Communication and the art of cultivating engineering leadership
“Every single problem I’ve seen in my career that actually caused damage, was ultimately caused by a communication breakdown.”
Poornima Vijayashanker was the founding engineer at Mint, has founded several startups, built engineering teams from scratch, written a book, and is an often invited speaker. And when asked what she attributes her quick learning and personal success to, she’ll respond, “I’ve made every mistake in the book.”
But the result of mastering the Mistake Book is that she’s been able to apply this experiential learning to founding Femgineer (an education startup focused on offering courses and workshops to engineers and tech entrepreneurs) and co-founding OPEAR (on-demand childcare for working professionals), where she’s also currently the CTO.
In her career — along with being well-connected in the tech community — Vijayashanker has observed organizations with unique cultures, structures, composition, and varying levels of effectiveness.
And the curious pattern she’s found, is that teams that see lasting success all seems to share one strength: communication.
You’ve heard it before: the same processes that worked when you were a team of 10, won’t work when you’re 20. In the early days, information sharing can be informal.
But more people requires more time spent communicating — each new addition to the team decreases the average familiarity with the codebase. And as your engineering organization scales, it’s harder to ensure that information is flowing. It’s harder for team members to stay afloat with everything that’s going on.
Yet, one major difficulty with communication breakdowns is that they’re less visible. You’ll notice symptoms, like slower work or inter-team tension, that might suggest there’s a problem with how information is flowing. It can be tough to really dig in and figure out where or how there’s a problem, and even harder to figure out a solution.
A good place to start is by thinking about the communication process at a basic level. If you pick up an ordinary management textbook and flip to the communication process, you might find an image that looks like this:
As simplistic as it is, this model does have some notable **value. First, it’s illustrates that there’s plenty of opportunity for mishaps. The second is derived from the “decoding” and “feedback” parts of the process. It reminds us that individuals will interpret the same message differently. And their interpretation, along with the way they respond, will all depend on the context (timing, channel, noise, their individual circumstances, and so on).
The takeaway here is that the communication process can’t be controlled: there will always be wrong interpretations and messages lost. But it can be improved — simply by thinking about it as a system.
Here are a few general questions that might help guide that mentality:
There are inputs
- What do people need to know? (All employees, specific teams, etc.) Examples might include mission, goals, context, job descriptions, job expectations, documentation.
- What information is not “need to know”? (Distracting, unnecessary, etc.)
Choose your channel wisely
- What channel is most appropriate for this message/conversation? Is it a meeting (what kind of meeting)? Other examples: email, Slack, Wiki, Dropbox.
- What if someone missed the message? Where is information stored?
Look to culture (and consistency) for support
- How (and to who) do people give feedback (and do they feel comfortable doing so)?
- Who do people report to? Who do they go to for help?
- What kind of conversations are people expected to have?
At a basic level, it’s all about having some structure in place so the important information can flow.
Seems easy. So why do so many companies still feel these painful communication breakdowns? And why is it so hard for technical teams, specifically, to get (important) information flowing?
“Even when you have all the right systems in place, communication is still a skill,” Vijayashanker says. “An unfortunately labeled ‘soft‘ skill.”
An intangible tool
The problem with communication is that 1) it is a skill that we learn to devalue as engineers, and 2) investing in soft skills is a hard sell.
“If there’s one non-technical skill where the industry could do a better job of supporting engineers, it’s communication” Vijayashanker says. “But when companies are evaluating programs, they want to see the credibility — they want to see the ROI on what they’re paying for.” If you take a Swift course, at the end of it, your manager can expect you to know how to program in Swift.
“But,” she says, “if you say, ‘You know, I want to take this confident communicator course,’ the response is, ‘What the hell is that? Why can’t you just look at yourself in the mirror and give yourself some affirmations?’” It’s harder to quantify the effect a communication course will have on the team. The benefit just ins’t that visible.
“You have to walk them through it: ‘you know all those scrum meetings where we’re kind of scratching our heads, where we’re negotiating for whose going to build what, how we’re going to cut back?’” Vijayashanker says. “’Well, yeah, if we took this class, the team dynamics will change. We’ll be better at setting ground rules and negotiating.’”
“If you say, ‘I want to take this Confident Communicator course,’ the response is, ‘What the hell is that?’”
“I look forward to seeing more companies dedicate time and energy towards mentoring, and building their peoples’ soft skills,” Vijayashaker says. “Currently, we see far more invested in technical skills, because we believe this is what’s going to move the needle now.” And along with being less concrete, improving communication is a long-term effort.
Level-up your people
“Invest in communication training,” Vijayashanker says. “It will level-up your people — both in their personal lives and in their careers — and will elevate the performance of the company as a whole.“
Invest in communication training. It will level-up your people — both in their personal lives and in their careers — and will elevate the performance of the company as a whole.
When you invest in communication, you invest in leadership and a more engaged workplace. Vijayshanker offers two simple steps for getting started:
1. Cultivate an environment where everyone feels welcome to speak up
“A lot of engineers, for whatever reason, have gotten shot down in the past, or they’re junior enough to feel like it’s not their place to chime in. So, to facilitate communication, you need to create an environment where people feel encouraged to pipe up.”
Besides, the benefits of working to build this kind of trust in teams are numerous. You begin to hear new ideas you wouldn’t have otherwise heard before, and you empower individuals to speak up immediately when they notice something is off.
To cultivate an environment where everyone feels welcome to speak up, think about the processes and culture you have in place, and —
2. Give people the skill to be able to do so
“You have to explain to them, ‘Hey, this is what it means to be concise. This is what it means to prepare. This is kind of what stakeholders are looking for. This is how you communicate with other teams or customers,’” Vijayashaker says.
She also offers a handy list of reads as a starting point for you to begin dedicating time towards honing your skill, and helping your team improve theirs:
- The book she wrote: Present! A Techie’s Guide to Public Speaking
- Confessions of a Public Speaker, by Scott Berkun
- Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, by Nancy Duarte
- Presentation Zen, by Garr Reynolds
- Demystifying Public Speaking, by Lara Hogan
There’s enough books, mentors, conferences, and courses to be overwhelmed, but Vijayashanker says any resource on communication, public speaking and presentation, or interpersonal skills, will be more than worth the investment. “Each one — each book, each mentor, conference, or course — takes a unique approach. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced one where I didn’t get something out of it.”
Dive right in, and you’ll be taking the first step to weather-proofing your team.
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