Aug 02, 2016

Why Language Training Helps Engineers Build Better Products

Communication, collaboration and innovation build better workers

Software Engineers are brilliant inventors. Their base skills rest on constructing new “grammars,” or structures that give meaning to the technical world. A new piece of code is a new piece of language, though unlike our nuanced and potentially poetic mother-tongues, it is exact.

If your engineers are speaking only “code,” you’re missing out on opportunities. Just as quality code is backed by agility, creativity, and experience, quality innovation is backed by conversation, collaboration, and adaptation.

Similar to a hue switch, font tweak, or a split second difference in load time, we can color, form and change the impact we have on others with the tone of our voice, the shape of our body, and a shift or pause in our pace of speech. The communication piece, the delivery is essentially what defines the “product” we ship. In other words, we can design how what we say comes across to others.

As with code, we must express ourselves across different platforms. Some people are iOS, and some people are Android. The cultures are different.

Ruby. Java. Python. Hundreds of coding languages. The realization steadily unfolded: my learners aren’t just, bi, tri, or quad-lingual, but count the code they speak, and these talented individuals revamp the meaning of “multilingual.” My students may go from Chinese with a coworker, to English in a meeting, to Spanish on the phone, riding only on the hope that mutually understood technical terms will bridge unintentional gaps.

Would you ship a global product on hope? No. You ship after experimentation, iteration, tweaks, discussions, and decisions. The same thing goes with communication. You use a new communication skill with confidence only after you experiment, iterate, tweak, discuss and decide. In sessions, we focus on assessing and expanding skills such as making clear and concise points, speaking at meetings, giving constructive criticism, participating in online group spaces, and presenting to recruits or at a conference. I introduce the toolbox of language techniques and tactics; my learners run the trials and decide if and when to use the tools.

To create impact as an individual or as a company, you have to explore new platforms, work cross-functionally, and be agile in multiple languages, including the verbal and corporal ones that connect technical terms.

I see my learners constantly surprise themselves. They’re more confident and productive. They’re logging a huge list of successes:

  • Receiving positive feedback on a presentation for the first time ever
  • Feeling more confident at meetings because we’ve practiced sitting up straight and making eye contact
  • Making clearer points because we’ve discussed tactics for structuring, supporting, and delivering their perspective
  • Improving social relationships because they feel less self-conscious communicating with others.

My learners are taking control of the full communicative and creative process, not just writing and pushing isolated lines of code. We are seeing results.

The human capacity for language learning is astounding. Engineers are language naturals, but not necessarily communication experts. We can expand or hone our skillset – we can add features or clean up bugs. Every class is a cross-functional success – my learners help me learn the tech terminology, and I help them to use English in a way that feels true to their personality, unfolds their potential, and helps them traverse communication gaps in order to build better products. You can learn the words or the grammar, but how you put it together and present it, and the ability to do so across many audiences and cultures takes careful practice and training. You’ve got to design, hack, crack, and iterate if you want to become a professional in any language, and that includes the non-technical ones. Language never limits, it liberates!


– Alyssa Conley