Archive for July, 2008

Effective Communication for Engineers

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

[I originally posted this internally at Microsoft, but there was so much positive response that I’ve decided to also make it available externally.  I hope you find it similarly helpful.]

It’s not possible to lay out all the elements of great communication in one article — the topic’s too rich and I am no expert.  But poor communication has been such a blocker to the careers of many engineers I’ve managed and mentored that I’d like to try to outline some of the tips I give.  Great communication is something that I continue to strive for and struggle with, so please take these suggestions merely as tips from one traveler to another on our collective journey towards awesome communication.

For this article, I’ll focus on interactive forms of communication like meetings, conversations, and emails.  I won’t focus on formal, one-way forms of communication like presentations (or this blog!), which require special considerations.

General Tips

Successful communication requires that the other person internalize what you meant to share.  Too many people assume that communication happens as long as they use accurate words.  This is what leads to conversations where one side keeps saying the same thing.

Joe: “Why did you change this code?”
Timmy:  “Sammy was OOF yesterday.”
Joe:  “I know, but why did you modify this code?”
Timmy:  “I said Sammy was out.”
Joe:  “What does Sammy being out have to do with you changing the code?”
Timmy:  “Sammy’s auto-checkin script broke the build while he was out, so he didn’t fix the build break.  I had to change the code to fix the break.”

Communication hasn’t happened unless the other person has internalized what you meant to convey.  What actually counts as communication is the cumulative effect of your words, tone, and body-language on the other person’s behavior.  The literal, factual correctness of the words you speak are only part of the equation.  Most Americans understand this in the use of sarcasm:  “I just love it when the boss makes us stay on weekends while he parties in Vegas,” actually means you hate it.  (Incidentally, many cultures do not employ sarcasm, thereby underlining this point’s importance.)

I have little sympathy for people who exclusively blame the listener for failure in communication (“I’ve sent Joey at least 5 emails outlining how to fix the build.  He just doesn’t learn!”).  At least some of the fault for each failure in communication must by placed on the speaker/writer.  You’re effective once the cumulative effect of your words, tone, and body-language affect the other person’s behavior the way you intended.

Listening is (at least) half of effective communication.  Shouting matches happen when neither side understands this.  What does the other person want?  What’s important to them?  What is the other person trying to communicate back?  Why does the other person seem not to understand my point?  How can I say it in a way that they’ll understand?  Great communicators have a way of jumping quickly to the heart of the matter.  You may start by discussing something trivial but they quickly sense and raise underlying issues.  They understand you.  You feel a strong connection with them.  When you disagree with them, you continue to respect their point of view because you understand why they feel differently.  Part of what makes these communicators effective is that they listen.

I’m told that good basketball players don’t focus on their opponents’ upper body when guarding them — they watch their opponents’ feet.  Although it’s easy to feign intentions with the upper body, the feet continue to point the direction that the opponent will go.  So great players aren’t distracted by a bunch of upper-body misdirection.  They know where to look.

Great listening is similar.  The literal words that the other person uses are only part of the communication.  You need to watch the body language and listen to the tone.  You need to understand the person’s past experiences and their goals.  All of these go towards a more complete, accurate model of the other person, which then refines how you communicate with them.

Consider the audience.  We’ve all been in meetings where some developer loses the entire audience by using obscure terms and going into too much detail.  The best communicators understand why their audience wants to listen at all — why does the audience care? — and then targets what they say to address their audience’s interests and goals.  They build interest in what they’re about to say.  They don’t spend energy on what ultimately won’t be effectively heard.  They use words that have the right meanings to their audience.

Words matter.  Engineers often err in opposite directions in the choice of words.  Some engineers confuse precision with effectiveness when communicating.  They assume that the listener will receive their message effectively because the words they choose are literally correct and precise.  Other engineers hold the diametrically opposing view.  To them, the words they use don’t change the nature of the truth they’re describing.  It makes no difference to them whether a team is called the “Engineering Process Committee” or the “Engineering Best Practices Community.”

Words matter greatly in that each word causes a different response in a particular listener.  It’s counterproductive to use precise engineering terms with someone who doesn’t understand them.  But when speaking with someone who does understand those terms, it becomes critical to use them.  With such a person, it’d actually cause confusion not to use them.  So to get your point across, you must understand your listener’s model of what specific words mean and conform your communication to their words, not yours.  This is why a pedant’s frustration with “incorrect” word usage suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of what communication is all about.

Tips for Introverts (and their managers)

Considering the bulk of the engineering community is introverted, I’ve included a few communication tips that have been helpful to introverts like me.

Communication needs to be proactive (timely).  Not speaking is communicating. There’s a reason that the smug response, “Well, you never asked!” always engenders frustration.  Silence is communication, every bit as much as shouting.  When a report of mine doesn’t mention a specific feature, I assume that it’s going well.  It’s painful when the burden of successful collaboration relies entirely on your knowing which questions to ask.  It’s important to raise issues as they arise, to speak when necessary even if it’s uncomfortable.

