The Most Important Soft Skill in Tech

This One Is Non-negotiable

Leo Godin
10 min readJan 23, 2024

My oldest son once got hired after being late to both interviews. The youngest went from lugging tools in a warehouse to working for a title company in a shirt and tie. They both have something that seems to come naturally to we Godin’s and I bet you can guess what it is. After all, it’s difficult to hide with that introduction. Before we get to that, let me tell you about the best interview I ever had.

I promise to keep things interesting.

Photo by Daniel McCullough on Unsplash

A Personal Story

That glorious summer day in 1998 held all the promise a budding career in tech could offer. Warm temperature, wispy clouds, and a beautiful office park in Nashua NH. Fifteen dollars an hour providing tech support to the finicky users of NetManage Ecco Pro. This was it. The fast track to a career I didn’t understand but would finally allow us to pay the bills. All I had to do was get the job.

Strolling along manicured lawns and pine trees, I embodied the hopes and dreams of anyone not qualified for the position. A year of stuffing paper into a bunch of printers at Digital hardly made me a tech-support technician. Don’t tell that to my resume, though. It was chock full of help-desk experience. I monitored. Maintained. Proactively resolved. All the good non-specific qualifications. Was it enough?

I’ll never forget the first minute of my tech career. Walking through the door. Taking the elevator and entering a small cubicle farm with its front desk complete with candy bowl and smiling receptionist. Everyone seemed so pleasant. No miserable idiots. No yelling. No talk of latest sexual escapades. So unlike the restaurants and various work sites I’d been before. Like a lamb to the slaughter, I walked twenty terrifying feet to greet my fate.

The hiring manager looked up from a stack of resumes, and with a bright smile, she held out her hand. “I’m Beth. It’s nice to meet you, Jim.”

Would have been a promising start if my name wasn’t Leo. Maybe this could inject some humor into the interview. Could have been a good thing.

It wasn’t.

Those next few seconds burned a path through my neurons for life. “Hi, great to meet you. I’m Leo. Leo Godin.”

Her smile wavered, but still held as she rifled through the resumes and pulled one to the top. Smile dropping to a frown, she let out a disappointed, “Oh.” No malice in that word, just an involuntary expression from a woman who’d spent all day interviewing candidates good and bad. I looked to be the worst.

Little did I know, that interview would be the best of my life.

The details after that are a bit Hazy. What I remember most is how confident I was in my ability to pick up the job. I shared how I got into computers. How I learned quickly. I’d built my own PC and did tech support for friends and family. When things didn’t work, I researched how to fix them. It was a short conversation. It helped, but it didn’t get me the job. It wasn’t until years later that I realized why that interview was so good.

After short discussions on my short technical skills, I brought up previous work experience. I’d done all the jobs. Restaurants. Sales. Digging post holes. Anything for a paycheck. Throughout the interview, I brought up examples of how my unrelated experience would help me in the current job. I demonstrated that I was a problem solver, not a ticket taker. More importantly, I told a story.

I described a clear evolution of my skills and abilities. Created a trajectory that forecasted my ability to learn the job. Even with my meager experience, I painted a picture that they were buying low. If they hired me, they would get a great tech-support engineer in short time.

These few lines served me well then and over the years. “I don’t care about job descriptions. I just do what is needed.” “That sounds like a lot of fun.” “Someone knows how to fix it. I’ll ask for help.” “Sometimes, you just have to try different stuff and see what works.” I hadn’t prepared these lines, they just flowed through the conversation.

By the time I’d met the team and gotten a tour, we were having fun. We talked about our kids. How Beth moved her family from Boston to a small town so they could spend more time outside. We talked about how exciting “computers” were. Yes, that’s how people spoke then. We were all getting into computers. It was the best interview of my life, but was it enough?

Fortunately, I received a little bit of luck. Jim did come in for an interview and was their first choice. He turned the job down. Happenstance always factors in, but it wasn’t luck that made them pick me out of a stack of more qualified candidates. Two days later, I got the call. I was hired to be the plucky underdog on the team. The one who would do whatever it took.

The Most Important Soft Skill in Tech

Why do some people seem to thrive over others with similar skills? They are most likely better with interviews. It doesn’t matter how good your technical skills are if you are not good at interviewing. Without an ability to build rapport and demonstrate your value, you will struggle. It’s not fair. It’s not equitable. It’s not even good for the business, but it is a simple fact of life. Even as big companies try to minimize the impact of interview skills, they are still a differentiator. Why is that?

Sure, there are some jobs where the top technical skills win the day, but they are rare. Most companies need great communication, both written and verbal. They need people who can deal with ambiguity and don’t need a babysitter to ensure they follow the right processes. They want more problem solvers and fewer ticket takers. Even more, they want to work with people they like. If you can’t demonstrate these traits in an interview, they will not want you on the team. It’s that simple. So, what can you do?

Let’s talk about the most important soft skill in tech. Interviewing. It’s how you get the job. It’s often what separates $75K and $150K. When resumes all looks the same, interviews either make you stand out from the crowd or stick you into the generic if-we-have-to-I-guess-they’d-be-ok bucket. If you are getting interviews but not offers then this should be your biggest priority. Practice. Research. Learn. Just like any other skill.

There are three primary objectives for every interview.

  1. Build rapport with the interviewer. (You are a person they like and trust.)
  2. Demonstrate your professional value. (You will solve their problems.)
  3. Build a trajectory of professional growth. (You forecast continued development.)

