime that you’re talking about a weakness or something that’s not necessarily an overly positive thing in an interview, I think it’s really important to focus on how you’re working to improve on it or how you’ve like showed growth in that area is just I think a great way to kind of turn that around.
[00:22:34] KP: Absolutely.
[00:22:36] SY: But I assume in that question, there are probably things you maybe don’t want to say, right? Like you probably don’t want to say that one of your weaknesses is like a core skill set to the job because that sounds like that’s not a strategic way to go.
[00:22:50] LF: Yeah, definitely not. I think being honest, but also if you were applying for a job that is going to be very detail oriented and saying that you’re not good with small tasks or following up with things or time management, that definitely would be a flag.
[00:23:07] KP: Right. And you don’t want to be like, “Oh, yeah, I never meet the deadline and I’m a compulsive liar.”
[00:23:13] LF: Yeah.
[00:23:15] SY: I’m just a bad person.
[00:23:17] KP: You don’t want to hire me. I don’t think I really want this job anymore.
[00:23:23] BH: We just talked about the soft skills the interviewee might need to be successful in demonstrating their capacity to succeed on the team. Let’s talk about the soft skills the interviewer needs to be good at for their role. So let’s swap roles between you two and go through the exercise again.
[00:23:39] KP: Okay. So Liana, can you tell me a bit about what your biggest strengths are that you bring to this position and perhaps any weaknesses that you might have?
[00:23:49] LF: Sure. That’s such a great question. I think that my biggest strengths are that I’m a good communicator. I have a really positive attitude. I feel like there’s no task that’s too small or too big. I’m always like a team player. And in terms of weaknesses, things that I’m currently working on, I think are, will say time management and not taking on sort of too many things. I have a hard time saying no at times, but that is something I’m working on and have gotten better with.
[00:24:18] KP: What a great answer. I think for the interviewer, it’s kind of funny because it’s always the interviewee that’s sitting there a bit nervous. Maybe they didn’t get so much sleep the night before, but I’ve done lots of job interviews. And sometimes the interviewer’s a bit nervous, especially if you’re in a big group of interviewers, because you’re trying to make sure you have the right question and you sound well to your colleagues. It’s so funny how your perspective changes when you’re in that role. So I would just give advice to have written down your most important questions ahead of time, take notes. And if something pops in your head that you want to ask, maybe write it down and then you can kind of work it into the conversation later. Also, approaching the question confidently, audibly. You don’t want to be mumbly and nervous sounding. That’s just going to make the interviewee nervous as well. Do you have any advice, Liana?
[00:25:11] LF: The thing that I always tell our team when they’re interviewing is that you as the interviewer, you’re being interviewed, if the candidate wants to work for us. So it’s just as much an interview of us as a company. So really having it be as natural as possible, let your personality come through. I think there’s a tendency to kind of be robotic if you have your list of questions to just sort of like read them without any emotion or anything like that, but just have it be a conversation.
[00:25:41] SY: So I really want to role play some different scenarios, showing difficult situations where there’s an uneven power dynamic. It’s actually something we talked about a bit on the CodeNewbie Podcast episode about burnout, because this can really cause a lot of stress and anxiety for people which can then lead to burnout. So I’d like to create a scenario where Kristen, you were the boss, and Liana, you are the team member. And in this scenario, Liana, you feel that you’re being overworked and that there’s some unrealistic expectations that are put on you. What are the best ways you could come to your boss? And what are the things you maybe don’t want to do?
[00:26:17] LF: So I think in that situation, the first thing I would do is have a list, like make a list of all the things that I’m doing and maybe even have like rough time estimates on them, just to kind of paint a really clear picture of like the expectations from the role and like this is obviously going beyond like the regular 40-hour work week for me to do all of these things. I would approach it using that sort of as the base thinking of this as a problem that we need to solve together and perhaps even have some suggestions on like how things could possibly be reorganized to make things more efficient and really make it clear that the goal in all of this is to be doing the work the most efficiently and like right now we’re not doing that. I definitely would not approach that conversation complaining, I think, or just sort of being upset or blame them that they’ve given me too much work because if I’m overworked, they’re probably overworked also. So I think that’s how I would approach it.
