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How to Speak Engineer

As a non-technical person, how do you begin building a relationship with and speaking to an engineer? Here I outline a few simple exercises and considerations when building a relationship between tech and non-tech.

You’ve heard of Through a Dog’s Eyes, How to Speak Dog, and Inside a Dog. Somehow, there is ample literature on the perceptions, natures, and ways to facilitate good communication between man’s best friend and ourselves (assuming you, the reader, are human — apologies if you are not). At some point, while all of these researchers were following around doodle-this and doodle-that and watching them sniff butts, you would think one might observe and potentially interact with a far more important element of society that has the ability to build or break, well, everything.

The engineer.

As a non-technical person, how do you begin building a relationship with and speaking to an engineer? One of my friends basically asked this question of me. First, it is important to note that he and I have a very good relationship and talk regularly. So, obviously, he already speaks some level of engineer. Just as there are cats that will nip or swat at your hand at the least threatening of touches, there are engineers that require a deeper emotional understanding in order to craft a powerful relationship with good communication.

But, let us assume you do not have a me — a translator of technology personalities — and you do not have the ability to carefully select engineers that you will have an easy time building relationships with. How do you go about the creation of a social and professional rapport that will make 1) interactions more pleasant 2) reduce tensions all around and 3) improve your products.

Listen

First, when you are talking to an engineer, be aware of how much time you spend listening versus speaking. Often times, engineers have social cognitive disorders that make them feel uncomfortable in new social situations. In these cases, asking simple, easy questions about their work (make sure to avoid anything that could be seen as digging for progress or a boss/manager speaking about the product) should illicit a wealth of conversation. If speaking is a rare event for them, make sure you pay attention and listen.

A good way to show that you are actively listening is to repeat back what the engineer has said. “So, what I am hearing is it is difficult to work with shaders on the PS3, is that correct?” This simple sentence shows that you are paying attention, that you are interested, and that it is OK to keep talking (note: this is a trick trained to psychotherapists).

Go to Them or Find Neutral Ground

Calling an engineer somewhere or setting a meeting without a description is one of the worst acts you can perform in the eyes of an engineer. Not only is time sacred, but providing an unstructured anticipatory event will solicit imaginative panic. That is, an engineer will begin to question why you are speaking, what you will say, and will attempt to mold the situation in her mind. This leads to anxiety and will reduce the productivity of whatever chat you were intending to have.

Instead, try to go to the engineer, especially if they have an “off time” or you notice they are less engaged with their work. I highly suggest structuring your first conversations in a, “Hey, want to grab a coffee?” fashion. Do not make your first conversations immediately about work. Instead, get an upper (caffeine), make it somewhere you have to walk to or drive to, and begin the listening exercise above. This gives the engineer the option of engaging and supplies time to communicate.

I have formal methods for achieving this specific result. Every other week, I take each of my engineers out for tea. The meeting is unstructured, but consistent in time and can live on each engineer’s calendar. I make it very clear to new hires that these meetings are about discovering what I can do for them, how they are feeling, and to support my role as their advocate.

Baby Steps

This will sound ridiculous, but I will say it anyway: begin your relationship small. Say good morning. Go for a quick coffee. You need to build your relationship on a foundation of trust — 1) that you aren’t judging them 2) that you aren’t asking them to do anything special (such as work overtime one night) and 3) that you are genuinely interested in crafting a natural dialog. If an engineer is non-responsive early on, make a point of finding what she really enjoys and bringing it up, but do not push hard or ask a lot of questions if an engineer is being non-responsive. Give her space and time.

You are going to work together for years. Baby steps.

Praise

When in doubt, praise is the beginning of trust. “You did a great job on last week’s deliverable,” means a lot to someone who was heads down trying to get a product out. When in the listening phase, “You explained that well, now I understand” can go a long way to establishing a bond of trust.

With Great Responsibility

As a note, the above might sound like a recipe for manipulation. Please do not use it for such. There are ample keen engineers out there that have very sensitive manipulation mechanics (I am one of them). I might not say that I know what you are doing, but I know it is happening. The second you break that trust, an engineer will weigh and measure every word that comes out of your mouth. Be respectful. Be sincere.

Do this because it will help you at your job. Do this because we are all interdependent and good communication is the first step in removing evil from this world.

Let me know how your conversations go and good luck!

Andrew Grapsas is VP of Engineering at Sojo, an Adjunct Professor in the Computer Science department at Stevens Institute, and a consultant for companies building new teams or learning to rapidly craft new software products. You can read more of his musings at aagrapsas.com and follow him on twitter @AAGrapsas.

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