Tag Archives: communication skills

The Missing Component that Nerds Need to Succeed

woman it engineer in network server roomAs an engineering student, I missed out on certain parts of the education that my friends seemed to get in college.  I took the requisite number of core courses, like English and social studies, but my curriculum was mostly filled with science, math, and engineering classes.  While my friends were writing papers, I was working on problem sets and computer programs.  I received a great education in engineering and science, but I didn’t get as much training in writing and speaking.  When I graduated I had to play catch-up.  Does this sound familiar to you?

Honestly, I can’t blame college for my stunted developmentStudent in glasses with books in communication.  It was my own doing.  I wasn’t interested in reading the mind-numbing classics or writing tedious papers.  I wanted to learn how to make things that were useful and solve problems that mattered.  After graduation, I achieved my dream and went to straight to work as a design engineer in Silicon Valley.

But when I got there, I realized that completing problem sets and computer programs didn’t teach me how to communicate with other team members, manage my visibility, interact with sales and marketing, or see the end-user’s perspective.  These were all skills I had to learn to be successful at work.  I had graduated from Harvard and my education was lacking.  How could that be?

It turns out, I’m not alone.  This is very typical of people in STEM.  We become technical experts at the expense of learning people skills.  There’s no blame there.  It’s hard—impossible, in fact—to be good at everything.  We all have to choose what to specialize in.  Some focus on the people at the expense of technical skills.  It works both ways.

Businesswoman talking on cell phone in officeBut we’re finding that we all need to have some skills outside of our expertise.  People-people need to learn technology to survive in today’s world just as technical people need to learn people skills.  We don’t have to be masters at everything.  But we do need to learn just enough to get by.

That’s why I developed the Reinventing Nerds program specifically to help technical people develop communication skills.  I get it that you don’t want to be smooth-talking, manipulative, or touchy-feely.  You just want to be able to work effectively in a team, manage your manager, and understand the end-user’s perspective to get your product designs right.  I know.  I’m a nerd too.

Face It: Face-to-Face Is Important

business meetingA colleague told me just today that a client paid for him to travel to have face-to-face meetings because they believed the results were much higher quality than phone meetings. After he flew all the way across the country for a few hours of meetings, he said it was worth it to get that extra level of interaction.

We often take advantage of current technology to communicateantennae instead of making the effort to get together face-to-face. Even talking can be too much effort. People have told me on multiple occasions that they prefer texting to talking on the phone. But we are missing out on a lot of information when we interact via technology. Some situations benefit greatly from good old face-to-face interaction. Building trust and resolving conflict are two such situations. It may be inconvenient—and expensive—to get together in person, but the time and money saved in the long run is well worth it.

I interviewed a group of industrial design engineers at a multinational company to find out why they preferred to meet face-to-face, even when it involved international travel. The engineers said there were many benefits of meeting face-to-face. These included:

  • personal growth (travel and learning)
  • ease of interacting remotely after meeting face-to-face
  • obtaining a “sense” of the other person
  • seeing what others are trying to accomplish
  • facilitating teamwork
  • establishing personal relationships and friendships
  • building trust
  • seeing others’ reactions
  • seeing eye contact and body language
  • clearly focusing on the problem without distractions
  • resolving issues
  • having quick access to decision-makers for approvals.

Some people think old-fashioned communication skills are not needed in the modern world. But don’t forget that people are people. We still need to interact, understand, and connect with each other. For all these reasons and more, it’s a good idea to hone your face-to-face communication skills.