[00:27:17] KP: I think that’s absolutely true. And just having a sense that you’re on the same team, that you both have the same goals is really important empathy. And I think it’s also about educating the person who’s making the demands because they might not even realize what they’ve asked for takes five hours. This happens a lot with web design and animation, and maybe it takes one minute to watch an animation, but it certainly doesn’t take one minute to make an animation. And it may take 30 seconds to click through a website, but it certainly doesn’t take 30 seconds to make one. So just being really clear about how long certain things take. We live in a world where people do way too much multitasking and people lose focus and then it kind of degrades the quality of everything that you do. If you’re working on five things at the same time and you have a gun to your head, none of those things are going to be particularly special or excellent. So I think it’s also about educating the boss in an empathetic and nice way and also showing what’s in it for them. If you do less or you focus on these two things instead of these five things, then the outcomes are going to be so much better. So that would be my advice.
[00:28:31]] SY: So I love that advice from both of you. And I’m wondering, what does it actually sound like? So Liana, let’s start with you. If Kristen gave you all this work and you’re trying to figure out, “What do I say to her?” Literally, what would you say?
[00:28:44] LF: All right. “Kristen, I’m hoping that we could sit down and talk about my role. I’ve been feeling really overworked lately, and I actually took some time to sit down and think through all the different tasks that I have. And looking at it all on one page, it really is quite a lot and sort of makes sense why I’m feeling so overwhelmed with everything. And I would love for us to kind of talk about the priorities and possibly think about maybe some things that are not as critical for me to be working on right now.”
[00:29:16] SY: And Kristen, what about you? What would you say?
[00:29:18] KP: Wow! No, just kidding. “Thank you Liana for bringing that to my attention. I didn’t realize that you were having that issue. It’s difficult on my end because my boss is asking for X, Y, and Z, and I have the team to work with and I’m trying to meet these deadlines, but I completely understand that perhaps I’ve given you too much or perhaps we can give some of your tasks to another team member and that way you can focus on this most important job. So maybe you can also let me know if there’s anything I can do on my end. So maybe we prioritize one or two tasks and then have you do those first. But do you also feel that maybe you need some training in a particular area or maybe there’s some questions that you have about a particular task that you don’t understand or you need some guidance on? So also, let me know if there’s anything that I can help with. But meanwhile, are you okay with focusing on our two most important things as opposed to the five things that we talked about earlier?”
[00:30:25] LF: Thanks so much, Kristen. I really appreciate you listening to me and hearing me out. And that sounds great.
[00:30:31] KP: Excellent.
[00:30:32] SY: That was great.
[00:30:33] BH: What are some final thoughts about soft skills that you both think we should talk about that we may not have gotten to today?
[00:30:39] LF: Well, one thing I think that’s really tough about soft skills is that they’re not black and white. There’s sometimes like not a clear right or wrong answer in every situation and that I think is one of the things that can make it sort of more difficult to kind of get better at them because it’s not like the same problem over and over.
[00:30:59] KP: I would say it’s funny because we spend so much time worrying about oral presentations, giving feedback, communicating, and I think what is completely overlooked, our listening skills, especially when you see someone who’s just given a presentation, whether it’s for a client or the boss or you’re in a meeting and you’ve just given a big spiel about something. I find that people spend so much time thinking about how they come off then maybe they close their mouth and then they might start looking at their phone or they may start daydreaming out the window. And there’s still a meeting going on. There’s still a presentation going on. There’s other people presenting. And I find that maybe someone has given this wonderful presentation. I have a really high opinion about them and what they just said, but then I see them looking at their phone or disrespecting the other people in the room. And I think this is so common now because we’re so used to having five screens going at the same time and 10 people talking. It can be really hard to focus on what other people are saying. But I think when you have the soft skills of being polite, listening, and also participating, and maybe even encouraging others that are giving a talk or contributing or adding onto what they’ve said, those are so important, I think, and it’s probably the most problematic area I see that people don’t really even think about.
[00:32:30] SY: Next up, we asked the DEV Community, “What are some of the most challenging work scenarios you’ve encountered?” And we go through some of their responses after this.
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[00:34:12] SY: Now we’re going to move into a segment where we look at responses that you, the audience, have sent us to a question we made in relation to this episode.