On that note, fall back on the medium that’s easiest for you if needed.  Many people are nervous about speaking in public.  Consider sending your feedback prior to the meeting to the organizer, or noting your feedback using IE’s Discussion feature or Word’s comment bubbles.  Follow up face-to-face with the organizer afterwards.  Contribute actively to email discussions.  Just remember that these are fallbacks.  There will be occasions, e.g. time-critical meetings, where speaking up in a group in real time is essential.

Misunderstandings tend to fester and spiral.  Speaking up at the right times, when a more timid person might choose to remain silent, goes a long way towards reducing misunderstandings.  Almost every Jane Austen novel relies on its main characters not speaking when they should.  It’s a sure way to cause drama.

Address difficult issues openly.  I used to avoid difficult conversations.  Just the anticipation alone would keep me up at nights.  I’ve found over time that conversations are rarely as difficult as we might think, especially when approached openly.  Usually, the more difficult you think a conversation will be, the more tense and awkward it actually ends up being.  Your state of mind makes a huge difference.  Most people are quite approachable, even on difficult topics, as long as they see that you genuinely care about them.  By continually forcing myself to proactively address difficult issues openly, I’ve become far less anxious and far more confident when approaching tough conversations.

A note to managers:  leave “space” for your introverted employees.  Pause a bit longer before moving on to the next topic.  Actively solicit their point of view in 1-on-1’s.  Avoid forcibly “calling on them” in team meetings in order to “motivate participation.”  Provide alternative means to register their views (e.g. email, written comments, post-meeting 1-on-1’s).  It’s not helpful to only set a commitment that says, “Participate more actively in meetings.”  Introverts need to be coached with examples and practical tips.  Fundamental changes like this will take years of practice.  The goal shouldn’t be to change an introvert into an extrovert.  Instead, it’s to make both introverts and extroverts better communicators.

[This post is dedicated to Alec Ramsay, who, amongst many other things, taught me that Words Matter.  I first learned by his example the vast difference between speaking and communicating.]

Secret Ninja Moves

Friday, July 18th, 2008

Office Hours, the Microsoft Office Online site, has posted a new article by me, titled Top 10 Most Useful Secret Ninja Moves in Office.  I had no idea that it’s been a whole year since my first article there (Top 7 Employee Bungles Using Microsoft Office).

The Office Hours folks send me a summary of the page views, comments, and ratings on the articles.  Employee Bungles, a whimsical article that’s not overly helpful, is read by far more people per month despite being reviewed by some as “not helpful.”  On the other hand, Secret Ninja Moves is unanimously hailed as “extremely helpful,” but yet has little readership.

Odd, the way these things work.

One Small Step for Man…

Monday, July 14th, 2008

So, the following sign has been personally spotted by me in both Beijing and Shenzhen (a government-planted city that is directly across the China’s former border with Hong Kong):

Small step makes big success

I’ve spotted this sign in many places and found the context rather humorous.  The English translation doesn’t do justice to the cleverness of the verse.  I’d translate it more as “One small step forward for Man, one big step forward for Civility.”

Where do these signs occur?

Sweet urinal action

That’s right — exclusively over urinals.  The clever turn of phrase, appropriately matched to a pertinent situation, makes the whole situation pure comedic magic.  When I first saw the sign, I had to ask someone what it meant.  The implications of the English translation weren’t obvious to me.  I chuckled a bit when it was finally explained.

The empiricists amongst you will no doubt ask whether the signs are having an effect.  I can happily attest that indeed, in such bathrooms, these signs have resulted in positive change.  I trust that no more explanation is necessary.

Standards of Cleanliness

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

One thing that’s a little different from the US about China is its standard of cleanliness.  Here are several nations on the International Scale of Cleanliness:

China -> US -> Canada -> Japan / Singapore

When I lived in the US, I thought some places were pretty dirty — say, Gary, Indiana.  Canada always seemed a bit cleaner.  Japan and Singapore are probably in a dead heat for first place, though I’ve never been to Singapore.  Japan, however, I have been to.  You can pretty much bet that any country where hotel toilets have 12-16 separate buttons/knobs/functions is going to be a pretty clean country (from bottom up, so to speak).

But in China the standards and expectations of cleanliness are different.  Everything seems just a bit grungy.  The outside of buildings might have black mold or gray scuff marks.  The windows in a glass elevator might have a thin film of mildew evenly filtering the sunlight.  Bathroom counters might have nondescript unevenness in color.  How, after all, are you going to clean things if the water itself is slightly yellow?  The cleanest you could possibly get a “white” linoleum floor is light yellow, unless you’re willing to mop with, say, bottled water.  So the entire country seems just slightly less clean than some other parts of the world.

This was driven home to me yesterday in the company cafeteria.  The checkout lady was about to hand me my napkin (yes, napkins are tightly guarded in this cafeteria) when she spotted an insect crawling on the counter near the register.  In one smooth motion, she dropped the napkin, smashed the bug with her palm, and handed my napkin to me while saying the Chinese equivalent of, “Thank you for your patronage.  Come again!”

The food tasted good.  I used my single napkin with pride.  It’s not often that you know where your dinnerware has truly been.

