A few weeks ago, Lingo Live hosted a fireside chat between our Chief Learning Officer Jesse Abing, and UT Austin Professor of Anthropology Dr. Elizabeth Keating. The two spoke about her research on communication within cross-cultural engineering teams. This Wednesday, 12/13, Dr. Keating will be delivering the keynote speech at our very first Virtual Learner Summit, where we’ll be giving engineers communication tips on everything from small talk to public speaking. If you’re interested, register here.
In preparation for the summit, we decided to ask our own engineers how Dr. Keating’s talk relates to their experiences. Here’s what they had to say.
Lingo Live: Dr. Keating opened up the conversation by talking about the difficulty of communicating both cross-culturally and in a technically mediated environment – email, video conference, etc. Have any of you experienced difficulty with those kinds of communication?
Franco Mendoza: Yes, one of the biggest examples is code reviews, which is something we do everyday, mostly through typed comments. Maybe 10% of it is face-to-face. There is a loss of communication there. You’re left to wonder: “Are they mad about this? Are they offended? Do they think I’m dumb?” And it’s a format where someone is literally critiquing everything you’ve done. It can put people on the defensive.
LL: Do you think there’s some degree of empathy that you simply don’t have, because you’re not communicating face-to-face?
FM: Yes, certainly. But I think in the engineering context, the gain of communicating through a technical medium is much higher than the loss because it’s faster and it’s better documented. That’s why it’s how most things are built, particularly in the open source world. Literally thousands of people are like “Yup, do this. Change this. Try that.” It’s the most efficient way.
Westbrook Johnson: I think that’s an interesting question, because our team is very flat, so there’s no protection – none of us could say something really mean about someone and expect that because we were more senior that we couldn’t get the same treatment in return. I could be like “I think they should really refactor all this,” but I don’t want them to do that to me, so instead I’m like “this one part absolutely needs to be refactored. Maybe these other parts could be, too.”
LL: Do you think there are certain communication challenges that are more prevalent in your job as an engineer than in other professions?
FM: I think engineers and highly technical people are generally a little bit more egotistical. It leads to this question of how to communicate without bruising anyone’s ego.
LL: How do you think ego affects engineers’ ability to ask questions? One of the common challenges our learners face is having difficulty speaking up in meetings and asking questions.
Edderic Ugaddan: I definitely feel like when I’m in big meetings, I want to make sure I understand something perfectly before I make a comment on it. I think in highly technical fields, there’s this feeling that if you say something, it needs to be 100% correct. Often people don’t voice their opinions because they’re afraid people will think they’re idiots.
LL: How do you think that perfectionist mentality affects people who speak English as a second language or come from a different culture, like most of our learners?
EU: Well, I think it’s a lot harder to understand what’s going on when you have to translate what someone’s saying. And making sure that you ask a question with perfect pronunciation and grammar is much harder when you’re speaking a second language, too.
LL: Another one of the issues Dr. Keating brought up is relationship-building. A lot of the engineers she studied felt like, “Why should I work really hard for you, if you don’t even care about me as a human being?” How do you guys feel about that?
EU: One thing we do here is we have an engineering lunch every Wednesday, which I definitely look forward to. We specifically try to not talk about work. It’s a nice way to get to know each other better and learn to empathize with each other more.
LL: Ideally that puts you in a position to feel much less defensive in work situations.
WJ: We definitely have much nicer code reviews.
Want to learn more about communication challenges on engineering teams and communication tips on everything from small talk to public speaking? Dr. Keating is also speaking at our first ever free Virtual Learner Summit Wednesday December 13th. Register here.
— The Lingo Live Team