[00:34:20] BH: The question we asked you was, “What are some of the most challenging work scenarios you’ve encountered?” Our first response is from Raddevus. Raddevus says, “Communicating details of a technical solution. How do you keep it succinct without glossing over the important details? Especially in the world of remote work, Zoom/Teams and more dependency upon written explanations.”
[00:34:44] LF: One tool that we’ve been using on our team a lot is Loom, which I think is really great for those situations that are kind of more complex, but you’re not going to jump on a call with someone that want to walk through either code or some sort of document or something like that.
[00:35:00] BH: Can you tell us what Loom is?
[00:35:01] LF: Loom is a screen recording tool that also records you at the same time. So it’s easy to create quick walkthroughs.
[00:35:07] SY: The next one is from Greg Thomas. “Growing the team from a few developers to a team to multiple teams with tech leads, having to report to new people? Old people, running projects and teams. The list goes on and on.”
[00:35:20] KP: So this sounds like a classic case of too many cooks in the kitchen and trying to have a common goal, but you have many different people working on it and it gets more complicated, the more people you have working on something, and having a sort of a clear hierarchy of knowing who’s responsible for what I think is quite important and having someone that takes the initiative. So even if Team A over there makes five mistakes, are you going to be able to catch them and alert them that these mistakes have crept in and then sort of making sure that the fixes are made? It’s very important. It’s actually very similar to a situation I had recently working between Malawi, the US, and Pakistan on a one common project and having different parties, sort of inputting things, and then having to make sure that everything fits together the right way. Tricky.
[00:36:12] BH: Our next comment is from Darshit. They say, “Dealing with an absolute toxic work environment. I unfortunately or fortunately landed in an organization where there was always a massive fire raging on. And I was handed the job of “support” of the system, even when I knew nothing about the code base. Every day, I felt as if I was meat visiting a butcher shop. That is quite the image. It took me some time to deal with it and the accompanying depression. With the help of a great mentor and a supportive family, I managed to turn it around and left for a better workplace.” So the outcome here seems to be the personal choice to leave the situation where achieving a positive outcome within the situation just seemed unachievable. Any thoughts on this?
[00:37:05] LF: Yeah. I definitely had a few different workplaces that were fairly toxic. And I think having that recognition that it’s going to be beyond your control and there’s nothing you can do about it and the only thing that you can do is sort of remove yourself from the situation, which is tough. It’s really, really tough to do.
[00:37:24] KP: Yeah, absolutely. Here, I’m going to sound maybe a little bit woo-woo. But I’m a big fan of visualizing, creative visualization, and visualizing the outcomes that you want. So I think if it is possible to fix it on your end or to improve it on your end, you could absolutely try. But as Liana said, sometimes it’s completely beyond your control and it’s just the workplace environment is toxic and maybe the people are toxic and then you need to use your visualization skills to visualize yourself getting the hell out of there and getting a much better work situation. I think, yeah, this is a really common problem. You may be a great employee, but you’re in a terrible work environment. And so you need to find a work environment worthy of you. I think it’s important to recognize that, and don’t torture yourself by forcing yourself to stay. As soon as you can. Not everybody can just quit their job and throw their donuts at the boss and leave that day. Sometimes you have to kind of plan it out a little bit and maybe you have to suck it up for a few weeks or months to get in a situation where it’s safe to leave. So that’s important too.
[00:38:34] BH: So one thing Darshit mentioned here is that they accomplish this with the help of a great mentor and a supporting family. Can we talk about the soft skill of being able to find this outcome, seeking out a mentor, maybe that’s within the company, maybe you actually have someone who within the situation could maybe help you push through it or maybe it’s that outside mentor who helped give you the perspective to actually leave the situation? Can we talk about that skill in and of itself?
[00:39:02] KP: Yeah. I think it’s important to kind of recognize when you need help. And I find that whatever problem I might have, I feel like someone’s either written a book on it or there’s an online course or there’s a coach or a mentor, somebody that can help me, someone who’s been there before. So just seeking out people who have been in the situation before. It could be a family member. It could be a teacher. It could be another employee. Obviously, you have to feel comfortable to ask for their help. So the person needs to be approachable. If you’re not comfortable, then you might want to go the book and online course route, just to kind of get some ideas before you approach a mentor. But definitely, being able to ask for help and knowing that you can’t do everything yourself is a huge and important soft skill because we live in an interdependent world and I don’t think that it’s really expected that you would fearlessly do everything yourself perfectly all the time or know all the answers. And actually, a huge soft skill is just being able to say, “Oh, I don’t know. I’m going to have to do some research on that.” A lot of people are afraid to say they don’t know. Whatever you thought you knew yesterday is going to change tomorrow. So you have to kind of be able to be willing to learn as you go along as well and being confident that you don’t know everything and that you’ll find the answers and you’ll figure it out as you go along.
