Communicating as an Engineer

As an engineer, one of the most valuable skills you can have is to communicate effectively. This applies both to your follow engineers as well as non-engineers (PMs, designers, business). Obviously, this advice is generally applicable, but many engineers don't craft their communication to the business well. Common problems are:

  • Talking too much about technical implementation.
  • Talking too little about technical implementation.

Too much technical implementation drowns out the important details that businesses are concerned about. It drags on discussions and meetings unnecessarily. Imagine if a designer talked for hours about how they picked the correct border radius value and color for their buttons in a meeting. That's a waste of time for business stakeholders and engineers in that meeting. Getting far into the weeds like that quickly wastes discussions or meetings1.

Similar to spewing technical details, using fancy words are also detrimental to your goal of effective communication. If your collaborators aren't on the same page with your definition, then you're introducing more error for the worst kinds of mistakes. They can range from not being explicit on the units of measurement; not being aligned what functional programming is; or why engineering should use a new tool. These undefined words are assumptions. And assumptions are the enemy of clear communication. It's assumptions that exaggerate mistakes.

In comparison, hiding too much of the the technical implementation can also be detrimental. You're denying the business from potentially making important decisions. Similar to why the waterfall model is flawed: it assumes each step has perfect information to operate in isolation. But no one in the company has the complete problem in their head to completely solve the solution for the customer2. A company hires experts (designers, product managers, engineers, marketers, etc.) to provide information and action into the decision-making process. Making decisions is the core of a business' operation. It's what executives and managers, including PMs, do all day. They rely on others to extract the signal from the noise and to execute on those decisions.

Experts provide both information and execution. Sure you can implement your software solution, but without providing the business the information why it's valuable, there's no reason to fund or support that project from an stakeholder's perspective. A solution may become a waste of time if it's not solving the problem for the demographic the business is targeting, for example. This scales from the which projects to sponsor to if a bug should be fixed instead of that new feature marketing wants.

It's not uncommon for engineers over optimize3 or choose experimental technologies4 without consulting the business for feedback. That's keeping the business in the dark about the implications for those decisions. Every decision has tradeoffs.

What's the right amount then?

So what's the right amount of technical implementation to talk about to a non-technical person? It's the wrong question. You actually want to talk in terms of technical implications.

The company needs to understand the tradeoffs for the technical decisions you're proposing. Saying you're using the latest NoSQL database because of its marketed performance also comes with a lot of unknowns. How do you know it reliably preserves the data your store? How difficult is it to maintain operationally?

Edn seems like a great serialization format if you're using Clojure and ClojureScript now. Sure it didn't seem like a decision the business needed to care about, but there are implications for that. Edn effectively locks-in your ability to move off of a Clojure stack in the future. While JSON is inferrior in capabilities, it keeps that option open. Alternatively, you can maintain both JSON and Edn serializations, but that increases your surface error to maintain. In this example, it's easy to infer the correct business decision, but if you're not sure, that needs to be presented to the business as choices with clear impacts to the business in a variety of future scenarios.

Sure, you don't raise every little problem to the business, that's where your expertise comes in. You need to know when the scope of the decision extends beyond your domain and into others. You decide which technical discussions they need to participate and which they don't. There's always a tradeoff for every decision you make.

You're the bridge from your expertise to the business5.

Depending on the context, using Cloud Formation may be a technical implementation or a technical implication. Keeping aligned with the business' goals is important to know when to present the decision. Not all big decisions are blocking, especially when technologies can be easily swapped (e.g. - swapping SQL databases may be relatively easy to switch) after the organization determines which to use.

While talking up the chain of command important for determining impact, daily discussions on your team is primarily about course-correcting. The team needs to communicate to find and resolve errors before they devolve into major problems. Therefore, the team's communication should avoid ambiguities. Avoid terms unfamiliar with your collaborators and clear any confusion as early as possible to keep mistakes6 small. Use a shared vocabulary that is explicitly agreed upon to be concise. Avoid introducing terms arbitrarily simply because you read it up on a blog. New team members should be given the list of agreed upon words and their definition (aka, domain knowledge).

The context of efficient team communication could be its own article. But suffice to say that you want to remove any confusion and provide quick feedback to detect any problems. Listen after you explain a concept to your team members. Is it possible to derive different meaning to what you're saying? Does the person look a little confused? Are they unwilling to ask the question because they feel it's silly or stupid?

Talking to someone is similar to writing, it's best to anticipate the journey in their thoughts to effectively guide someone to understanding your thoughts. But unlike writing, you have more feedback to what you're saying. Take advantage of that extra information.

And this varies from day-to-day. Sometimes it feels like everyone's on the same page, while others days feel like non-stop back-and-forth. But that's collaboration in action: a never-ending effort to piece together the sub-problems to provide a more comprehensive solution. It's how the sum becomes greater than its parts.

  1. A simple metric for meetings: is it worth the cost of having each person in the meeting room for the discussion for an hour? Consultants notice this more acutely than other types because of their hourly billing. It’s useful, but should be more sparingly employed.
  2. Unless if you’re a 1-person company, then only maybe. It’s hard to believe if anyone has perfect technology.
  3. Optimization definitely has it’s place, but make sure you need to pay that. If you imagine the business paying $60/hr for your time, it’s it worth it for the business to improve that page load time by 10ms?
  4. Like optimizations, technologies are a tradeoff that should be considered. They may provide benefits as the increased risk. Can you deliver on the deadline? Can you recruit skill for this technology? What if the technology becomes abandoned?
  5. It’s harder for a business stakeholder to be an expert at everything needed to run a business. It’s easier for you to better understand the business than a stakeholder to understand technology, negotiation, manufacturing, recruiting, human resources. It doesn’t hurt to try an educate them when you can though.
  6. Mistakes will always happen, that’s just human nature.