Engineers look at the world differently from non-engineers. They are usually extremely logical, pragmatic, and direct, while the rest of us can be somewhat more whimsical, emotional and aspirational. Unfortunately, when working together, these different perspectives present unique communication challenges that can slow work, deliver sub-optimal results, and weaken company culture if not addressed.
Collaborating effectively with an engineer means learning to communicate like an engineer.
I’m not talking about mastering engineer-speak. What I’m getting at is recognizing how sales, marketing, and support teams communicate differently from engineering teams and adapting your communication style when working with engineers.
Here are some basics for collaborating and communicating productively with engineers.
Tips for Talking to Engineers
1 Build sincere trust.
This should be obvious, but healthy, productive relationships require trust. Day-to-day, you build trust with your immediate team members, you may not realize it. In fact every time you solve a problem together, talk about your weekend together, or achieve a goal together, you are contributing to the trust in your team relationships.
Many times, however, we do not have the same experiences with the engineers we need to work with and don’t have the same protective trust that supports our communication. To this end, it’s helpful to invest a little time getting to know the engineers: ask them how their weekend was, ask them what they’re working on, invite them for coffee. Little, sincere actions every day go a long way to ensure trustful working relationships that have a bit of protection if misunderstandings arise.
2 Include engineers in your brainstorms.
One of the most frustrating situations at work for everyone—including engineers—is when it seems someone is telling you how to do your work. Unfortunately, this happens often with engineers because they are not regularly included in initial brainstorms. What this means is often we come up with solutions that are not realistic or practical from an engineering perspective. We write up specs and set up meetings to pitch our solution to the engineers, only to find out that it won’t work. This approach wastes time and money.
The simple solution is to include engineers from the beginning, ensuring you develop realistic and practical solutions and that you have buy-in from the engineering team. However, it’s not enough just to invite them to the brainstorm and still pitch them your solution. A much better approach is to ask them for their solutions. Tell them the problem you want to solve and see what they come up with.
This tip is straightforward and piggybacks nicely on the previous suggestion.
Ask questions, stay open-minded, and be ready to discuss options.
4 Respect their time.
This is office politeness 101 and goes for everyone. But it’s especially important with engineers who are often working without a project manager or a CTO. These developers usually juggle many projects for different teams, and they alone are responsible for those outcomes. Time is precious. To get the most of your time with an engineer, it’s important that you schedule and prepare for a meeting.
How to Structure a Meeting with an Engineer
- Clarify ownership—make sure you’re talking to the best person to help you.
- Put the meeting on the calendar.
- Send an outline or an agenda in advance.
- Avoid small talk.
- Ask about a solution instead of giving it.
- Discuss options and trade-offs.
- Determine next steps and deadlines.
5 Learn to speak their language.
The workplace today is increasingly diverse. It’s important to understand not just differences in professional expertise but also in culture that may influence your communication choices at work. I’m not suggesting you need to learn another language, but it is helpful to speak the same language on a similar level. There are numerous strategies on how to communicate well across cultures. However, negotiating this layer of communication does not have to be complicated—simply use plain language.
Plain Language Tips
- Avoid jargon, idioms, and complicated phrasing.
- Speak slowly.
- Speak one at a time.
- Stop and check that everyone is on the same page.
When it comes to communicating well with engineers, a lot of the rules that work for just about everyone also work for them. If you spend some time getting to know your engineers, build trust, respect their time with planning, and respect their expertise by asking questions and including them in developing solutions, collaborating with engineers is easy.