[00:40:27] LF: I feel like being able to ask for help, I think, is an underrated skill. I think it’s really hard to know what you don’t know and be able to like voice that to other people. I think for a lot of people, they view that as like a weakness, but I know that when we’re interviewing people, that’s something that we definitely like look for, people who are able to voice that they need help and are comfortable doing that. Because if someone else has knowledge that you don’t have, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not asking for help.
[00:40:58] SY: And our last one is from Dan Fockler. “Working with a third party to integrate our software into their product via API. I was working in a different state than them, luckily in the same time zone. Most of the other devs at the third party company spoke English as a second language. And there was a power imbalance because their company was much larger than ours. So a lot of politics involved. Aside from the obvious technical issues of integration, just getting everyone on the same page was incredibly difficult and time consuming. Large companies have their own problems with internal communications and getting them to give us resources outside of the department we were working with was next to impossible, which affected our technical solutions. Needless to say, it was a slow and arduous process.” So I guess this one is about how to work in a team and best ways to get people on the same page together and working productively, and especially if we’re working across different teams or across different companies. So what are some soft skills involved here that might help us do that?
[00:42:00] BH: One thing that stands out to me about this situation is the need to acknowledge how difficult things like this can be. I think there can be a feeling of frustration over how much of the difficulty is the people problems. And if we could just overcome this or not care as much about this, we might be able to get to the much more straightforward software problems, but it’s never that easy. So giving credibility to the difficulty of this and allowing yourself to be thoughtful and tactical about addressing some of the communication issues before getting to some of the technical stuff I think is the freedom you kind of need to provide yourself in these scenarios. As someone who’s done this kind of thing enough times, I know that it’s something you need to go into at that kind of expectation.
[00:42:55] LF: I think it’s also like with cross departmental communication and projects. It can be hard if not everyone feels like they have the same goals. Sometimes like different departments have different focuses and things. When you’re collaborating with another team, the project might be something that’s more important to them than it is to like the people you need help from. But I think that’s kind of the overall management organization’s structure issue if you’re not uniting everyone with the same goal.
[00:43:29] KP: Yeah. I think it’s important to know what the roles are and what people are responsible for. And if something maybe wasn’t done by a certain time having the honesty, the ability to communicate, like, “Look, I can’t move forward until this is done and I was told it was going to be ready on Wednesday and now it’s Friday. Can you let me know when you think it’s…?” You know, just being able to ask questions to present the problem that you’re having, but in a respectful way, maybe also acknowledging that maybe there were some delays on their end, whatever it is. So just communication, honesty, being upfront about what is going right and what needs to happen sounds a bit lame, but having action items. After you’ve had a meeting, like, “Okay, we’ve just had this one-hour meeting and now we’ve agreed that you’re going to do this by Tuesday and send it to blah, blah, blah.” So just basically reiterating whatever it was that you agreed on and people know what they’re supposed to do and by when. And then if that doesn’t happen, then we got to communicate again.
[00:44:31] SY: Wonderful. Kristen, Liana, thank you both for joining us today.
[00:44:35] KP: Thank you for having us.
[00:44:35] LF: Thank you for having me.
[00:44:45] SY: I want to thank everyone who sent in responses. For everyone listening, please be on the lookout for our next question. Also, we’d love it if you would dial into our Google Voice. The number is +1 (929) 500-1513 or you can email us a voice memo so we can hear your responses in your own beautiful voices. This show is produced and mixed by Levi Sharpe. Editorial oversight by Peter Frank and myself, Saron Yitbarek. Our theme song is by Slow Biz. If you have any questions or comments, please email [email protected] and make sure to join our DevDiscuss Twitter chats on Tuesdays at 9:00 PM Eastern Time, or if you want to start your own discussion, write a post on DEV using the #discuss. Please rate and subscribe to this show on Apple Podcasts.