by Martha Heller

Soft Skills, Hard Times: The Value of the User Support Specialist

Nov 15, 20003 mins

Last week I had a baby.

Right after I felt the first contraction, I told my husband that I was going into labor. Then I called the hospital. Then I called Michael, user services specialist at CXO Media (parent company to CIO).

Maybe I should have called my mother first, but I was having serious problems setting up my home office. I had an appointment with Michael that very morning so that he could fix everything before I found myself homebound. I could not focus on the day’s event without first rescheduling that meeting.

In the week following my daughter’s birth, I clocked more time on the phone with Michael than with my pediatrician, my husband and my mother combined. Michael rose to the challenge of dealing with a new mother with network configuration problems. Despite the cries of a 3-day-old baby and the short temper of a frustrated postpartum user, Michael gently talked me through a troublesome printer software installation, a tricky port problem and a network path dilemma.

Most of us have a roster of trusted professionals—our family physician, our attorney and perhaps even our therapist—to whom we turn when life goes awry. The user services specialist, it seems, is on the verge of becoming a member of that elite group. Strong technical skills are no longer enough. Along with solid programming and network experience, today’s IS worker needs a good keyboard-side manner.

But a look at the job descriptions for user services positions on sites like and reveals that employers don’t value these softer skills in their IS workers. The requirements for most IS jobs include items like five years’ experience in a Windows environment or knowledge of TCP/IP, WINS and DNS. While several of the descriptions ask for general communication skills, none stress the importance of relationship building among users or sensitivity to user concerns.

One could argue that because technical skills are easier to acquire than those elusive softer skills like patience and good humor, CIOs should place a stronger emphasis on the latter. If Michael had the best technical skills in the world but exhibited the poor interpersonal abilities endemic to so many IS workers, I might have thrown in the towel, and my editor would have had a real problem on his hands. Do you care enough about the soft skills of your IS staff?