To Succeed, Computer Science Students Need Human+ Skills (More Than Almost Anything Else)

A graphic design showing two students standing in front of two ladders—one with evenly spaced rungs and the other with a large gap between them, making it impossible to climb.

Automation is the future of work. In the not-so-distant future, employers will automate nearly half the labor currently associated with $15 trillion in wages globally, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. How automation will impact workers is much harder to envision. People tend to associate automation with routine physical work and assume that automation's impact will be particularly acute in sectors such as manufacturing, but computers are getting smarter. Today's advanced computational systems can handle increasingly sophisticated cognitive tasks and perform actions considered impossible to automate, suggesting that workers will feel the effects of automation in all sectors—including technology.

That doesn't mean, however, that automation will lead to mass layoffs. Instead, the nature of work will change. Futurists predict that advancements in machine learning and deep learning will create more jobs than it automates out of existence but that most of those jobs haven’t been invented yet. The World Economic Forum anticipates that "[m]any formerly purely technical occupations are expected to show a new demand for creative and interpersonal skills." In other words, work involving mathematics, logic and encoding quantitative relationships (such as software engineering and computer systems design) will likely be automated, while computer scientists will increasingly do work that requires creativity, critical thinking, emotional intelligence and communication.

"Also called hybrid skills, human+ skills acknowledge the fact that the employment landscape is increasingly interdisciplinary."

Technical skills plus a bachelor's degree are no longer all it takes to succeed in computer science. To prepare, aspiring computer scientists need leading-edge technical skills and highly developed soft skills. Case Western Reserve University designed its Online MS in Computer Science program around the emerging demand for hard, soft and hybrid skills in tech, and graduates of the program will be skilled innovators, collaborators and communicators who can tackle real-world challenges using technology at scale and pivot as groundbreaking discoveries in computer science change the employment landscape.

Which skills are essential for computer science careers?

At first glance, the answer depends on whom you ask. Consider the skill sets Amazon and GM look for (as illustrated by EMSI) when hiring software engineers:

Amazon - Software Engineer 1

  • Mentorship
  • Operations
  • Amazon Web Services
  • Scalability
  • Data Structures
  • Machine Learning
  • Python

GM - Software Engineer 1

  • Information Technology
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Debugging
  • Electrical engineering
  • Linux
  • Embedded software

The fact that these companies seek out different skills in computer scientists probably isn't surprising given how different they are. Look more closely, however, and congruities emerge. Software engineers at both Amazon and GM need computer programming skills (e.g., Python and C) and to be comfortable working with different systems and platforms (e.g., AWS or Linux and other operating systems). While not explicitly spelled out, strong critical thinking skills (for scaling and debugging) and good communication skills (for mentorship and interpersonal relationships) are also essential computer science skills Amazon and GM look for in new hires. The takeaway is that there are foundational computer science competencies that are always in demand and they include not only hard skills but also soft skills.

What is the difference between soft skills and hard skills?

People associate computer science with hard skills—an umbrella term referring to all job-related abilities and specialized domain knowledge that empower workers to achieve specific outcomes. In computer science, these include:

  • Algorithm design
  • Computing systems and computer network design
  • Cloud computing
  • Cybersecurity and network security
  • Data mining and data science
  • Database systems management
  • Information systems management
  • Machine learning and artificial intelligence
  • Mobile development
  • Operating systems design
  • Programming in languages like Python and Java
  • Software engineering
  • Software systems design
  • Theory of computation

Most on-campus and online Master of Science in Computer Science (MSCS) programs cover these or related topics, which makes sense given that programming language fluency, software development skills and emerging skills related to artificial intelligence are in demand. Far fewer include soft skills—learnable traits or qualities that make professionals like software developers better at their jobs—in the curriculum even though the following skills are also in demand:

  • Communication skills
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Decision-making skills
  • Leadership skills
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Teamwork skills

The biggest difference between hard skills and soft skills for computer science professionals may be their transferability. Over 80% of job postings across tech and non-tech industries mention one of the above skills. Over 30% mention more than one, and a staggering 100% mention soft skills (though not necessarily those listed above). Surprisingly, demand for soft skills in many STEM fields is higher than demand for these skills in non-tech industries.

Does this mean aspiring computer scientists can simply supplement their technological education with a few courses focused on soft-skills building? Absolutely not. The key to staying in demand in tech is finding an on-campus or online master's program in computer science that teaches an amalgamation of hard and soft skills—or what many experts now call human+ skills.

What are human+ skills?

Also called hybrid skills, human+ skills acknowledge the fact that the employment landscape is increasingly interdisciplinary. It doesn't make sense to draw a hard line between technical skills and soft skills when employers increasingly look for computer science skills in applicants for non-tech positions and soft skills in applicants for computer science jobs and other positions in tech. Computer scientists with human+ skills approach their professional development with a "both, and" mentality instead of an "either, or" mentality because they understand that the in-demand skills of the future will merge technical and cognitive capabilities.

