Donat’s story – choose soft skills vs hard skills

Donat’s going to miss his dream job to more experienced candidates, unless he can work a miracle. The story illustrates the choice between soft skills vs hard skills.

This fictional story is set in the world of secret intelligence,
but it could have been almost any professional discipline.

3 pages and commentary.
Group of young adults on team exercise, illustrating soft skills vs hard skills. [Adobe stock photo]
Soft skills vs hard skills – job interviews may be followed by team trials and tests. [Adobe stock photo]

“Donat’s story”

Donat stood. His hearing faded and his vision blurred like in the deepest fog. Instinctively he put a hand on the desk to steady himself. He waited for the sensation to pass. These moments came when he concentrated hard then started to move. But this was the worst yet.

For the candidate testing, the intelligence people had chosen a venue for a wedding reception. The wire frames and boards from yesterday’s wedding were still lined along one side. Donat and the other seven candidates sat at the round tables that had been used by the guests.

Donat’s own big day had started with a security briefing. He listened intently, keen to show his enthusiasm. But looking at the confidence of the other candidates, and their neat interview suits, he feared that enthusiasm was all he had to offer.

There were written tests. At first Donat thought they were IQ tests, but they spread into areas like creativity, problem solving and communications. “It was unfair to ask so much,” he heard one of the other candidates saying, “I gave great answers, but I could only get through half the questions.” Donat said nothing. He had answered as much as he could, sometimes relying on instinct rather than puzzling the question through, but he knew he’d made mistakes.

There was a long lunch break with enough time to get outside. Donat went with the others to a small section of the gardens. It was picture perfect. They sat on the grass by the sundial. “Hey, Donut,” a voice called from behind him, “do you actually think soft skills like creativity are important for an intelligence researcher?” He recognised the voice as Jackie’s. Jackie had a beaming smile that reminded Donat of a holiday in Kenya, but she also seemed to have a confrontational attitude.

“It’s Donat, not Donut,” he said, but his thoughts were on the security briefing. They’d been told to be secret. There could be people listening from the bushes, or goodness knows where. “Artificial intelligence researcher,” he said. It was nothing to do with AI, and he knew it.

Jackie ignored his correction. “I’ve worked in research in two geopolitical thinktanks, I’ve talked to top experts in the world, and I’ve had a spell in a private security agency as a researcher. What’s your background?”

Donat’s shoulders slumped at her list of achievements. “I’ve only worked in universities,” he admitted. There was no point in saying more. He wondered why he’d been invited to the tests if there were people like her. And Jackie ticked all the diversity statistics. He was just another white male.

The afternoon involved team work. They were split into groups of four and given team exercises. Donat found himself with Jackie again. Jackie glanced at the instructions. “I know how to do this. All the rest of you need to do is just support me, and we’ll win.”

Donat stared at the rules. “Look at that sentence in the middle. This is a trick question, not like normal. We’ll only get this if we pool our ideas. Look here,” he gestured to the instructions. “If we match this and this, could we get that,” he gestured. He noticed Jackie frowning.

And Jackie frowned again every time he encouraged the others. At one point she turned on the quiet person in their group: “Richard, you’re saying nothing. You’ll be useless as a researcher.”

Donat winced. “Richard is contributing in his own way,” he said. And in himself, he smiled. He was convinced Richard was a plant – an existing intelligence researcher, who reported back to the judges.

This is my time, he said to himself. A chance to show I can be a good team player.

Donat watched Jackie. If this was the kind of person who worked in an intelligence agency, he wanted no part of it.

Soft skills vs hard skills: great technical people need to be good at communication and teamwork. [Adobe stock photo.]
[Adobe stock photo.]


Do intelligence agencies respect soft skills as well as hard skills? The good ones do, by necessity. They need team workers because of the multi-disciplinary environment, and they need problem solvers and people who can think “outside of the box” and adapt quickly. And they need people who fit with their security regime and ethical norms.