But of course this sort of thing happens in the US as well.  In the company cafeteria in Seattle, the cook making my panini spotted some gunk on the spatula he was using to make my sandwich.  He swiftly banged it once or twice on the inside surface of the nearby trash can, then immediately used it to shovel my panini onto a plate.  So yes, there are horror stories to tell about food service everywhere in the world.

But as a generalization, China’s accepted standards of cleanliness are lower than the US.  I’m sure in the coming years as the Chinese populace gets ever more wealthy the expectations for cleanliness will rise.  In the meantime, my sincerest wishes to you on receiving a bug-free napkin at your next meal.

"It’s Not Fixable"

Saturday, July 5th, 2008

In the course of getting the house repaired, the ADSL repaired, and a variety of other things fixed, it’s become apparent that there’s a trend in Shanghai of repairmen saying things can’t be repaired.

Situation:  House window won’t close.  Big 2″ gap potentially letting the cool breezes and the occasional enterprising burglar into the house.
Repairman:  “Can’t be fixed.  That window can’t be closed.  Not fixable.”

Situation:  Phone line not working upstairs.  Repairman takes a look inside the wall, discovers several long wires, and sighs.
Repairman (mind you, the phone company’s repairman):  “Can’t be fixed.  Actually, it’s not even my job.  You’ll have to do without.  What’s wrong with using the one phone in the foyer?”  (I’ve been practicing doing two flights of stairs within four rings of the telephone.  I think I’m close.)

Situation:  Internet not working.  The line gets disconnected every 2-3 minutes.  As you know from my previous post, I’ve already entered the magic numbers that should make it work.
Repairman (Internet Specialist):  “Can’t be fixed.  I mean, look at this jumble of wires!”  (He shows me, clearly expecting my years of phone-repair experience to empathize.  I nod knowingly.)  “Can’t you just use the Internet from somewhere else?  This won’t work.”

Some of these issues were only fixed after intense cajoling and negotiation of the Can’t-You-See-That-I-Need-A-Telephone, I-Can’t-Walk-To-An-Internet-Cafe-Every-Time-I-Check-Email variety.  Through this, I’ve learned two things:

  1. In China, there’s an expectation of negotiation during repair services.  It’s not that things truly can’t be fixed — it’s just that the repairmen, like good actors, want a good reason for trying.  “What’s my motivation?”  You’ll find that most are reasonable after they are convinced of your predicament.  “Really — and here I’m not joshing you — it’s pretty hard to use ‘The Internet’ when the superhighway shuts down every 2-3 minutes.  Can you imagine all the data backups and fender-benders?  This is what I’m saying, my man.”
  2. There’s a chance you may not be burgled immediately.  I mean, look at us:  our window’s been “irreparable” for at least a few weeks here.  We’re still “open for business,” so to speak.  When a repairman won’t be convinced, no amount of logic will sway him otherwise.  “The window must have worked at some point, right?  Like immediately after installation?”  These arguments ring hollow to repairmen of great faith.  Don’t tempt them with facts.  It won’t work.

Instead of just caving in whenever someone says something can’t be done, I’ve learned to push back a little.  “Really?  This will never again work, in this house, ever?”  “If it’s not the telephone company’s job to fix the telephone line, could you help me find the right people to contact?” 

I truly don’t believe repairmen do this to be malicious.  I think debate and argumentation is an expected part of the social contract between homeowner/renter and repairman.  I now almost enjoy the prospect of this near-guaranteed confrontation when anything needs to be fixed.


Almost fixed, that is.  Some things still don’t work.

"Call Me Direct If You Need Anything…"

Tuesday, July 1st, 2008

The ADSL Man made a big point of telling me, at least three times during his visit, that I should call his cell phone directly if I have any problems in the future instead of dialing the general China Telecom help line.

[For those of you in Shanghai, the China Telecom help line is reachable by dialing 10000.  They even have English menus and English speakers available!  Quite helpful.]

At first, I chalked this eagerness up to a heretofore unseen level of customer service.  I’ve never had a repairman insist multiple times that I can call him anytime, day or night, on his personal cell phone nonetheless, if I should ever have any problems with my ADSL.  This, coming from the same man that previously refused to give me the access code to connect to the Internet.

Turns out it’s a bit trickier than that.  I’ve independently verified from third party sources (read: “Native Shanghai Folks Who Aren’t Easily Duped”) that the ADSL Man’s easy availability comes at a price.  Here’s The Deal:

If you call China Telecom directly, they assign a local contract repairman to your house.  It’s a free service.

If you call the same repairman directly, China Telecom has no idea that you’re getting something repaired.  The repairman, at the end of his Personal Repair Service, will ask for payment, presumably of the I’ve-Just-Painted-Half-Your-Face-At-The-Cosmetic-Counter-So-Why-Don’t-You-Pay-For-The-Other-Half variety.  “I’d hate to see your ADSL not work, ever again, but I sure will give fixing it another go if you could help defray my travel costs today.  I took the Mag-Lev train to get here.  Nice desserts on that train, you know?”

So:  Call 10000.  Do not call the repairman directly.  That’s The Deal.