"You may find that even with an undergraduate degree in computer science, you're missing key human skills."

For example, computer scientists must use emotional intelligence as well as logic to build ethical and equitable machine learning tools. Complex software engineering projects are always collaborative in nature, and success hinges on everyone involved having well-developed communication and teamwork skills. Cybersecurity experts must have the mindset required to understand how hackers think to prevent attacks before they happen. These and other human+ skills that combine cognitive and technical competencies to make computer science better are already in demand. According to the Strada Institute's Robot Ready report, "[r]eal-time labor market information provides a clear signal that employers are seeking human+ skills in workers that can transfer from domain to domain." As automation technologies grow more sophisticated, demand for these skills will almost certainly increase.

Why are human+ skills lacking in computer science?

Many university programs that prepare students for careers in tech have been slow to acknowledge the critical importance of human+ skills. Some sources talk about a soft skills gap in tech, but the problem isn't necessarily that MSCS students aren't learning soft skills. What's more likely is that on-campus and online master's in computer science programs don't build increasingly in-demand soft skills into the curriculum in a united way, so students may learn those competencies but not how to apply them in real-world scenarios.

One study that looked at skills gaps in technology found that professionals with computer science degrees and degrees granted by related technical graduate programs were entering the workforce without people skills, communication skills, problem-solving skills, flexibility and other human+ capabilities. This may be because students in many programs don't do enough collaborative work, don't do the kinds of work happening in the real world and, most importantly, don't practice interfacing with people—especially people who don't come from a tech background.

How CWRU's online MSCS develops essential human+ skills

First, Case Western Reserve doesn't draw a hard line between its full-time and part-time online programs and in-person degree programs. Master's in computer science candidates take the same core computer science courses in areas of computing such as software engineering, databases, security and artificial intelligence from the same professors and instructors in the department of computer science, regardless of how they study. Online students benefit just as much from the fact that faculty members are industry leaders and renowned research scientists capable of adapting the computer science curriculum quickly when technology and employer demand for both hard and soft skills change. They have the same access to collaborative research opportunities, an active alumni network and robust pre-and post-graduation career support. They have ample chances to work with and learn from their peers in student groups.

Second, the computer science master's curriculum covers not just fundamental computer science skills in the coursework but also how to apply those skills collaboratively to some of the world’s most pressing challenges. In each of the core MSCS classes, students develop:

  • A self-starter mentality
  • A solutions-driven mindset
  • Awareness of team dynamics
  • Communication skills
  • Decision-making skills
  • Intellectual flexibility
  • Intellectual independence
  • Leadership and management skills
  • Persistence
  • Reporting skills
  • Teamwork skills

Graduates emerge with both the technical knowledge required to create new techniques and technologies to advance computer science and the communication and teamwork skills crucial in today's workplace.

Is an MSCS from Case School of Engineering the right degree for you?

Online degree programs such as Case Western Reserve University's MS in Computer Science reduce industry skills gaps by preparing students to meet employer demand, now and as computer science evolves. It's up to you to identify which core competencies are missing from your resume and whether the Case School of Engineering is the right place to address them.

Tools such as EMSI's Resume Optimizer—which compares the skills on your resume against those associated with your desired job title—can help you determine which skills you may be lacking. You may find that even with an undergraduate degree in computer science, you're missing key human skills in addition to some technical skills, as employers increasingly look for a mix of hard and soft skills in computer science professionals. In the Stada Institute's aforementioned Robot-Ready report, the organization asserts that the most essential skills across labor markets now "combine the technical with the human: programming + ethics, AI + emotional intelligence, or logic + judgment."

Whether you want to advance in computer science or meet technical career goals in a related field, you need to develop your human+ skills with the same level of care you put into nurturing your hard technical competencies. Case Western Reserve's five-term online MSCS program is one of the few with learning outcomes specifically focused not only on hard skills related to algorithms, artificial intelligence, databases and data mining, but also human skills like communication, intellectual flexibility, teamwork, leadership and persistence.

If you still aren't sure, consider that earning a master's degree in computer science online from Case Western Reserve is a sound investment in more ways than one. The 30-credit hour online MSCS curriculum teaches students the in-demand technical skills and crucial soft skills necessary for long-term success in computer science careers. The university's graduate-level computer science degree also gives students the credentials they need to step into more senior roles at top companies—and to earn more money.

What will you accomplish with an online MS in Computer Science from the Case School of Engineering? The possibilities are endless. Apply now or register for an upcoming webinar to learn more about computer science careers, MSCS prerequisites and admissions, or the application process, and to get answers to any other questions you have.

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