Soft skills vs hard skills

Soft skills apply across all disciplines – whether academia or intelligence, or industry, public service, the military or not-for-profit. Soft skills also apply at all levels of organisations, in different ways.

Hard skills belong to a specific job role. It’s the kind of skill that appears on people’s CV’s along with their qualifications. We watch for their years of experience and the different ways they have used the skill.

Soft skills vs hard skills – the soft skills compliment hard skills

Soft skills vs hard skills – which is harder?

Both soft and hard skills can be taught in classrooms, in online courses and with self-study. However they need to be practiced, in different contexts. That requires the opportunity to use them – and it’s not always possible.

Some people spend their careers improving their soft skills. They keep refining their best skills, and consciously build new ones. (That’s me – I’ve 40 years of professional experience, and I’m stronger now than I’ve ever been.)

Soft skills are difficult to prove. However hard skills can be examined and you can win qualifications. It biases the recruitment process, unless there are objective tests and trials like in the story above.

Soft skills vs hard skills – which is more important for a new job?

That depends on your career. Disciplines like caring and management rely heavily on soft skills. However technical roles rely heavily on hard skills and need only some soft skills (like team work and communication).

Recruitment processes should include checks on both hard and soft skills. If there are no checks on soft skills, ask yourself:

    • Is this a purely mechanical job that requires no soft skills? (That implies an impersonal workplace. Is that what you want?)

    • Are your potential employers so incompetent that they think soft skills don’t matter? (And does that mean you’ll have problems with colleagues and superiors?)

    • Are their politics so “correct” they dare not mention soft skills? (And if so, can you work with that level of compliance?)

    • If it’s just regimented hard skills, is this a safe career path in an age of AI?

Hard skills vs soft skills in an age of AI

Job losses. Repetitive tasks will be automated, including complex ones that can be broken down into a number of small specific tasks. Image manipulation and text generation are examples. At the moment, it’s computer work that is most at risk.

Job gains. There’s new opportunities in AI development. The intellectual modelling and analysis and testing that goes with AI, the legal issues, the psychological and security impact of its misuse, … and more.

The disenfranchised. There’s a widespread fear that, for those who can’t adapt, they’ll be pushed into low-paid jobs in areas that require dexterity and human interaction.

Soft skills vs hard skills – which helps most in a professional career?


You need to keep adding to your hard skills, to have the skills needed in a rapidly changing world. Many hard skills also need refreshers to keep them up-to-date.

You also need soft skills if you want your career to go beyond focussed technical roles. Soft skills and proven achievements help you progress.

These days, your career security is not based on your employer’s loyalty to you, and it’s not based on a set of skills you collected years ago. Your security comes from up-to-date skills that are relevant and which can’t be automated. If you want a good salary: focus on hard skills that are in short supply, and urgently needed. If you want to progress to more responsibility: focus on soft skills.

Soft skills vs hard skills: soft skills like creativity and problem solving can be liberating. [Adobe stock photo.]
[Adobe stock photo]

“The 4 Seasons”
The 3-page story follows a young woman who is in the wrong career, and is struggling to make the big change. The key is how she presents herself – that is a soft skill.

“The Three Newbie’s”
A short story of three recent graduates who start their careers together. They choose different strategies for progressing. Five years on, they have diverged because of the different soft skills they picked up.

CITP (Chartered IT Professional), salaries – get better benefits
This is a personal account about my experiences after becoming a BCS Chartered IT Professional. My biggest benefits were in having a professional code, a commitment to lifelong learning, and I found a joy of mentoring. Those are soft skills.

More about soft skills

Essential Skills in an Age of Digital Disruption – a short report from TEK systems.

A list of 21 professional skills is here. Or use a search engine, such as:
Yahoo search “soft skills list”
Google search “soft skills list”

Or search on “soft skills training” and “soft skills vs hard skills”.

This story was originally published 11th August 2021 to support team mentoring of graduates. It was lightly revised on 3rd June 2024 to remove minor errors and include commentary about AI.