One of the things I’m looking forward to the most about grad school is the opportunity to develop my soft skills throughout the program. This is one of the areas where I feel that the engineering undergrad was woefully inadequate. In my opinion, soft skills were all but ignored during undergrad. I brought this point up with one of my mentors at IBM, a program manager turned people manager that probably relies on those skills the most everyday, and he agreed with me wholeheartedly.

Sure, we had some group projects sprinkled throughout the classes, but it was not enough given how important those skills have been at work. During my six years at IBM, I have rarely worked on a project that did not involve working on a team of varied individuals. As my role grew in the area, I had to work across departments and organizations, and I quickly learned the value of negotiating, compromising, and knowing the right people.

I’ve been able to pick up a lot from mentors and by observing the coworkers that I admired, but I still feel like I lag behind, especially when it comes to my contacts. It doesn’t help that I also ignored networking during the first 3 or so years, instead opting to focus purely on my technical abilities. Fortunately, I’ve always been a people person, and I was able to hone my interpersonal skills via my outside activities, particularly rugby in college, so I’m not completely inept in this area.

Now that I’ve committed to grad school, I’ve started placing more emphasis on soft skills, paying more attention to how I react to situations and modifying my behaviors as I deem appropriate, reaching out to other professionals, and focusing on the networking, and I’m seeing dividends. I already have two leads on internship/job opportunities; one within IBM and one outside.

It seems that there is plenty of truth to the adage “It’s not what you know, but who you know,” although knowing something helps :)