How a scientific mindset engages your customer (and makes you a better engineer)
Asking questions and listening are better ways to prove yourself and engage your customer. 9 tips to improve your engineering skillset.
Too often I’ve seen engineers follow the same wrong approach to their work, and it’s tanking their careers: They show up without any clear intention to what should be an exchange of observations, with no care for applying their craft scientifically. Rather than applying a scientific mindset with the singular purpose of doing better, of excelling as an engineer and solving unsolved problems in the most fit-for-purpose manner, I see engineers not listening, not exploring, just trying to prove themselves. They invariably jump to conclusions, alienate teammates and customers alike, and then puzzle over why they’re stuck in junior roles.
Let me illustrate with one example — an interview with Ajay, a mid-level engineering candidate.
Ajay shows up on-time for his zoom interview. He knows he’s on inspection, here to be considered, and he presents well — nicely dressed, a good video connection, a quality microphone so he’s easy to hear. And he’s a good speaker, clearly enjoys communicating — which is sometimes not the case at all. He’s loquacious, to be sure, but it’s a welcome change from too many engineers that need to be coaxed out of their proverbial shell. We’re off to a good start.
After preliminaries, I get the ball rolling by asking how comfortable he is with “DevOps and the cloud.”
My reward is immediate enthusiasm! This is a good sign, clearly Ajay likes the space... And he proves it. He launches a detailed stream of consciousness about Azure security profiles, setting up organizations and roles. He goes on with almost excruciating detail about role-based access controls, including the prerequisites for management groups, resource groups, subscriptions, and some custom code he’s developing to streamline role management. He’s built extensive scripts in PowerShell, too, and quite enthusiastically describes nearly half a dozen different approaches to integrating a disparate array of Azure tools. Integration is a big challenge, according to Ajay, and he’s tackled it — he knows all the tricks, and really knows the Azure management portal. It’s quite a wave of information.
And it’s hard not to get wrapped up in Ajay’s enthusiasm. I try a few times to interject a confined couple of words, but Ajay is too certain he’s nailed it, he knows he’s impressing me.
His volume picks up as he senses some pressure to drive his point home — he reaches for the crowning achievement: That Microsoft is actually adding some of his work to an upcoming release!
My eyebrows relax a fraction, and once I’m certain the dramatic composition has ended, I say, “That’s impressive, Ajay. Clearly you’ve got a lot of Azure experience. How about AWS?”
Ajay is quick to answer, “Not much, most of my experience is on Azure, but I’ve been taking some AWS online courses, and I’m excited to learn more about it, the classes have been really interesting, but I already have my Azure Administrator Associate, Azure Fundamentals, and I’m taking Azure Solutions Architect.”
“Ah,” I say. “We’re mostly on AWS these days — and it’s impressive that you’ve mastered the Azure portal, but we have a strict Infrastructure as Code approach here. No manual setup allowed.”
And this is really where Ajay misses out. It completely throws Ajay for a loop. It hits him that he’s missed the mark and potentially blown the interview. He’s visibly shaken and starts to shut down, realizing he pushed too hard and lost any connection with his audience. He made assumptions and jumped right to his solution without ever understanding my actual need.
There are a lot of posts out there about asking questions and being a better listener. This article is about why, to an engineer, these are such important skills. There are generally obvious reasons; here we’ll focus on ones relevant to your customer, your project, and your career development as an engineer. You’ll learn how, as an engineer, you can up your game by approaching conversations with a clear, particular intention to explore a problem space using a scientific method — And in so doing, impress your customer, your boss, and your coworkers.
The root of the problem
What happens when we don’t employ intention and engage our customer with a scientific approach? (I’ll use “customer” in general, but it could be an end-user, your coworker or your boss — really anyone who you are collaborating with).
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Do you recognize these stages?
You’re on-task. You start by explaining your idea. You intend to be concise and relevant, to make evident your mastery of the topic.
The more you talk the more some pressure lifts and you become galvanized, expressing what you need to say. Your idea is coming out, and the other who’s listening will understand.
Somehow, the thread gets lost, it’s not working — You need to reel your listener back in, get them back on track. You’re fighting to keep their attention and anxiety sets in.
So what’s going on here? The thing is, talking about ourselves actually releases dopamine (a hormone that reinforces positive behavior), while listening to someone else can be hard work (and doesn’t release dopamine so readily). That good sensation can easily override other signals, so we miss important cues from our audience, and we end up telegraphing loud and clear: We aren’t actually listening, exploring, understanding — we’re just showing what we know.1
There are other contributors, of course. Sometimes we’re nervous, especially if we aren’t used to being interviewed or sitting down with a customer face-to-face. Sometimes the other person in the room isn’t exactly friendly, and that absolutely creates uneasiness and anxiety.
