The skills trident

Soft and hard are useless mental models for categorising skills. Use this instead

The skills trident
Photo by Quino Al / Unsplash

We seek continuous and constant improvement. But how can we be sure we are actually improving and not merely learning the same concepts and ideas again and again? Or how can we be sure we are not missing important skills? By using a good model of what type of skills to improve. Like using Google Maps when visiting an unknown city.

Here is my case against the [soft skills, hard skills] model: why it is not useful to improve your skills and why it is driving the industry towards a dark place. I also want to propose a better alternative. But first let me touch two topics that will help me build my case: metaphors and MECE.


I try to avoid reading news stories that use metaphors. Metaphors are a trick that we also use in logic: equivalence. Or in mathematics: equality. The problem is that a predicate is never the same as another predicate. 2 + 2 is not 4. Because 2 + 2 is 2 + 2 and 4 is 4. They are literally different concepts, representations and ideas. 2 + 2 is a sum. 4 is just a number.

Both logical equivalence and mathematical equality have implicit information. A transformation is necessary for the two predicates to be equal or equivalent. In this case, it is necessary to know how to add two numbers to understand that what we are really talking about is the result of the sum of 2 + 2. Because 4 is 4. But 2 + 2 is not 4.

Well, the same thing happens with metaphors. It is a poetic trick that has implicit information, usually an opinion. And therein lies the problem. News stories that use metaphors hide an opinion. And the problem is not the opinion itself. But hiding it and masking it under a news story. And that makes me sick.


I love lists. The ability to create useful lists is highly underrated. But wait. How can you know if a list is actually useful? With the MECE principle, pronounced meesee: mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive. MECE dictates the relation of the content, but not the format, of a useful list.

This list is MECE[Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter]. This list is also MECE: [Spades, Diamonds, Hearts, Clubs]. This list is not MECE[apples, oranges, bananas]. This list is not MECE[Romania, water, piano, cat].

Mutually exclusive means that there is no overlap in the content of the different items of the list. Fall ends on a specific day of the year, and then the next day is the start of Winter. Every day of the calendar is, with cetainty, part of one and only one season. And there is no card in the deck that is part Spades and part Diamonds.

Collectively exhaustive means that the elements in the list, when taken together as a collection, entirely define the category. No item is left out, leaving an incomplete definition. The list [North, South, West] is not collectively exhaustive because it fails to include East. So it's not MECE.

Hard Skills and Soft Skills

The good thing about this model is that it is generalist. Unlike career ladders, which are very context specific and dependent on the role, this model allows us to have conversations out in the open.

What does soft mean? And hard? We use these metaphors in our own benefit depending on our opinion. That's why this model is useless to use in a conversation. Even if we're using the same words we are actually talking about different concepts. Sad. Very sad.

The list [hard, soft] is not MECE. And the list [hard skills, soft skills] is not MECE either. It's a nice illusion though because they're opposites. It's like describing reality through [what it is, what it isn't]. It doesn't help us to understand reality. Not really. For Software Engineers, hard skills usually mean programming while soft skills mean everything that is not programming. But [programming, not programming] is a poor model and a lazy way to describe reality. And [not programming] is so vague that we end up improving only what we actually understand: [programming].

The skills trident 🔱

By this point it is clear we need a new model that:

  1. is general enough to be used independently of the context
  2. allows us to talk about the same concepts
  3. is MECE: has all categories that represent our reality and has categories that don't overlap

My proposal is The skills trident: [social skills, operational skills, strategic skills]. I know. It has a lousy name. But that's just for the memes; not for marketing reasons. I'm not trying to sell you anything here. Just trying to offer a better alternative.

Social skills

Social skills are those who allow you to be a decent human being and contribute to an environment of respect, trust and humility.

Nobody wants to work with people who have toxic behaviours. Or who try to manipulate others for their self-interest. Or who promote a hostile environment. Or who lie. Or who blame their teammates.

