Describe the problem. For some technical professionals, that’s not as easy as it sounds. Whether for ticket documentation, emails or reports, writing is an important skill for any engineer. Not only that, engineers are often called upon to give oral reports or comment on key issues during meetings or discussions. Good communication skills are essential. In fact, if you are unable to clearly explain things or adequately document them in critical situations, you may very well endanger client relationships or even lose valuable work contracts for your organization.
Assess Your Skills
How good are you at communicating? That's a pretty broad question. If you don't know French, then your communication skills in French are non-existent. But you do know technology. You may have studied it in school, taken courses, become certified or learned it on the job. So let's be more specific: How good are you at communicating your technical knowledge in your responsibility as a technical professional?
The use of the word “responsibility” is intentional. If you are not able to clearly explain your actions, intentions or assignments in the workplace, then your career will not grow. According to Mark Crawford, “Technical communication is essential for career advancement for all technical professionals.” That includes oral and written communications. And you need them daily.
You are called upon to be in a meeting in two hours. The planned system upgrade did not go well, and people want to know why. What will you say? Are you going to walk in unprepared, while others take charge of the narrative? You were responsible for the upgrade, but you are also responsible for talking about it. Skipping the meeting while hunching over your computer is not an option.
This happened to me once. We had a team in overnight to perform actions on the network, and I was sent to observe. In this case, I was not performing the work myself, but I had to know what was going on. I almost felt sorry for them when they lost the communication channel and couldn't get it back. They seemed desperate. It was important. By the time I had arrived at the meeting – without sleep – I had written a lengthy report on the incident and sent it to my managers. In front of senior executives, I was able to clearly explain what had happened. My communication, both oral and written, was clear, concise and coherent. I was later told by my line manager that everyone was impressed. I think this may have helped when it came time for the client to sign my contract extension.
Technical professionals are called upon daily to explain and defend detailed aspects of their work. An engineer may find himself participating in phone or video conferences, writing procedures, consulting with colleagues, documenting problems, performing training, preparing reports or chairing meetings. It is not enough to solve problems or crunch numbers. It is important to communicate ideas.
Alan Rossiter, Ph.D., says, “A lot of good ideas never see the light of day because the engineers who have them are unable to communicate the ideas.” You know the old adage: “Publish or perish.” It is one thing to sit in front of a computer and execute action plans provided by design engineers. It is another to develop and share your own technological concepts.
These days most people think of an IT engineer as someone who has learned the protocols and practices already established in the field. But the computer industry is not that old. Many of the technologies that we now take for granted and use every day have been developed since World War II. (For more on people who knew how to communicate ideas, see 7 Computing Manifestos That Changed the World.)
There are books you can read and courses you can take about effective writing and business communications. But any high school graduate should be able to write clear, grammatical sentences and well-formed, logical paragraphs. There is no substitute for basic writing skills.
Grace Hopper, the brilliant naval officer and mathematician who worked on pioneering computer projects with the likes of Harold Aiken, J. Presper Eckert, and John Mauchly, believed in the importance of communication skills for technical professionals. According to Walter Isaacson in his book "The Innovators," Hopper insisted that her students at Vassar College be able to write well. She would often require them to write essays on mathematical subjects, then she would mark up the papers with colored ink. In the ensuing rebellion, she would tell the students that “it was no use trying to learn math unless they could communicate it with others.”
Dan Jones, professor of English at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, says that the better technical writers have acquired their skills “over a long period of time with much practice and hard work.” Documentation methods or software cannot replace effective writing.
Approaches to Technical Communication
Communication of technical subjects, whether oral or written, has a character of its own. Drawing from my lengthy experience as a network engineer, let me offer my own take on how it can be approached.
This is especially important for problem management. What happened, when, and in what order? What activities took place just before the problem occurred? What steps were taken for resolution? In trouble ticket notes, we actually used numbered lists to describe a sequence of events or attempted “fix actions.” Here is a generalized example. (An actual ticket note would have more specific details.)
- Received a call from John Doe/ Acme Co. regarding problems with his connection.
- Performed diagnostics and discovered a misconfiguration.
- Checked the change control database and saw that there was a maintenance window last night that may have affected the customer.
- NEXT: Check with provisioning team and discuss the correct configuration of the circuit.
“Ticket excellence” was our code word for effective incident documentation. Every action must go into the ticket. We used to say that “if it's not in the ticket, it wasn't done.” Understanding the sequence of events is often the key to problem resolution.
You may not be able to teach intelligence, but critical thinking can be learned. Sometimes an engineer's experience will tell him the probable cause of a problem, simply because he has seen it before. It's important to take your time and think things through. According to Atul Mathur, a professional engineer and technical copywriter, “technical writing is not just about language skills – it's also about how we think.”
You know the parameters, thresholds and KPIs that affect your work. When documenting them, it is extremely important that they are accurate. Any programmer knows this to be true. A Mars mission was lost because someone used numbers that were imperial rather than metric. Your reputation depends on your ability to get things right. (For more on KPIs, see The Role of KPIs in Network Management.)
Describing a technical issue requires more than numerical analysis. Often there are a host of people, devices or situations that come into play. It is not enough to deal with algorithms. Elaborating on key aspects of a subject can bring issues into focus. People are not robots, and technical communication is not the same as sending a program from one computer to another. It is a human exchange.
Simplicity in Complexity
You must also be aware of your audience. If you speak or write in terms or with abbreviations that your audience does not understand, you will lose them. You will have failed at communication. Try this: Find your eight-year-old nephew (or some other hapless child) and explain to him what it is you do in front of that computer screen for eight hours per day. If he understands, then either he is extremely bright or you are a good communicator.
It is not enough to be a brilliant engineer or capable technician. You may know exactly what you are doing and how you found the solutions – you may even be the smartest person in the company. But if you pay little attention to how well you communicate what you know, chances are your value to the organization will decrease with every failed communication. According to Rossiter, “if you want to work semi-independently or if you want to supervise other people, the ability to communicate is critical…. If you want to be noticed, you've got to communicate.” Whether you are busy with daily operational tasks or heavily involved in complex research, how you communicate will have a huge impact on your career trajectory. It may just be the most important skill of all.