Skip to main content
Exploring what’s next in tech – Insights, information, and ideas for today’s IT and business leaders

How to succeed in IT without social skills

The tech industry is full of introverts and other people who'd rather talk to a computer than another human being. But even brilliant, cubicle-dwelling introverts do have to talk to humans once in a while. Herein: how to get out of your own head and how a boss can help drag you out.

C'mon—there's a reason why Scott Adams is rich. Just ask IT managers.

"I can see how someone might get upset for stereotyping people, but in reality, a large portion of the IT workforce is that stereotype," says John Woods, CISSP and vice president of information security at healthcare technology provider PDX. "Dilbert is a fairly realistic representation of the IT industry."

What are we talking about when we say "that stereotype?" We mean the people who work in technology in part because they can focus on the work rather than on interactions with people. Call them shy, call them introverts, call them "on the spectrum." Whatever label you use, these people tend to share similar traits.

People skills are not among those traits.

Some introverts' traits are perfect in an IT workplace, such as a legendary ability to hyperfocus on tasks for a long stretch of time without needing supervision or incentive. Other attributes—an inability to read social cues and thus glean, for example, that they should shut up after pun No. 5 instead of proceeding to tell 25 puns in a row as their listeners search for pillows to smother them—are not positives in the IT workplace, to put it mildly. Nor is the introverts' cluelessness attractive when it comes to the delicate art of giving others feedback: They are apt to leave scorched earth behind.

But there are ways for the socially awkward to deal with uncomfortable social requirements. Even when the techie is blind to the career-limiting behavior, managers can help their staff succeed despite social deficiencies. I spoke with experts and experienced managers who were kind enough to share practical suggestions.

Case in point: Kevin

Barbara Bissonnette, a certified coach, asks us to consider Kevin.

Kevin told Bissonnette that his boss—let's call him Fred—was mad at him for not using the new project management software.

"Fred told me to take a look at the software, and I did," Kevin told his job coach. "But I didn't think it would be useful, so I deleted it off my computer. If he wanted me to use it, why didn't he say so?"

Bissonnette is a certified coach and principal of Forward Motion Coaching. She provides career development, job coaching, and workplace advocacy for individuals with Asperger's syndrome (AS), similar autism-spectrum profiles, and nonverbal learning disorder. Bissonnette offers consultation and training on how to use the skills of employees with AS and other social, communication, and executive function challenges. She's written a number of books on these subjects, including The Complete Guide to Getting a Job for People with Asperger's Syndrome, Asperger's Syndrome Workplace Survival Guide, and Helping Adults with Asperger's Syndrome Get & Stay Hired.

It's safe to assume that Fred didn't expect that when he told Kevin to "take a look at the software," Kevin would do exactly what he was asked—no more and no less. "People with Asperger's syndrome tend to be literal, which can lead to misunderstandings," Bissonnette says. In her experience, this aspect of an AS neurological profile can cause people to have the most difficulty in IT jobs: the difficulty in understanding expectations and working on a team.

One experienced IT exec who requested anonymity—let's call him Scott—was forthcoming about dealing with what he calls his "brilliant and sometimes broken" colleagues. Scott has his own take on this type of misunderstanding: Bosses who use figurative language can be in for a surprise with the results they get back from their Mr. or Ms. Literal.

"People with Asperger's syndrome and those on the autism spectrum appreciate clear communications. They're often unable to contextualize strange phrases or jargon," says Scott. We often use clichés and jargon when we're trying to shortcut instructions or communications, and that approach sometimes doesn't work with Mr. Literal, either. It's best to spell it out.

The State of Hiring: Learn how 101 IT execs find staff for critical positions and cajole in-demand tech specialists to accept their job offers

"Your direction to 'go kill it' might be interpreted in ways you didn't expect. So exacting language and sequential instructions repeated back to you are a good policy," Scott says. "Make instructions clear, and elaborate where clarity might be a problem. Don't use jargon, clichés, or austere references. Be clear and not necessarily concise." This also helps with individuals for whom English is a second language, so it's not a bad practice for managers to adopt in any case.

While people can struggle with interpersonal interaction for many different reasons, the difficulty for those on the spectrum is processing social information. That can include nonverbal communication such as body language, tone of voice, or facial expression. They also have a tough time inferring what others are thinking, feeling, or expecting in a certain situation. But make no mistake: "People with Asperger's do want to interact with others," Bissonnette says.

"I remember a man who was successful until he was promoted to director. He had a very hard time trying to manage others. His supervisor told him to show 'leadership,' which completely confused him," she says. "He disclosed his Asperger's and asked for his former job back. He excelled at the technical position and today is considered an expert in his niche."

