Communicating complex directives and issues across multiple teams can be challenging for VPs of Engineering, especially if you’re managing development with both in-house and outsourced team members.
Fortunately, there are several strategies you can use to streamline communication in your engineering department (and other departments) and enable your engineers to be more open with you.
Understand the Typical Engineer
Every engineer is different, so it’s important not to lump them all together in a single category, with a single set of descriptors. That said, there are some commonalities you can learn, which can help you adapt your communication style.
Engineers tend to be logical, practical, and straightforward. While a client relations manager might try to soften the blow of an issue by introducing it gently, an engineer will cut to the chase, possibly describing the issue in a blunt manner.
When listening to an engineer, try to see their words through this lens. They’re probably trying to find the simplest, most straightforward path to see positive results. When talking to an engineer, try to match this approach however you can.
Skip the Jargon
It’s helpful to learn specific terms and phrases related to your engineering work so you can dig into the details in a conversation with your team. However, most of your engineering conversations can be conveyed and resolved at a higher level.
Rather than bogging down a conversation by getting in the weeds, try to keep things focused on general concepts and directions. Be specific, and speak slowly, but don’t get technical unless you have to. This will allow your conversation to flow more naturally and will increase the likelihood of comprehension for all parties.
Improve Mutual Trust
Trust is often a barrier to communication, in both directions. If you don’t trust your engineers, you aren’t going to reveal your motives to them, you won’t disclose your full thoughts, and you may not even ask the best questions. If your engineers don’t trust you, they may be reluctant to share their concerns about a project—or may intentionally withhold information for fear of your reaction.
The straightforward solution is to spend more time building trust with your team members. For that, you have to make the first move. Be open, honest, and transparent; admit your mistakes, talk about your inner thoughts, and be clear about your goals and motivations.
Additionally, it’s important to spend time actively listening to your engineers. When they feel comfortable expressing their ideas, and they feel like they’ll be heard without retaliation or dismissal, they’ll be much more open.
Too often, corporate silos develop because individual departments are too self-contained. Your marketers meet exclusively with marketers, your client service professionals meet exclusively with their clients and with each other, and your engineers meet exclusively with engineers.
This formula can lead to higher specialization, but it also breeds a kind of competitiveness. Whenever an issue arises between client relations and engineering (and issues will inevitably arise, sooner or later), these two teams will need to work together to resolve it. If the teams are confrontational with one another, or if each one fails to understand the other’s perspective, it’s going to result in both delays and mutual animosity.
One solution to this is to include engineers whenever possible. Put them into meetings with clients. Include them in conversations with client service reps. Keep them involved in other areas of the business. This will help other teams understand the unique challenges and perspectives of engineers, and will help your engineers realize how they function within the organization overall.
That said, it’s also a bad idea to start including engineers in every meeting. Engineers are often self-motivated people who are passionate about their work; they want to spend as much of their day as possible working on their most important projects, not sitting in a meeting they view as pointless. Make sure you’re respecting their time.
Whenever you schedule a meeting with an engineer, make sure it has a logical purpose, and try to make every minute of that meeting matter. Of course, this principle should extend to your other teams and partners as well; almost everyone prefers to spend their time on heads-down, specialist work, rather than wasting idle time in inefficient meetings.
Most engineers don’t beat around the bush. They’re willing to be straightforward about their top concerns, their biggest sources of accomplishment, and the ideas they think could improve the business (or the engineering department). The catch is, if you aren’t actively listening, you’ll never hear them—which means you’ll never be able to act.
Actively listening to your engineers simultaneously allows you to hear these pieces of feedback, so you can improve, and makes them feel heard, understood, and appreciated, which will boost morale.
Provide Opportunities for Mutual Feedback
Speaking of feedback, make sure there are plenty of opportunities to give and receive feedback between you and your engineers, and within your engineering teams. There are always things you can improve, modify, and work on, but it’s hard to discover them on your own, since your perspective is often biased and/or limited.
One of the easiest ways to collect and distribute feedback is in the form of periodic employee reviews; annual reviews are common, but you may wish to instate something more frequent. Here, you’ll have the chance to evaluate each individuals’ performance as part of the team, telling them how they can improve; obviously, you’ll be entrusting team leaders working under you to collect and dispense this information. This is also an opportunity for them to share insights about your department and organization, in a safe environment.
If you’re interested in working with an outsourced development partner who takes client communication seriously, consider ZAGA. Contact us today for a free quote, or to learn more about our signature development process!