Building Rapport

Are you awkward and introverted? Better get past that if want the best jobs. Greet people in a warm and excited manner. Don’t be afraid to laugh a little and admit to faults. You want to make the interview a conversation if at all possible. No short, terse direct answers. Instead, let your answers flow into different topics. This allows you to answer questions before they ask. Here is a real example I’ve shared before.

Interviewer: “Have you ever had a time when requirements were vague or unclear?”

Me: Laughs

Interviewer: Laughs

Me: Points a finger directly at the interviewer. “You know the answer to that!”

Everyone: More laughter

Me: “Requirements are always vague.”

Of course, this was a friendly group I was speaking with. I might not handle it the same way with a dour CTO, but I would at least chuckle to lighten the mood. From there, I brought up an example and explained my philosophy of gathering requirements. Then, into a technical aspect of the project before they asked. It was a flowing conversation.

While the conversation flowed, I spoke honestly about my strengths and weaknesses. I asked questions. Showed how excited I was about the stuff they are working on and problems they face. Honesty and and authenticity are the best weapons in your arsenal to build rapport. You are a human being with emotions, not a robot spitting out the STAR method over and over.

Demonstrating Value

Every interview should end with the interviewer believing you can solve their problems. That’s why you are there. Confidence, just short of arrogance is key. If they tell you about a function of the job you are good at, tell them about a similar problem you faced and how you solved it. The goal isn’t to show how good you are with Python or JavaScript or X tool. It is to show them you solve problems with these tools. You can do this with short stories.

At any given sober moment you should be able to translate your resume bullet points into a story demonstrating your value. You didn’t “migrate SQL Server to Postgres”. You reduced costs by 30%. You did this because you heard an executive complaining about rising expenses. You researched alternative solutions and ran a few experiments on the side. Then you collaborated with stakeholders to gain buy-in. After all those late nights and weekends, the project was a success. It reduced costs by 30%.

“Haha, not that they gave me an award. Execs took all the credit, but that’s how it goes, right?”

Having these short stories prepared demonstrates value while holding the interviewer’s interest. Short answers in bullet-point format are boring. Show the impact of your work along with the dedication and cleverness it took to achieve success. That will hold the interviewer’s attention and make them feel like you will solve their problems. Remember the bit about confidence?

If the interviewer asks about tools or processes you don’t know, be honest, but confident. “Tools are tools, we learn new ones all the time. Right, it’s part of the job. When I was working at X and we needed Y. I had never worked with Y but I picked it up by [your method for learning new skills]” Another example might be, “I haven’t worked with Airflow much, but I picked up Argo Workflows at my last job. We needed a scheduler and were a K8s shop so…. Airflow and Argo solve the same problem in different ways.”

Building a Trajectory of Professional Growth

Few managers want stagnant employees who are content with current skills. Those people eventually get managed out. They want people who will evolve with ever-changing business. Humility is the trait of the moment for this. Explaining things you didn’t know and situations you did not handle well sets up America’s favorite story. The redemption story.

Your humility in admitting to mistakes and not having all the answers will endear you to them. As you show how you overcame these situations in your career, they will see that you will solve their problems. This is powerful. You enhance the first two objectives while adding a third. All together, the interviewer will see that you can grow into the current job and future needs of the company.

Whether you have all the qualifications for a job or you are trying to move up, you should be able to paint a picture of growth over time. Greater and greater impact. Mistakes made and lessons learned. This is important to make the interviewer feel that you can go beyond the basics of the specific job and grow into more important roles.

This Is So Looong. Wrap It Up, Leo

I get it. That’s a lot of words saying interviewing is important. Not a lot of words helping you get better at interviewing. Just a few hints sprinkled here and there. I promise we will see more articles on interview tips, but I want to make one thing clear. You need to tell your own story using your own personality. What works for me, might not work for you. Practice. Research. Learn.

I rarely follow interview advice from the experts and often directly go against it. STAR method? Blah. SARL is better. Situation, action, result, what I learned. Hiding flaws? Nope. I got my latest job after telling multiple people my experience at Meta wasn’t that interesting. Though, I did turn it into a positive in the end. I can do these things, because I tell a story. You can too.

If it doesn’t come natural to you, write it out. Practice out loud. You should be able to weave these small stories into any interview. Even highly structured ones. You won’t tell them like I do. Instead, you’ll tell them like you do. With your experiences, your personality, even your own quirks. It will be natural and authentic. Pretty soon, you’ll be writing about the best interview you ever had.

Addendum 1 — There are a couple elephants in this room. First, breaking into tech is much more difficult today than it was in the late 90s. It’s just not as easy any more. I recognize that, but it doesn’t change the importance of great interviewing. Second, though I am short and not very good looking, I was born a white male in America. As such, I have an advantage over many. I have the freedom to just be me. Others are not so lucky. It sucks, but I believe it to be true. I’ll leave it up to you what you want to do with that.

Addendum 2 — A personal favor. If you got this far, please let me know how you like the story format of using personal anecdotes. Does it keep your interest? Did you just scan past it? I’ve thought about writing short fiction that would teach data principals. It might be fun. I’d love to hear some thoughts.



Leo Godin

I’m Leo and I love data! Recovering mansplainer, currently working as a lead data engineer at New Relic. BS in computer science and a MS in data