The introverts vs. the ballerinas

PDX's Woods recalls a security architect who used to be his direct report. The guy—let's call him Greg—was originally a programmer who had become a security professional. Woods had him working to ensure that the software development team's code was secure. And boy oh boy, was Greg good at that, says Woods. Greg was Very. Detail. Oriented. He looked at the code at the most granular level, checked out individual lines, and analyzed how everything interacted. Greg's skill was far beyond what anybody had ever done at the company prior to that, Woods says.

As you can imagine, that was both good and bad.

The good: "Greg combed through the software with a very, very fine-toothed comb to look for security issues," Woods said. "He uncovered some things. He worked with the developers to create a solution to protect the data or the software, whatever the case may have been."

The bad: Woods doesn't want to call anybody a prima donna, so let's just say Greg pointed out flaws to coders who we'll instead call ballerinas. That caused friction.

"It created a situation where the developers didn't care for Greg very much," Woods says. "He was being logical, honest. But they weren't the type to take that feedback well." It made his job and life harder because the feedback was not well received by the team.

"For Greg, it was straightforward: Here's a problem, and here's how to fix it. To others, it's 'Hey, you're telling me my software is bad, and I don't like that very much,'" says Woods.

That Vulcan flair for logic is a two-headed coin. It can make for ruffled feathers when introverts have to interact with—or, specifically, give feedback to—ballerinas, but it can sometimes make for smooth sailing when the feedback goes the other way. Case in point: a database administrator who worked for Woods some 15 years ago. We'll call him Bill.

Bill was another detail-oriented worker, to the point that in the early days of Microsoft PowerShell—an automation and scripting platform for Windows built on top of .NET—he sat down and wrote a database monitoring and reporting system. Quite simply, there were things Bill wanted to do with the company's SQL Server database that he couldn't do, so he spent six months writing an enterprise-level monitoring tool.

And here's where the logic-over-emotion trait comes in handy: Woods would give Bill some feedback and ask for a change. Bill's response: "Sure, that's logical. That makes sense. I'll make that change."

Often, IT workers can have an attitude of, "This is mine, and no one can touch it or say it's bad." So a willingness to respond to logical requests is a positive trait. "There wasn't a lot of pride of ownership," Woods says. We should all be so Zen.

Seriously, we should: Managers can tweak their communication and support strategies for their socially awkward workers, colleagues can adjust their interactions, and introverts can be smart, like Kevin, and seek job/career coaching with a professional like Bissonnette. Here are a few suggestions you can apply at work today.

Soft skills for IT professionals: Lessons for leaders (and team members)

For managers and human relations staff: Don't take social gaffes personally. Bissonnette tells managers to clarify an individual's intentions. Then, be specific and matter of fact about inappropriate or unacceptable behavior. Explain the problem and what to do. For example, you might say, "It's considered rude to tell people to 'be quiet.' Instead, ask them to 'lower their voices.'"

Explain tasks using concrete language, and quantify performance expectations whenever possible. Tell employees how their tasks fit into the whole, and why particular processes are important.

Be direct and specific about performance problems. Bissonnette has had many clients who were stunned to be placed on a performance improvement plan or fired. "Why didn't my boss tell me there was a problem?" they say. Well, the boss did tell them there was a problem, but not in a way the employee understood. Bissonnette had one client who irritated his boss because he couldn't figure out what the boss meant when she told him to come to meetings "prepared." He had no idea what that meant and was afraid to ask lest he appear stupid.

It's also critical to educate human resources personnel, managers, and other employees. Too often, a communication problem is interpreted as an attitude problem.

For the socially awkward: The right technique depends on the individual. For example, some introverts might benefit from being coached on how to ask for help or how to clarify an assignment.

For neurotypical colleaguesChillax. One frequent misconception about colleagues who lack social skills is that the co-worker doesn't like people (not necessarily, though humans are tougher to figure out than code) and that they're intentionally alienating others (they probably aren't even thinking about others, never mind actively plotting to alienate them).

For humans in generalCompassion goes a long way when we're dealing with the socially awkward. As Scott stresses, it's a mistake to steer clear of the introverted. They need us more than they tend to be capable of saying. "Almost everyone needs thanks and a sense of belonging, even if it interrupts their day or week," Scott says. "Yes, some productivity is lost, but what's gained is a sense of esprit de corps and belonging."

So send your introverted colleague a Slack message. Or just stop by and say hello. You may get greeted by some nervous eyeglass-pushing up the nose. But social skills are like any skills: You have to practice to get them right, whether you're the one saying hello or the one trying to stammer out a response.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.