But here’s the thing: Engaging someone to understand their perspective only works if you earnestly commit to comprehending their perspective, with intention and sincerity. If you don’t, you aren’t engaged and can’t develop a sufficient understanding of their problem space. They will quickly see through you.
And this is where Ajay went wrong. He pounced on the first question I asked like a hungry jackal, and didn’t finish until there was no more room for conversation.
There are a host of behaviors that quickly show we are not giving a conversation due attention. Trying to one-up your partner in conversation is one. Remember, you’re here to give close attention and take an interest in the other person, and make sure they feel it. Just retorting with the equivalent of, “Well, I know that already and really, better than you,” just demonstrates insecurity.
Another sure fire way to telegraph a lack of interest is prepping your response while the other person is talking. Are you just waiting for a pause so you can jump in with your opinion? It’s almost as bad as talking over someone else. You aren’t listening, digesting, deciphering what they are saying to derive meaning from it — you can’t be, because you’re busy thinking about something else. It shows.
Interrupting will transmit lack of interest too, conveying, “What I have to say is more important than what you are saying.” Fidgeting, bouncing around, fiddling with your pencil or phone, or basically doing anything other than calmly and intently sitting on the edge of your seat in anticipation of whatever comes next will also send that message.
Why intention matters so much for an Engineer
From an engineering perspective, our singular purpose or aim is to understand the tough problems, see around corners, and devise a complex solution that has never been created before. How can that happen if we don’t engage our customers effectively as well as have an intentional approach to their intricate problems?
Engineers need to be able to comprehend these difficult problems and provide that “seeing around corners” superpower to our customers — because very often, the solution isn’t self-evident. In fact, we can land on the wrong solution quite easily, leading to disappointment all around.
This is why it matters so much to come to the table, ready to engage with clear intention and purpose:
Customers, clients, product owners — they will always ask for the wrong thing. Not every time of course, but often. Often enough that if we just build what they ask for, we’ll get it wrong. They may be locked into outdated thinking, bound by past experiences and limitations. Taking what the customer says as gospel is likely to end up poorly — that’s where “seeing around corners” comes in.
Jumping to the first solution that springs to mind could be too obvious. Perhaps it’s already been tried, and failed. Not every time, but often enough. If the solution was obvious, why hasn’t someone else already done it?
Because software and systems are complex, it’s easy to miss important details, many of which are implicit in the customer’s mind. It takes time and detailed understanding to draw them out. Drawing a conclusion before all the alternative execution paths and potential gray sky scenarios are explored leaves land mines in your future.
Customers need to be a fully engaged, collaborative partner, not standing off to the side waiting to see if we succeed or fail. Common ground breaks down barriers. If your customer knows you understand the problem space, they are more likely to be collaborative and reimagine what’s possible. The best way to get there is by thoroughly understanding your customer.
We’re letting go of a great opportunity by not listening: We aren’t exposing ourselves to new, potentially conflicting, potentially difficult ideas. Perhaps the idea across the table is actually worth exploring. Perhaps something new has turned up while we weren’t paying attention. But if we aren’t open enough to explore it, jot a few things down, do some research — we’ll never know.
Finally, and possibly one of the most important: Really good conversation skill demonstrates maturity, confidence, the ability to work with others, and the ability to master complicated problems. This alone is a good enough reason to take it slow, not jump to conclusions, and demonstrate readiness and dexterity in the execution of your craft.
The scientific mindset
Let’s consider another story:
More people should do what I’m doing right now. I’m on a call and my eyes are closed. They usually aren’t, but we’re not on video, so I can use this technique to focus. I’m relaxed. I’ve got a pen in hand — I like to take notes the old fashioned way (it’s a digital paper tablet, but it still feels like paper). The person I’m listening to is describing how their workflow is complicated. It takes days to process an order. After entering a new securities order in one application, they save it, then export, send that off (not by email, but similar). Someone else takes a look at it, sends it back after having, essentially, checked a box. Then the whole thing gets manually imported again.
She pauses. In the silence, I’m thinking about how much time is wasted here. How it would be much easier for a program to check the math. It’s not even math, it’s just checking that two totals in two columns are the same. We could automate it and shave a whole day off the process right here. I’m eager to suggest doing just that.
I open my eyes, jot down a couple of thoughts, check my phone to make sure she’s still there. I close my eyes again.