Issue 266: An Engineer’s Communication Protocol

Electrical engineers and embedded programmers can expect to work several different jobs over the course of their careers. In the mid- to late-20th century, an engineer could expect to find a job with a large company, work it for 25 or 30 years, and then retire with a pension. But today things are different. For instance, over a 20-year period, the average engineer or programmer who reads Circuit Cellar might work for a handful of different corporations, start a business, work on contract projects, and even bill hours as a consultant. Others will move between industry and academia, serve as managers, and hold positions on corporate boards.

To excel during the course of a long tech career in the 21st century, you’ll need to continuously hone your communication skills much like you do your hardware and software abilities. You must practice self awareness in order to assess your amiability, approachability, and listening skills. And you should continuously endeavor to keep your communication skills up to snuff by staying on top of advances in social media and business-standard communication protocols. While some jobs will require you to work long hours alone, the success of others will require you to check your ego at the door and let your client have his or her say. It won’t be easy. But the sooner you start focusing on strengthening your communication skills the better off you’ll be. As Steve Ciarcia notes in “Managing Expectations” (Circuit Cellar 266), your success will be based on “the art of managing expectation in the eyes of others.” Ciarcia writes:

I have a theory. People are a lot more comfortable when they can predict the future, or at least if they think they can. Look at all the resources we put into forecasting the weather or economic conditions, despite the fact that we know these are complex, chaotic systems whose sensitivity to initial conditions makes any long-term predictions less dependable. This applies on a personal level, too. We have developed protocols that help us interact with each other. We say “hello” when we pick up the phone. We shake hands when we meet for the first time. These protocols (i.e., “social customs”) help us control the process of learning about each other—what we need and what we can provide in a relationship.

Communication “protocol” is particularly important in the relationship between an engineer and his client. There is a huge amount of diversity in such a relationship. Unstated assumptions can lead to enormous gaps in expectations resulting in disappointment, frustration, anger, or even legal action in extreme cases.

Despite the fact that human resource types tend to treat engineers as interchangeable cogs in a machine, individual engineers may have distinctly different talents. Some have extensive expertise in a particular technology. Others have more general system-level design skills along with an ability to pick up the finer points of new technologies “on the fly.” Some are good at communicating with clients and developing system concepts from vague requirements, while others need to dig into the minutiae of functional specifications before defining low-level implementation details.

As an engineer, it is important to recognize where your talents lie in this broad spectrum of possibilities, and to be honest about them when describing yourself to coworkers and potential clients. Be especially careful with people who are going to represent you to others, such as headhunters and engineering services brokers. Resist the urge to “inflate” your capabilities. They’ll be doing that on your behalf, and you don’t want to compound the problem.

Similarly, engineering services customers come in all shapes and sizes. Some only have a vague product idea they want to develop, while others may have a specific description of what needs to be solved. Some small companies will want you to manage the entire product development process, while larger ones have management systems (i.e., bureaucracies) and will expect you to work within established procedures. Some will want you to work onsite using their equipment, while others will expect you to have your own workspace, support infrastructure, elaborate test equipment, and so forth.

In any case, from the customer’s point of view, there are risks to using outside engineering services. How much are they going to have to spend? What are the chances of success at that level of expenditure? Unless there are unusually large, nonrecurring engineering (NRE) charges associated with the project, labor will be the customer’s biggest expense. The obvious question is: How much time is it going to take? These are questions that are sometimes difficult to answer at a project’s inception, especially if the requirements are poorly defined. It may become necessary to guide the customer through a process of discovery that delineates individual project steps in terms of cost and accomplishment for each step. These early iterations could include things like a feasibility study or a detailed functional specification.

Generally, the customer is going to ask for a fixed-price arrangement, but beware. As the engineer, this means you are assuming all the risk. If the schedule slips or problems crop up, you are the one who will take the loss. Fixed-price contracts are a tough equilibrium. Invariably, they involve padding time estimates to balance the risk-benefit ratio, but not so much that you price yourself out of the job in the first place. A better consulting situation is a time and materials contract that puts more of the risk back on the customer and provides flexibility for unforeseen glitches. Knowledgeable customers should understand and be okay with this.

The point is, you need to be willing to take the lead and let the customer know what is happening now and every step of the way. That way, they don’t get surprised, particularly in a negative way. Since we can’t assume every consulting customer is reading my editorial, it’s up to you to explain these issues. Do it right, and you’ll have a positive foundation on which to build your relationship. And, even though I have been directing my remarks primarily to independent consultants and contractors, as an engineer, you are providing your services to others. Even as a full-time employee in a company where your only “customers” are other departments (i.e., manufacturing or testing), these principles still apply. While your present salary is a given, its future progress and longevity is all about the art of managing expectations in the eyes of others.

Circuit Cellar 266 (September 2012) is now available.

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