But there is more. Having good social skills is more than not being a jerk. Is being sensitive about the people around you. Is asking someone how their vacation went. Is checking on someone about their ill cat. Is caring enough to understand the people you work with. And it's also sharing. You don't have to show vulnerability. But you need to let others get to know you a bit. Whatever that means to you.

It's almost impossible to improve these skills alone in your room. It takes time, people and therapy.

Operational Skills

Operational skills are those which allow you to do the actual job. It's what books, courses and tutorials teach you.

For Software Engineers it is more than programming. It's also participating in discovery sessions with Product Designers, asking the right questions, finding simple solutions to complex problems, writing User Stories, documenting, understanding data, designing systems according to a budget and a whole lot of other stuff. For Product Designers it is more than drawing nice shapes on a screen. It's understanding business needs, conducting user research, understanding technology constraints, involving other members of the team in product discovery, testing prototypes and a whole lot of other stuff.

You can improve some of these skills alone. But for most of them you need both: an environment to test the theory and other people to give you feedback. Without fast and constant feedback you won't be able to improve.

In a team there is no such thing as unsolicited feedback. Assume everyone will give you feedback. About anything. Anytime. Your skills impact the team. Your actions and non actions too. You not improving your skills also impacts the team. It would be egocentric from you to not expect feedback. And not to give it. Because yes. In a team you, your skills and your actions is everyone's business. Constant and honest feedback is what makes the team move forward. And it's what makes you move forward and improve. Without feedback your team and yourself can't improve. And I get why most people hate unsolicited feedback. Because they usually think unsolicited equals bad or rude. But this isn't the case if you work with decent people who are not jerks; people with good social skills.

Strategic Skills

Strategic skills are those which allow you to understand your context and achieve your objective despite adversity.

Books, courses and tutorials teach you the utopia; the ideal way to do the work in an ideal environment. But if you take it all as truth you're a fool. And you'll get frustrated.

In any company you'll find dependencies between teams, legacy code, legacy teams, unexpected changes in business needs, communication problems, external pressure, misalignment, scarce budget, hard deadlines, unreasonable goals, lack of documentation, lack of tests, poorly conducted customer research, data scarcity and I'm going to stop because this list is infinite.

But the work needs to get done. And we want our context to improve. We don't want to deal with all these problems every day.

You improve these skills by spending enough time in a team to see the results of your actions. Once you reach a global maxima, switch your context. Take on a new role, go to a new team, search for a different company or whatever.

It's impossible to improve these skills all by yourself. You need to face conflict.


I would never hire someone with poor social skills. Be careful though. Good social skills are not about being extrovert or introvert. Is about not being a jerk. Or a shark that crushes everything and everyone in their way just to get the job done. Never bring people with poor social skills to your team. They will crush your culture. I had to learn this the hard way.

Operational skills can be improved. Programming and painting nice shapes on a screen are the easiest ones. It's way better to hire someone that approaches problems from different angles, asks the right questions, is in love with the problem, knows how to collaborate with others, knows how to communicate properly or understands systems at a higher level. Programming or UI is important but be careful. A person can learn a new language or a new tool pretty quickly. It takes years to understand how to find simple solutions to complex problems. Depending on the context it can be good to have a good mix.

I don't expect inexperienced people to have good strategic skills. Or any strategic skills at all. They didn't have time to get them. And that is ok. Hire people with good social and operational skills. Give them ownership and guidance and strategic skills will flourish. Most strategic skills arise from demystifying the world around you. I like to ensure that I have at least some senior members of the team with good strategic skills. And give more and more ownership to the ones who don't.

Use this carefully

I refuse to use hard and soft to categorise skills. This new model: The Skills Trident 🔱 or The Skills Triangle or The Skills Trio (call it whatever you want) is definitely an improvement. It is a better representation of our reality. And it is a better tool for understanding what to improve. But take this with a grain of salt 🧂. Don't accept it as the truth.

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Jamie Larson